Sunday, January 20, 2019

#20 / Doing What Is Expected II

Judith Rich Harris, pictured above, was an American psychology researcher and the author of The Nurture Assumption, a book criticizing the belief that parents are the most important factor in child development. Harris died on December 30, 2018. In connection with a notification about her death, delivered to me by one of the many newsletters to which I subscribe, I was directed to the article I am linking right here: "Peer Pressure." 

This article provides a quick guide to Harris' rather famous book. Here is an excerpt that rang a bell with me: 

Harris's brilliant stroke was to change the discussion from nature (genes) and nurture (parents) to its older version: heredity and environment. ''Environment'' is broader than nurture. Children, like adults, have two environments: their homes and their world outside the home; their behavior, like ours, changes depending on the situation they are in. Many parents know the eerie experience of having their child's teacher describe their child in terms they barely recognize (''my kid did what?''). Children who fight with their siblings may be placid with friends. They can be honest at home and deceitful at school, or vice versa. At home children learn how their parents want them to behave and what they can get away with; but, Harris shows, ''These patterns of behavior are not like albatrosses that we have to drag along with us wherever we go, all through our lives. We don't even drag them to nursery school.''  
Harris has taken a factor, peers, that everyone acknowledges is important, but instead of treating it as a nuisance in children's socialization, she makes it a major player. Children are merciless in persecuting a kid who is different -- one who says ''Warshington'' instead of ''Washington,'' one who has a foreign accent or wears the wrong clothes. (Remember?) Parents have long lamented the apparent cruelty of children and the obsessive conformity of teen-agers, but, Harris argues, they have missed the point: children's attachment to their peer groups is not irrational, it's essential. It is evolution's way of seeing to it that kids bond with each other, fit in and survive. Identification with the peer group, not identification with the parent, is the key to human survival. That is why children have their own traditions, words, rules, games; their culture operates in opposition to adult rules. Their goal is not to become successful adults but successful children. Teen-agers want to excel as teen-agers, which means being unlike adults [emphasis added].

The point being made here, in the specific context of a discussion about child development, is a point I have made before, in several different contexts. I think it is important to realize that people, by and large, most often do what they think they are expected to do. According to the review of Harris' book, quoted above, even children do this, from their earliest age, because doing as one is expected to do is a survival strategy. We are together in this life, and we need others to accept and support us, and therefore we try to conform to the expectations those others have of us. 

In a way, this might seem discouraging, but I think of the phenomenon as amazingly hopeful. We can transform our human interactions, the way I see it, by changing (and raising) our expectations!

By and large, if we expect more of everyone, everyone will deliver more. Simple expectation, in other words, can provide the energy and impetus to transform the world!

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Saturday, January 19, 2019

#19 / Arendt On Trump

Timothy Shenk is a co-editor of Dissent and a fellow at New America. He is currently writing an intellectual history of American democracy and has recently published an article titled, "Hannah Arendt’s Answer to Paul Berman on the Contemporary American Left." Shenk's article was highlighted in a recent edition of Amor Mundi, the weekly blog published by The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College

Here is what Shenk has to say about how a study of the Nazi past might help to explain our current political reality: 

If you want to understand American politics today, the single best source might be page 334 of Hannah Arendt’s masterpiece, The Origins of Totalitarianism. ...

After running through a brief history of modern Europe, Arendt’s narrative brings her to one of the most puzzling questions of the interwar period: Why were vulgar demagogues peddling ridiculous doctrines able to turn millions of people against the liberal order? She had, by then, already discussed the psychology of what she sniffily referred to as “the mob,” and now turned her attention to totalitarianism’s attractions for the elite. What especially interested Arendt, who turned 27 the year Hitler became chancellor of Germany, was its appeal for younger intellectuals.

Her answer centered on the failings of the status quo. “What the defenders of liberalism and humanism overlook,” she observed, was that it had become “easier to accept patently absurd propositions than the old truths which had become pious banalities.” Why was that? Well, people had eyes. They could see that elites who proclaimed themselves champions of civilization were “parading publicly virtues which [they] not only did not possess in private and business life, but actually held in contempt.” Everybody knew the whole thing was a joke, except for the great men who bought into their own propaganda. Confronted with this hypocrisy, “it seemed revolutionary to admit cruelty, disregard of human values, and general amorality because this at least destroyed the duplicity upon which the existing society seemed to rest.” Sure, the alternative was farcical, but at least everyone would be able to stop mouthing the same old lies, and that offered a kind of liberation.

I think the phenomenon outlined by Shenk is precisely what has allowed Donald J. Trump to rise to the top of our American politics, and why it is far from certain that he won't be elected to a second term in 2020. 

Americans, I believe, are deeply committed to the kind of democracy that I like to call "self-government," a political system in which the government is both "of" and "by" the people, as well as being "for" them. Being able to participate in this kind of government, more even than economic success, is what I think consitutes the "American Dream."

When people see our political "leaders" mouthing the words, while lining their own personal and political pockets, and kowtowing to the corporate interests that siphon off the wealth of the nation into their personal and corporate bank accounts, they loathe the hypocrisy of "the system," and are more than ready to celebrate leaders that openly display their "cruely, disregard of human values, and general amorality." Perversely, it is such "leaders," and our current president is among their number, who seem more credible and honest than the so-called "honest politicians" who denounce our president, but who in fact are not all that different. 

