Saturday, October 02, 2010

Their canon, Our canon

Completely brilliant article today in the NY Times on what radical conservatives are reading these days -- and how these writings are showing up in the speeches and plans of Republican candidates and office holders.  I highly encourage you to read the whole article, Movement of the Moment Looks to Long-Ago Texts by Kate Zernike.  So what are crazy Republicans reading these days?

"The Road to Serfdom" by Friedrich Hayek (1944)
"The Law" by Frédéric Bastiat (1850)
"The 5000 Year Leap" by W. Cleon Skousen (1981) 

Like the bible of modern conservatism, Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, these books are basically conservative porn made up of fantasies about a return to the 19th century when white men still ruled the planet and everyone else took orders from them.

But the article got me thinking about what a progressive canon might be and what foundational texts should inform our movement.  And it was harder to come up with a list of foundational books than I imagined.  I've come up with a few (none by economists by the way) but I'd welcome any additional suggestions from you in the comments below. 

I think every good progressive should read:

The Culture of Make Believe by Derrick Jensen
A People's History of the United States by  Howard Zinn
No Logo by Naomi Klein
Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein

But what's interesting about each of these books (and this is a self criticism more than anything else) is that they are all long on what is wrong with conservatives but short on what we would do if we were actually in power.  Derrick Jensen has the most brilliant analysis of modern culture that I've ever read but his remedy is for us to return to being hunter gatherers (which is a nonstarter for most people).  Howard Zinn would have us kill fewer people in wars of aggression (always a good idea) but as far as I know, he doesn't necessarily provide a comprehensive political program for how one might achieve a world at peace.  And Naomi Klein (in Shock Doctrine) provides a robust defense of Keynesianism, which is great, but I gotta figure that ultimately progressives should be fighting for more than just a return to Keynes. So anyway, if you have a chance please list what books you think should inform the progressive canon in the comments below (no sign in required -- but haters, as always will be deleted). 

Monday, August 09, 2010

George Lakoff 2.0

Okay so cognitive linguist George Lakoff has shown that there are two core frames when it comes to politics:

The nurturant parent model; and the
Strict father model.

Even though all people have both core frames in their heads, in progressives the nurturant parent model is active and in conservatives the strict father model is active.

It seems to me that Lakoff does perhaps the best job of any living person of explaining political worldviews and why progressives and conservatives think the way they do.

But here's the thing.  Which model is factually correct?  Both models make claims that are empirically provable.  Does the nurturant parent model actually lead to healthier, more creative kids (and later society)?  Does the strict father model lead to better behaved, more moral kids (and later society)?

In almost every case, the evidence from the social sciences shows that the nurturant parent model is more likely to lead to healthier creative people and societies. 

Take for example the recent "multiyear study that shows that spanking kids makes them more aggressive later on." Progressive claim that spanking causes all sorts of psychological problems in kids that later leads to aggressive or criminal behavior.  Conservative claim that spanking leads to more moral citizens.  But it turns out that only progressives are factually correct. 

Or take tax cuts.  Progressives claim that government spending (on infrastructure) is the best way to stimulate the economy.  Conservatives claim that tax cuts (for the rich) are the best way to stimulate the economy.  But you can actually measure the multiplier effective of each approach -- and it turns out that the multiplier effect of government spending (1.59) is much greater than the multiplier effect of tax cuts (0.29).  

But what's weird about Lakoff is that he seems to stop at merely pointing out the differences in worldview -- without going the next step and arguing that the correctness of each worldview can be measured through scientific evidence.

The Prop 8 trial illustrates the point that I'm trying to make.  By going to trial, supporters of marriage equality were able to put all of the evidence on the table.  And it turns out that it is empirically provable that marriages involving couples of the same sex lead to just as healthy and happy relationships, families, and societies as marriages involving opposite sex couples.  By contrast, the opponents of gay marriage had their strict father model of morality but no scientific evidence to back up the validity of their claims. 

See that's the thing.  In almost every case, the conservative worldview is not only different, it is factually incorrect.  So it seems to me that not only should we point out the differences in worldview between progressives and conservatives, but we should always go the next step and explain that usually only the progressive worldview is factually correct in the real world.  

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

List of non-traditional conference methods (aka unconferences)

I recently queried my Facebook friends to get their counsel on the following question:

Can anyone point me to examples of non-traditional conference methods? The old model of 'expert-in-the-front, everyone-else-just-listen-and-clap,' seems played out. Are there conferences that invert the pyramid to involve and engage everyone in participation, expertness, and action?