Shenk is on to something. I would say that the lessons for today are two:
  1. Read Hannah Arendt
  2. Do someting about it! Self-government does still work.

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Friday, January 18, 2019

#18 / Anthropology 101

In my blog post yesterday, I urged us all to "pay attention" to the World of Nature. Today, let me refer you to a confirming commentary. 

Jessica Stites, pictured above, is the Deputy Editor of In These Times. In an editorial published in the February 2019 edition, which Stites titled, "Anthropology 101 Revisited," Stites references Harvard professor Joseph Henrich, the United Nations, and the World Bank in arguing that indigenous peoples should be playing leadership roles in climate planning. 

Stites suggests that the demonstrated ability of the human species to adapt to changing conditions is not, predominately, related to our genetic flexibility, but that it comes, instead, from the complexity and diversity of human cultures. "Indigenous cultures," as she accurately says, "... have served as the Earth's staunchest environmental stewards." 

Indigenous cultures, in fact, have "paid attention" to the World of Nature, while modern civilizations have ignored it, operating on the premise that the only world that counts is that human world we create by our own actions and efforts. 

Stites points out that human civilization will soon be facting incredible challenges, and that the extinction of the human species is a very real possibility. As she says, "within 100 years, many of our cities will become uninhabitable, submerged under oceans or deadly hot. Storms will become more violent. The gentle planet we've known will be no more." The challenges we face will be, without doubt, life-threatening on the species level, and not just on the individual level. Read "When the Ice Melts" if you have any question about that. 

In this situation, Stites is correct that it would be very wise to try to protect and preserve the human cultures that have, unlike our own, been "paying attention" to the natural world.

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Thursday, January 17, 2019

#17 / Pay Attention

Christian Schwarz, pictured below in a red cap (perhaps in imitation of the mushrooms pictured), is roaming the woods looking for mushrooms and other fungi. A very nice article on Schwarz appeared in the December 30, 2018, edition of the Santa Cruz Sentinel:

As an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology, Schwarz passed the time between classes wandering through the redwoods, marveling at what he found. It was on these excursions that Schwarz discovered a purple mushroom, Pseudobaeospora deckeri, which he named after one of his high school teachers, Lee Decker. He also collected observations for a book, “Fungi of the UCSC Redwoods,” published in 2017 by the UCSC Natural Reserves.

I particularly appreciated one of Schwarz' observations, as reported in this article:

Paying attention to the world is how you see its value.

The "world" that Schwarz is talking about is the Natural World, not the world of human institutions and constructions. It is the Natural World, in the end, upon which all our human creations depend.

Take a look at it sometime. Pay attention! That is how you will see its value!

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Wednesday, January 16, 2019

#16 / "These" Versus "The"

In 2013, The Atlantic called it a "mistake" when President Barack Obama referred to "these United States" in his remarks at the dedication of the George W. Bush presidential library. The magazine thought it should have been "the" United States. It read Obama's use of "these," instead of "the," as a demonstration that our national unity, forged in the Civil War, was now disintegrating.


I doubt it, though. I would bet that Obama was neither consciously trying to send a message or unconsciously reflecting a truth not yet fully visible (which is what The Atlantic surmised). I bet it was just "Obama the Orator" utilizing a phrase with deep historic resonance at an occasion in which an appeal to history was appropriate.

However, using the phrase "these United States," versus "the United States," does reflect a significant and important issue, going to the heart of how our government works. I am teaching a class called "Introduction to Legal Process" at the University of California, Santa Cruz. One thing that I find a bit difficult to convey is the concept of "federalism," because most students seem to believe that "the government" is, essentially, our national government.

In fact, however, as we go through the United States Constitution, to begin to understand the basis upon which we have founded our nation, the basic idea of the "United States" is that the state level of government is fundamental and foundational. That state level of government is where we have, historically, believed that most of our "governing" should get done. The federal government is supposed to have limited powers. There is a good argument that our federal government has vastly exceeded its proper role, and that our country is the worse for it. The corporate dominance of all things political is made immensely easier by the fact that the corporations, by and large, can engage in a kind of "one-stop" corruption. They don't have to buy off all fifty legislatures and governors, just one president and a few Senators and Congress Members.

Hannah Arendt identified our federal system as the best defense against totalitarianism. "Divided powers" are, by definition, difficult to consolidate and focus into the kind of totalitarian government that many of us are afraid of today.

My thought? Let's keep using that historically-accurate phrase, "these United States," and remember what it means. MOST power is supposed to be closest to the people, not far away in the Empire City of Washington, D.C., where all those national officials always say, "THE United States."

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Tuesday, January 15, 2019

#15 / Greeks Bearing Gifts

Pictured is Yanis Varoufakis, former Greek Finance Minister. The picture I am using, above, illustrated a 2017 article in which Varoufakis was quoted as advising Theresa May, England's Prime Minister, to pursue a course of action on "Brexit" far different from the one she then decided to take. Varoufakis predicted a disaster for Great Britain if the approach he recommended were not adopted. At the end of next March, when the official "Brexit" occurs, we will see whether or not Varoufakis was right. Frankly, it's looking like he was. 

More recently, Varoufakis has teamed up with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. They are working together to promote a "Green New Deal," and to do this internationally, not just nationally. I, personally, find what Varoufakis has to say in the following interview on Democracy Now! to be insightful and compelling. 

What is happening internationally is not easy to follow, and I think it is particularly difficult to understand the significance of international political events from within the United States, which has a very self-referential idea about what is important in the world. I recommend this twenty-minute short course from Varoufakis:

We remember the admonition, of course, that we should "beware of Greeks bearing gifts." The origin of that cautionary counsel is presumably the story told by Virgil, in The Aeneid, about what happened to Troy after the Trojans accepted that famous horse. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think Varoufakis' remarks in the Democracy Now! video are solid (not hollow), and that there is a valuable gift of eminent good sense in what he says!

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Monday, January 14, 2019

#14 / False Choices And Real Choices

Kamala Harris, formerly the Attorney General for the State of California, who now represents California in the United States Senate, is getting ready to announce her bid for the presidency. If you would like to see how that's going, let me refer you to an article in the Sunday, January 13, 2019 edition of The New York Times

In the hard-copy version of The Times, the article was titled, "California Senator Tries Out Themes to Help Her Stand Out in a Crowd." In the online rendition, which is what you will get if you click the link above, the article is titled, "Kamala Harris Is Hard to Define Politically. Maybe That’s the Point." 

Trying to be on all sides of all the issues, and to appeal to everybody, is not the best way for a politician to get my vote. I regard politics as the process by which we make collective decisions on important matters, matters upon which we need to "choose." If candidates don't tell you "which side they are on," it is exceedingly hard to make meaningful choices. Politics becomes an exercise in advertising and personality. The predominance of this kind of politics, I believe, is one reason that a huge number of potential voters don't vote, and it is the reason why "politics" is not highly-regarded as a profession, at least by many. 

On the other hand, Harris was quoted in the article linked above as repudiating the idea that we need to succumb to what she calls "false choices." I do think she is right about this "false choice" phenomenon, and that the idea that we need to "choose" between two good things is often not correct. Politics does mean we need to "choose," but we need to make certain that the political choices we make are based on a real necessity to make one choice or another. In politics, "false choices" abound. Here is a discussion of what Harris has to say about "false choices." 

In the [Harris] memoir [The Truths We Hold], which was released simultaneously with a children’s book by Ms. Harris called “Superheroes Are Everywhere,” she repeatedly writes that she does not believe in “false choices.” This can mean both meaningful workers’ rights and a strong economy, she writes at one point, but she also applies the concept to police accountability and public safety. 
“I know how hard it is for the officers’ families, who have to wonder if the person they love will be coming home at the end of each shift,” Ms. Harris writes. “I also know this: It is a false choice to suggest you must either be for the police or for police accountability. I am for both. Most people I know are for both. Let’s speak some truth about that, too.”

I think Harris is right in what she says, but the question for her campaign, presuming she does launch a presidential bid, will have to be "what side is she on?" with respect to the real choices we need to make. We can have workers' rights and a strong economy both, and in fact, I'd argue, you can't have one without the other. But the massive income inequality that is the dominant feature of our current economy must be eliminated. We are going to have to make some "real" choices there. We can support both the police and police accountability, too, but when a police officer guns down an unarmed person of color, will our system punish and penalize that police officer? So far, the system isn't working that way. 

Politicians often base their appeal to the voters on "false choices." Our president is a master of this technique, positing, for instance, that we need to choose between national security and his "wall." Another way of misleading the voters is to suggest that we don't, actually, have to make any hard choices at all, and that we can "have it both ways." We can't!

There are real choices out there, and we need politicians unafraid to confront them, and to say which side they're on. Personally, I am looking forward to hearing from another soon-to-declare presidential candidate, Tulsi Gabbard, who says we need to scale back American military intervention around the world. We can't have it both ways on that. There is a real choice between a more peaceful world, and the continuing exercise of massive military intervention by the United States, everywhere around the globe. I'll be interested in hearing what Kamala Harris has to say about that. 

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Sunday, January 13, 2019

#13 / Heartwarming

I questioned myself on why the story below, which I saw in a hard copy edition of The Wall Street Journal on December 18, 2018, seemed so heartwarming to me. Maybe my reaction was just an "old guy" phenomenon, based on nostalgia for a past long gone. After all, I did just turn seventy-five. 

Having made that "old guy" admission, I would like to think that the story might have some heartwarming appeal even to those who did not grow up in the 1940s and 1950s, and that the story will resonate with others, too. That is why I am passing it along in its entirety, here in this blog posting. 

In the end, I concluded that what made this story so attractive to me was the mutual respect demonstrated by both the rich store owner and the poor customer. That kind of mutual respect, it seems to me, reflects a "right relationship"  in a democratic republic. I am hoping that the kind of relationship depicted is not, in the end, simply an historical artifact!