And the stuff they came back with is amazing. Check it out:

Appreciative Inquiry
Birds of a Feather
Fishbowl (conversation) -- love this idea!
Knowledge Cafe
Lightning Talks
Nominal Group Technique
Open Space Technology
Pecha Kucha
Speed Geeking
World Café

So it turns out that there is a whole world of non-traditional conference possibilities.  I'm surprised that many progressive groups continue stick with the old format -- because 'expert-up-front, everyone-else-listen-and-clap'' is not consistent with our democratic philosophy and worldview. If we believe that the people have the best answers (which I think we do), then I believe we need to find ways of tapping into that wisdom.

Monday, July 26, 2010

some reflections from Netroots Nation 2010 -- the progressive blogosphere is a living, growing, learning organism

Here is what conservatives have going for them:


The entire conservative worldview and the structure of their political machine (messages, think tanks, and organizational structure) is built on hierarchy.  The benefits that come from hierarchy are unity, message discipline, and focus. 

Here is what progressive have going for us:


As James Surowiecki shows in The Wisdom of Crowds, the benefits of diversity are extraordinary.  The more diverse, decentralized, and independent the group is, the more likely it is to come to the correct answer.  Hierarchical groups all move in the same direction (which is nice) but they tend to repeat the same mistakes over and over.  All of the diversity within the progressive movement leads to conflict within the group -- but over time, by engaging in the constant battle of ideas, progressives tend to arrive at the correct answer to the various challenges facing society.  So for example, in the last two hundred years, progressives have figured out abolitionism, universal suffrage, and how to win two world wars, while conservatives have figured out some greeting card platitudes about personal responsibility. 

The internet in general, and blogging is particular, is really built for a progressive way of thinking.  It's diverse, decentralized, and wildly independent.  Progressive blogs -- most notably sites like DailyKos, Pam's House Blend, Calitics -- have figured out how to create smart groups that harness the wisdom of the crowd.  These sites solicit diversity by allowing diaries so that anyone can participate.  But then these site harvest the wisdom of the crowd by moving the best diaries (based on the reaction of the crowd in the comments) up to the recommended list or onto the front page.  As a result, the progressive blogosphere has become an ideas factory that is consistently spitting out the best answers on the major issues of the day.  Through intense debate over the course of many months, the progressive blogosphere came up with the best answer for health care (Medicare for all), process (end the filibuster), and financial regulatory reform (consumer financial protection agency, regulate derivatives, relief for homeowners instead of Wall Street). 

What really impressed me about Netroots Nation 2010 (that I just returned from) is that the progressive blogosphere continues to grow and learn and change in pretty profound ways. It seems to me that the progressive blogosphere is like a single living organism (with a million little individuals cells) that is developing increasing complexity and sophistication. So for example, lots of progressive bloggers are now making connections between race and class and economics and labor and the environment -- really starting to see their single issues within the large systemic frameworks that create oppression. Martin Luther King, Jr., late in his career, started making the connections between race and class and the Vietnam war. So too, progressive bloggers are starting to get that racism, laissez-faire capitalism, militarism, homophobia, and sexism, all stem from the same system of domination.

To see what I'm talking about, check out the following videos from the conference:

Van Jones' keynote

Tim Wise on the links between racism and economic crisis -- starts at the 26:30 mark (you can just move the video slider to cue it up to that spot)

Rev. Lennox Yearwood (starts at 36:50)

Majora Carter (starts at 41:45)

As people start to connect the dots, it also creates the possibilities for lasting systemic change.  In spite of the daily challenges, it seems to me that this is a really exciting time to be a progressive.

Update #1:  Ian Welsh has a great post up on his site about the tensions in the room at Netroots Nation 2010. I think this is the best summary I've seen of the mood of, and divisions in, the audience at the event.  Where I differ with Welsh's analysis is that I think that the programming at NN was kinda genius.  Van Jones, Tim Wise, Lennox Yearwood, and Majora Carter all connected the dots in really profound ways that I think set the stage for a much deeper systemic shift in the movement in the years to come.  At least that's my hope.

Casinos make the case for high levels of taxation

I spent the last four days in the air conditioned wonderland of a casino (the Rio) in Las Vegas at the annual Netroots Nation convention. Many people love casinos, myself included.  But I never gamble (as they guy in the elevator said to me yesterday, "The only way to win is not to play.")  I love casinos because they are freaking nice -- gorgeous innovative architecture, air conditioned, pretty lights, good music, and extra oxygen pumped in to make everyone feel better.

Washing my hands one afternoon in the casino's restroom -- complete with high ceilings, granite countertops and a dedicated employee to keep it clean, I got to thinking... it seems to me that casinos make the case for much higher levels of taxation in society. 

Because the REASON that casinos are so nice is that they tax the hell out of people. Going to Vegas is like putting your money into a mutual fund that is guaranteed to lose at least .2% of your money (blackjack) and may cost you as much as 29% of your money (Keno).  But people LOVE Las Vegas -- in part because all of our losing then leads to great works of architecture (replicas of Paris, New York, and Egypt for example) and cheap breakfast buffets (as one side note -- the Rio now offers an ALL YOU CAN EAT ALL DAY buffet at 7 different casinos for the one low price of $39.99). 