When Retailing Was Very Personal

A department-store proprietor picked up his home phone. A customer needed help.
By Bob Greene
Long before internet shopping, when a personal touch and pride of proprietorship were essential to successful local merchandising, Robert Lazarus Sr. was the president of the largest department store in Columbus, Ohio, my hometown. His name was on the building: the F&R Lazarus Co., among the most prestigious stores in the Midwest. 
A dignified, respected man, he lived in a grand and tastefully decorated house. He kept his home number listed in the phone book.  
Here is something his son told me, years after Robert Lazarus had died, and the store had disappeared. 
One evening when the son was growing up, the telephone in their home rang. The caller, with nervousness in his voice, asked for Robert Lazarus, who came to the phone. 
The man, almost apologetically, said he and his wife had purchased a tea set at Lazarus. They had never owned one before, but saw it on display and decided it was something they would like to have in their home. 
Robert Lazarus waited to hear what was coming next. Was there a flaw? Was a cup or saucer broken? 
That wasn’t it. The man said he and his wife did not know the proper way to serve tea—how to make use of the tea set when company came over. They sensed there was an etiquette to it, but no one had ever told them what it was. 
Some of Lazarus’s customers had very modest incomes; to them, that downtown store was almost a palace, a place of aspiration, even if they were only looking. The tea set had represented a step up, a significant expenditure for this man and his wife. And they weren’t quite sure how it was intended to be used.  
So the husband called the man whose name was on the store—at home, at night—for advice. 
Robert Lazarus, his son said, stayed on the phone with his customer and, with great care, walked him through the steps of having a tea party, of using an elegant tea set. He told the man stories about tea receptions he and his own wife had given; he answered every question.  
Then, before hanging up, he thanked the man profusely for having shopped at Lazarus. 
I asked the son—by then an elderly man himself—if his dad had seemed at all bothered to have received the call in the middle of an evening with his family. 
“Bothered?” the son said. “He couldn’t have been more pleased. He talked about it with great fondness for the rest of the night.” 
I imagine the man who had placed the call did, too: The man who, in a time before customer service meant algorithm-generated email responses and endless waits for offshore call centers to answer, had taken a deep breath and dialed the phone, not knowing if he was making a mistake by imposing.  
And who had been greeted, by the president of the F&R Lazarus Co., like an old friend.

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Saturday, January 12, 2019

#12 / Please?

I have been a little irritated, from time to time, to tell the truth, that my grandchildren rarely say "please" when they make a request. To be fair, a "please" does come out every now and then, but there is no reliability factor there! 

I am betting that lots of people in my age group also assume that "please" and "thank you" are supposed to be conversational standards. It was not until I read a column by Choire Sicha in The New York Times that I learned that not saying "please" is actually a "thing."

Here is how Sicha so succintly puts it in "Oh Please Stop Saying Please":

"Please" is done.

You can check out Sicha's report by clicking the link. Based on what he says, I am going to try to tamp down my grumpiness!

In the meantime, may I offer a suggestion from my father? He very seriously informed his children that the following phrase has an almost magical ability to produce the requested result, when asking for a favor. I have found, through the years, that it does work for me!

If "please" is out of fashion, I am suggesting the following, as an efficacious replacement:

"Would you be willing to....?"

And here is a deferred "thank you" to my father for yet another piece of good advice!

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Friday, January 11, 2019

#11 / Brutally Honest

The pictures here, showing a starving child in Yemen, are from an article that discusses how Facebook refused to allow these pictures to be published on its platform, because the pictures did not meet "community standards." The images were originally part of a New York Times article, but Facebook removed them anyway. After protests, Facebook restored public access to the photographs. 

In his opinion piece, published in October, 2018, Mike Shedlock argues that we must be willing to be "brutally honest" as we confront the realities of United States foreign policy. The pictures illustrate some of the consequences of the United States government's alliance with Saudi Arabia in its war in Yemen.

I don't like looking at these pictures. They are profoundly disturbing. But I like even less the fact that our government has made me complicit in causing the conditions of starvation that these pictures document. It is unconscionable that a social media platform should presume to curate the truth, to keep me from knowing what the United States government is doing in my name.

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Thursday, January 10, 2019

#10 / The Three "I"s

The Marine Corps General (retired) who quit the Trump Administration recently, "Mad Dog" Mattis, took the position that the United States should never engage in torture. Let's not forget that the United States has, in fact, systematically engaged in torture in the past  (see picture above, and click the link for a story about it). 

The current head of the CIA, Gina Haspell, was directly implicated in the U.S. torture program, and our current president, Donald Trump, has a "real passion" for bringing back torture

When the Secretary of Defense says "no torture," it's pretty clear that torture will not be used by the United States military while he is in charge. General Mattis' resignation, however, may open a path for the president to pursue his "passion," and to reinstute the use of torture by the United States military. 

In a New York Times opinion column, published on December 22, 2018, J. Kael Weston contemplated just such a possibility. Weston teaches at the Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. Here is what he said about Mattis and torture: 

General Mattis commanded troops in some of the bloodiest fronts of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Yet he remained cleareyed in his opposition to torture, arguing that it was inhumane, illegal and ineffective.

That sums it up. Torture is: (1) inhumane, (2) illegal, and (3) ineffective.

We need to make sure that our elected representatives in the United States Senate do not confirm anyone as Secretary of Defense who will not promise, unequivocally, that those three "I"s will continue to guide our policy, where torture is concerned. 

NO TORTURE (period) must be the rule. If morality and legality don't do it for you, just remember that torture is "ineffective," too.

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Wednesday, January 9, 2019

#9 / Four Corners

In the fifth century BCE, the age of the historical Buddha ... a rather peculiar principle of reasoning appears to [have been] in general use. This principle is called the catuskoti, meaning "four corners." It insists that there are four possibilities regarding any statement: it might be true (and true only), false (and false only), both true and false, or neither true nor false.

This quotation is from an article by Graham Priest, a professor of philosophy at the City University of New York. The article, published in Aeon, is  titled, "Beyond true and false." Priest points out that Western philosophy assumes something quite a bit different from a "four corners" philosophy:

Aristotle insisted on "two singularly important rules. One of them was the Principle of Excluded Middle (PEM), which says that every claim must be either true or false with no other options (the Latin name for this rule, tertium non datur, means literally ‘a third is not given’). The other rule was the Principle of Non-Contradiction (PNC): nothing can be both true and false at the same time. ... Aristotle defended both of these principles against transgressors [and] succeeded in locking the PEM and the PNC into Western orthodoxy, where they have remained ever since.

Having established the tension between Buddhist philosophy and traditional Western philosophy, Priest goes on to find them, essentially, the same; at least, that's the way I read his essay, which is probably only truly understandable to those who like mathematical logic a whole lot more than I do. I definitely recommend the article, if you are among that number. 

What I get out of the discussion is something a bit different. Without trying to deduce any logical proof of anything (I leave that to Priest), I think it is instructive to consider that we should be willing to think that definitive statements about truth and falsity are to be avoided at all cost. Using that "four corners" way of thinking about things will help us live in the world in the right kind of way.

Let's consider, specifically, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. That Amendment establishes a "first principle" for our government, and is phrased as follows: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." To me, this suggests our American appreciation that none of us can know, in the end, what is really, and ultimately, true. Thus, because we can't know, we had better not start trying to legislate about that!

I am thinking that the "four corners" way of thinking about the world has a lot of advantages!

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Tuesday, January 8, 2019

#8 / OK, Grown-Ups: What Now?

Significant political changes appear, almost always, as a kind of unexpected miracle. They appear, seemingly, out of nowhere, and precipitate profound changes. The student-initiated Parkland protests, for instance, are an example of people doing unexpected things, and changing the nature of the politically possible. 

Greta Thunberg, pictured here, is fifteen years old. She lives in Stockholm, Sweden, and has refused to attend school. Instead, she has been sitting outside the Swedish Parliment with a sign that says, "School Strike for Climate." Thunberg's protest began in August 2018. By early December, more than 20,000 students around the world had joined her. The school strikes have spread to at least 270 towns and cities in countries across the world, including Australia, the United Kingdom, Belgium, the US and Japan. It is Greta's position that "Grown-ups Have Failed Us." 

That is true, of course. 

So, grown-ups, what are we going to do about that?

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Monday, January 7, 2019

#7 / A Tech Dividend?

Manuel Pastor
Manuel Pastor, whose picture appears above, once taught at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is now a Professor of Sociology and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. Chris Benner (pictured below), was formerly at USC and is now a sociology professor at UCSC. Benner and Pastor are suggesting a "tech dividend" for workers in the Silicon Valley.

Chris Benner
The proposed tech dividend would be modeled after Alaska’s oil-industry annual permanent fund payments, which means that it would not be available only to tech workers. Click right here for a brief explanation, published in the Mercury News.

The Benner-Pastor proposal, which has to qualify as "radical," since it suggests that wealth should be "shared," not siphoned off to those at the very top of the economic pyramid, is just one way that we might go about repairing our badly-damaged economy. We really are "all in this together," and the incredible wealth produced in our economy needs to be allocated so that everyone shares in the benefits of economic success. Worker cooperatives, and stock payments to workers (another way to spread ownership to all who work in a common enterprise) have been mentioned in this blog before. Here's another idea!

And as a final word, how about we make tech businesses internalize their costs, too? That would mean, among other things, that the companies creating jobs would have to take a large share of the responsibility for making sure that adequate housing was built for the workers that are needed, as new jobs are generated. 

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Sunday, January 6, 2019

#6 / What About Debt? - Keynes To Curry

I am not a big fan of debt. I have never believed that going into debt is a good thing to do. Despite such reservations, however, I must admit that I have gone into debt in the past, and then spent a long time to work myself out of that debt (and with the help of an inheritance from my parents, I have to say).

When my son decided to become an acupunturist, which requires something like a five-year course of study, he went into debt in order to finance his education, and I remember talking to him about that,  before he actually did it. I explicitly remember warning him about the similarity of debt to indentured servitude. My son had a perspective that caught me by surprise, telling me that he welcomed the idea that someone (the federal government in his case) would loan him money to develop his professional competence. "I think of it as a willingness to invest in me and my capabilities," my son said, "and naturally that makes me proud." 

I got to thinking about that conversation when I read the January 2, 2019, edition of The Wall Street Journal. Specifically, The Journal ran an article entitled, "Taking Stock of the World's Growing Debt." The debt in question was mainly national debt, not personal debt, and the article advanced a (fatherly) warning, not unlike my warning to my son. Watch out for debt! However, the article did note the positive economic benefits of debt, as well.

My first instinct is to see debt as a heavy load, weighing down the debtor, and thus impairing the debtor's ability to move ahead into the future with freedom of choice and a full range of opportunities. There is a lot of merit in this perspective.

On the other hand, my son is also right. Incurring debt can be "aspirational," and can, in a very practical way, make it possible for individuals (and nations) to achieve their hopes and aspirations. This was the insight of the great economist John Maynard Keynes, who argued that going into debt could mobilize, not fetter, the capacities of a nation. It was this Keynesian insight that helped the United States recover from the Great Depression.

I think of Steph Curry, too, that exceptional basketball player in the Warriors jersey. As I watch Warriors basketball, the game announcers have observed, on more than one occasion, that Curry actually pushes the ball out in front of him, beyond his immediate control, and then runs to "catch up to it," as he produces another example of fast-break magic.

Debt, like that basketball way out in front of Steph Curry, can call us forward to perform. It has worked that way for my son. It has worked that way for the United States, too, since the days of Franklin Roosevelt.

Debts incurred for weapons of destruction, which produce no positive outcome, is the kind of debt that will weigh us down. My caution about debt is most appropriate when this kind of debt is in question. But debt incurred in order to provide every young person in this country with a college education, to take a different example, is "pushing the ball ahead," and I think my son is right that this makes sense.

As it turns out, this debate about debt is not just a theoretical debate, either. In the Congress, progressive Democrats like Ro Khanna and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez want to play "Curry ball," having recourse to debt to finance transformative investments in education and health care. They argue that this is exactly the kind of debt we need. It will make us, collectively, "run to catch up," and the world will be a better place for it.

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Saturday, January 5, 2019

#5 / Taken By Surprise

I was taken by surprise by an obituary that appeared in the Santa Cruz Sentinel on Friday, January 4, 2019. John Dizikes, pictured above, was born on November 8, 1932, and died on December 26, 2018, which just happens to have been my seventy-fifth birthday

In my blog posting on my birthday, I was counting my blessings, among them being, most importantly, the people I have known. As I said then, most of the people who have been a blessing in my life were not listed specifically. That would have been a long list, but had I endeavored to provide such a list, John Dizikes would surely have been right near the top. This is not because John and I had an uncommonly strong or frequent connection; it is because John Dizikes was such a decent, caring,  generous, and vital person that every infrequent contact I had with him enriched my life. 

I think I last encountered John during an intermission at the San Francisco Opera (he was an expert on Opera and musical theatre), and we enjoyed a quick conversation that was uplifting in our mutual acknowledgment of how happy we were to be alive, to have been given that gift of life, with all its attributes, good music and engagement in the community being among them. 

I was taken by surprise to hear that John is now gone. A salute to him, and to his equally wonderful wife, Ann. John enriched my life - without even trying. As I think about it, I think we all may do that, perhaps never even knowing that our existence in this world is a blessing to others, to those whom we know and meet, though they may never tell us so. 

As on my seventy-fifth birthday, I want to tell you now, all of you, those whom I know, and have known. Like John Dizikes, you have all been a great blessing in my life, and many thanks!

Well my ship's been split to splinters and it's sinking fast
I'm drownin' in the poison, got no future, got no past
But my heart is not weary, it's light and it's free
I've got nothin' but affection for all those who've sailed with me
     - Bob Dylan, Mississippi 

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Friday, January 4, 2019

#4 / Trump's Top Ten: Time For A Concession

Business Insider credits former late-night host David Letterman with promoting "Top Ten" lists. The way Letterman did it, he counted down from ten to one. 

Marc A. Thiessen, a conservative columnist who writes for The Washington Post, has now produced a "Top Ten" list for Donald Trump. Take a look at it by clicking the link. This is the "good" Top Ten. Thiessen has also produced a "bad" Top Ten list for Mr. Trump. I am pretty much in agrement with all the examples on the "bad" items list, but I do want to admit that the "good" list does seem pretty good: 

#10 - He has secured the release of 19 people, including 16 Americans, from foreign captivity. When Pastor Andrew Brunson was freed by Turkey, he became the 19th captive released thanks to Trump.
#9 - He delivered for the “forgotten Americans.” The Trump boom is benefiting those left behind by the Obama economy. Manufacturing jobs grew at the fastest rate in 23 years and the unemployment rate for Americans without a high school diploma reached the lowest point ever recorded. The Wall Street Journal reports that wages rose 3.1 percent — the biggest jump since 2009 — and that “low-skilled workers are among the biggest beneficiaries.” ....

Thiessen's list goes on from there. I will leave it up to you to read "Trump's Top Ten" in its entirety. For the moment, I want to suggest something important for those politicians from the progressive or Democratic Party side who will be trying to wrest the presidency away from Donald Trump in 2020. I am not one who thinks that is going to be easy.

Here's my suggestion: concede some of the "good" things that the President has done. I happen to live with an English teacher and former debate champion who has taught me, over the years, about rhetoric (i.e., what makes for a strong argument). Logos, ethos, pathos. Got to have those. AND, you have to make a concession. Conceding that an opponent has some good points is the way to strengthen your own argument. Lots of people (Marc A. Thiessen is speaking for them) appreciate a lot of things the president has done. 

If a candidate wants to defeat Donald Trump, that candidate is going to have to figure out a way to make some concessions, while still winning the argument on the main point: our country needs a new president! I am a little nervous that the obvious "bad" list will seem so compelling that the candidates to replace our current president will forget they need to make those concessions, in order to win the argument!

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Thursday, January 3, 2019

#3 / I Have Promises To Keep ...

... and miles to go before I sleep.

As of January 1, 2019, these famous words of Robert Frost are now part of the public domain. They seem to resonate with the recent turn of a brand New Year and a 75th birthday. 

For an engaging little article about Frost's poem, "Stopping by woods on a Snowy Evening," just click this link

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Wednesday, January 2, 2019

#2 / The Immanence Of The Divine

As it has turned out, my post yesterday is not going to be my last post of 2019 touching on religion. I did speculate to that effect, yesterday, but immediately after writing that January 1, 2019, post, I came across an article in Aeon, titled, "Why divine immanence mattered for the Civil Rights struggle."

The idea of "divine immanence" is that God is found within each human person. This is definitely a "Quakerly" idea; in fact, it may be THE idea upon which all Quaker Faith and Practice is based. The idea that God is immediately accessible to each one of us is also empowering in exactly the same way that an understanding of the immediate availablity of "grace" is empowering. 

Here's an excerpt from that Aeon article, written by Vaneesa Cook, Professor of US History, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. I am hoping that this little excerpt will be inspiring and empowering, and will reinforce in our minds what I think is a truth too plain to deny: We (and none others but ourselves) are called upon to transform this world in which we live, and to do it promptly, too, lest that world cease to exist:

The concept of divine immanence became less theoretical once King learned about the activism of Mahatma Gandhi. Though Gandhi was not a Christian, his method of satyagraha, meaning ‘truth-force’ or, as King put it, ‘soul force’, fascinated King. Gandhi challenged the British empire by forcing them to confront their Indian subjects as fellow humans, deserving fair treatment. He did so without firing a shot. From Gandhi’s example, King saw how humans practising God’s love, particularly through nonviolence and disciplined self-comportment, could unleash the power of God’s love in the world. He acknowledged Gandhi’s method as ‘the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change’ during the Montgomery bus boycott. In Selma, Alabama and in Memphis, Tennessee, and throughout the US South, King continued to utilise Gandhian strategies of direct action throughout his campaign against American racism. For King, in short, divine immanence was a call to action. ‘All humanity is involved in a single process,’ he contended, working in concert with God’s Holy Spirit, the ultimate ‘community creating reality that moves through history.’ God and mankind, in other words, moved together. From the perspective of theological doctrine, King had reconciled immanence and transcendence. 
King was all too aware that forces of opposition to God’s will filled the world too. He saw the fruits of his efforts in incremental reforms, but small results could be discouraging. Here is where King’s faith in an immanent God stepped in. The night before his assassination, while addressing a group of sanitation workers on strike in Memphis, King spoke of God. Though he warned of ‘difficult days ahead’, he claimed that God had allowed him ‘to go up to the mountain’ and see the ‘Promised Land’. ‘I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land … Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!’ 
King’s courage rested upon that conviction. God’s truth would march on as an intrinsic force in the world through his allies. It would help the faithful build the brotherhood of man. A transcendent God could not do it alone, a certainty for King that made him willing to do the work. But King could not do it alone either. He called upon both black and white activists, the entire nation and the worldwide community to join him in the cause, which he knew would continue beyond his lifetime. On the eve of his death, he told the crowd he was not worried. In the end, he believed, immanence would overcome everything.

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Tuesday, January 1, 2019

#1 / Grace Notes

As the New Year arrives, obvious references to religion tend to recede into the deep background. That's my observation, at least, based on what I see in newspaper columns and other public commentary. I wouldn't be surprised to find that my own blog posts might follow that same rule, since they are so often prompted by what I read in the morning newspapers, or in the magazines that arrive, like a continuing Normandy Invasion, in my front porch mailbox.

If that prediction about the prominence of religious topics in the popular press proves to be accurate, this blog post, which definitely touches on religious themes, may be the last clear evidence, for the year to come, of my own brand of religious thinking. Call it a "grace note," if you'd like. According to Wikipedia, a "grace note" is "melodically and harmonically nonessential." It could be that thinking about "grace" (or religion) is not really "essential" to a writing endeavor aimed at understanding the "political world" in which we most immediately live. However, there could be a good argument on the other side, too!

The picture above accompanied a column that appeared in the online version of the Christmas Eve edition of The New York Times. The column, by Peter Wehner, was titled, "The Uncommon Power of Grace." For those who don't know who Wehner is (count me in that number until I looked him up), he is something of an evangelical anomaly. To get the drift of his political and relgious position, I will link his column from December 2017. That will give you a good idea. Wehner titled that 2017 column, "Why I Can No Longer Call Myself An Evangelical Republican."

In his recent, 2018 column, Wehner argues that "Grace" is what is unusual about Christianity. In mking this argument, Wehner quotes C.S. Lewis, whom I commend to you as a genuine authority on religion in general, and Christianity in particular. "Grace," says Wehner, exemplifies a truly revolutionary idea; namely, "radical equality."

Religion is in deserved ill-repute, in my mind, because it is largely used to impose hierarchial, patriarchial, and authoritarian control over free individuals, in the name of "God," but to the benefit of the "powers that be." Religion, as commonly thought of, is not a gospel of "radical equality," but a technique of social control.

Focusing on "grace," in the religious sense, pierces these structures of authoritarian control by proclaiming that "everyone" is acceptable. Nationality, race, gender, and both religious and political affiliations are not what counts. Everyone is "saved," to use the common Christian trope. "Salvation" is achieved not by submission to authority but by "grace," which is accessible to all. Grace is a power, in orther words, to which everyone can and does have access. It is, in fact, the source of human freedom. 

That, to me, is an idea worth having. And such a "religious" concept is truly able to provide a "Happy New Year" message. It does have a lot to say about how we can (and must) take action in our "political world."

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Monday, December 31, 2018

#365 / The Good Life (According To David Brooks)

David Brooks, columnist for The New York Times, titled his December 18, 2018, column, "Who Killed The Weekly Standard?" For those who don't know, The Weekly Standard was a rather conservative publication (but not a publication that was very enthusiastic about our current president). 

On December 17, 2018, the owners of The Weekly Standard, a couple of rich, conservative, white guys (you can read Brooks' column to learn more), abruptly shut it down.

What struck me in Brooks' column was his definition of "the good life." Brooks said "the good life" was exemplified by The Weekly Standard

The good life consists of being an active citizen and caring passionately about politics; ... it also consists of knowing something about Latin American fiction, ancient Greek culture and social impact of modern genetics; ... it also consists of delighting in the latest good movies and TV shows, the best new cocktails and the casual pleasures of life.

Many of us would agree that the "latest good movies and TV shows," and "casual pleasures," are among the things that make life good. I am not so much, personally, interested in "the best new cocktails," though I do like Latin American fiction. I am not against ancient Greek culture, either. While this is definitely my personal view, I tend to worry a bit, and do not rejoice about, the "social impact of modern genetics."

Brooks is right on target, though, at least I think so, when we look what Brooks puts at the top of his list:

The good life consists of being an active citizen and caring passionately about politics.

Let's not forget that. As Hannah Arendt points out, in her book, On Revolution, "being an active citizen" and "caring passionately about politics" is what that "pursuit of happiness" thing is actually all about. 

You know the "pursuit of happiness" I am talking about, right? I am sure it can include all sorts of "casual pleasures." The "pursuit of happiness" is one of those "unalienable rights" mentioned in the Declaration of Independence! It is right up there with life and liberty, and according to Arendt, Brooks is correct in saying that it consists of "being an active citizen and caring passionately about politics." 

For 2019 and 2020, keeping Brooks' definition in mind, let's let those good times roll!

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Sunday, December 30, 2018

#364 / The New World (Disorder)

The unexpected resignation of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has led to speculation that the United States is now abandonning its quest for that "New World Order" announced with such satisfaction by President George H.W. Bush (recently departed). 

Click the link for a video of President Bush's speech to Congress, in which President Bush said that this "New World Order" was one in which "peace, and security, freedom, and the rule of law" would prevail. After listening to this speech, you might want to glance at a newspaper, or watch a little television, to see how that's going! 

As can be seen from the picture above, not all agreed with this "New World Order" idea, which some have seen as a simple effort to establish a hegemony of United States power, worldwide. Others, coming from an exactly opposite position, see the "New World Order" as a conspiracy that will result in the surrender by the United States to an international cabal that will establish an authoritarian dictatorship, on a global basis. I am not sure which group painted the sign!

Caitlin Johnstone, a political blogger from a left-wing perspective, who calls herself a "Rogue Journalist," is not bemoaning the loss of the "New World Order." Johnstone pretty much sees U.S. history since the first Bush's announcement as reflecting an effort by the United States government to establish a worldwide authoritan regime, but one led by the corporate masters who control the United States, and whose principle policy is "endless war." If you have taken a glance at a newspaper and watched a little television, as suggested, you might conclude that she is on to something!

NBC News, which illustrates its commentary with the picture at the bottom of this blog posting, suggests that our current president has taken us from a "New World Order" to "No World Order." That, in fact, seems to be getting at an important truth. Things are changing, and in such a time of change, it is worthwhile to ask ourselves this question: Do we really want a global "order" imposed on a worldwide basis by the use of "endless war? I, for one, do not, and what I would like to suggest is that the changes now underway might (just might) open up an opportunity for a new way of living together in the world. Such a new "order," to use that word, though not in the sense that one nation would be issuing the "orders" that others must follow, would not be based on the exercise of American military power (or Chinese military power, or any other nation's military power, for that matter). 

All peoples of the world are facing a true global crisis, global warming, which cannot be successfully overcome by military means. We do need to "reorder" our priorities, individually, nationally, and globally. Endless war is counterproductive. 

It is in moments of "disorder" (and we're there, I think) that new possibilities emerge. If we begin to realize such new possibilities, which we must, of course, do, then that will be the "silver lining" that accompanies the incredibly "disorderly" conduct of our current president.

The "new possibilities" I am thinking about, by the way, do not include cottoning up to a ruthless dictator controlling an oil-rich nation:

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