In fact that's the reason that palaces in France are so nice and the reason why so many people want to visit France as a tourist destination -- because a former French government taxed its people at a high rate and built great public works that have lasted for centuries.

Interestingly, Vegas casinos also tax the rich at a very high rate.  The whales (like Tiger Woods or Jerry Buss) with their private jets, limos, and secret entrances to the casinos end up leaving much more cash behind than the average gambler.  

The strangest thing about Las Vegas is that people actually seem to enjoy losing.  It's like the purifying ritual of risk and loss taps into some deep limbic desire of Thanatos, for loss and rebirth. 

So I guess all the IRS needs to do in order to become more popular is to making paying taxes more fun and exciting!  Perhaps they could add scantily clad go-go girls dancing on the customer service desks at the various IRS offices while pumping in extra oxygen and 1990s dance hits?  Also, the IRS could merge with various state lotteries (which after all are just voluntary tax systems structured as games) -- such that once a year someone's name is pulled out of a hat and his/her entire tax bill is forgiven!

But all kidding aside, the fact is, casinos show that under some conditions, people voluntarily embrace high levels of taxation.  Las Vegas involves something of a trade -- casinos give inexpensive food, inexpensive accommodations, and lovely public works in return for high levels of taxation (gambling).  I think the same is true for the public sector in a way -- if people feel that they are getting a high level of service -- health care (not just health insurance), education, and well-designed public works projects, they will be much more willing to pay taxes at a higher rate.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality in 4 sentences or less

For those put off by the prodigious length (851 pages) of Ken Wilber's seminal work, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, here's the whole book in 4 sentences:

Why is there something rather than nothing?
(Um, we really don't know.)
But there is something and that is pretty cool.
And evolution seems to involve increasing layers of complexity so maybe evolution points us toward God.

There, I just saved you $23 and 200 hours of reading time.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Ya gotta read this

Errol Morris' recent 5-part series on the Anosognosic’s Dilemma (published in the NY Times) is one of the most mind-blowing things I've read in a long time.  From the article:

Wheeler had walked into two Pittsburgh banks and attempted to rob them in broad daylight.  What made the case peculiar is that he made no visible attempt at disguise.  The surveillance tapes were key to his arrest.  There he is with a gun, standing in front of a teller demanding money.  Yet, when arrested, Wheeler was completely disbelieving.  “But I wore the juice,” he said.  Apparently, he was under the deeply misguided impression that rubbing one’s face with lemon juice rendered it invisible to video cameras.

What Morris does so brilliantly in the series is to explore the ways in which we ALL engage in acts of self deception -- in effect convincing ourselves that we are 'wearing the juice' -- even when no one else is buying our acts of self deception.  Turns out there is an entire name for this phenomenon: The Dunning-Kruger Effect.

As Dunning read through the article, a thought washed over him, an epiphany.  If Wheeler was too stupid to be a bank robber, perhaps he was also too stupid to know that he was too stupid to be a bank robber — that is, his stupidity protected him from an awareness of his own stupidity.

Dunning wondered whether it was possible to measure one’s self-assessed level of competence against something a little more objective — say, actual competence.  Within weeks, he and his graduate student, Justin Kruger, had organized a program of research.  Their paper, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties of Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-assessments,” was published in 1999.[3]

Dunning and Kruger argued in their paper, “When people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.  Instead, like Mr. Wheeler, they are left with the erroneous impression they are doing just fine.”

It became known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect — our incompetence masks our ability to recognize our incompetence. 

I highly recommend reading the whole series.  I think it has the potential to change how we look at the world, ourselves, and each other. 

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

stuff they didn't teach you in school

David Wong, the Senior Editor of has a new post titled: The 10 Most Important Things They Didn't Teach You In School.  As you would expect, it's funny and racy and irreverent. But it's also surprisingly thoughtful.  In fact, the #1 most important thing they didn't teach you in school is so good I want to quote it here:

#1. Social Studies: Life is Hard and You Will Die, Get Over It

We're not foolish enough to think one semester of this course can deprogram years of Hollywood bullshit. That's why we make this a daily class, that continues from K through 12.

Many of you will get very depressed in your 20s, and some of you will stay that way the rest of your lives. Over the years your garage band will break up, you career dream will fall through, a girl will break your heart, you'll be unhappy with your body, you'll lose your parents, your favorite pet will die, you will endure at least one very terrible injury that requires hospitalization and breaks new boundaries for what kind of pain you thought was possible.

And your childhood memories will be exploited to buy vast amounts of cocaine. Deal with it.

The reason why this will lead to depression, where it may not have done so for an equivalent person 200 years ago, is because you were raised on illogical stories where things always work out for the main character for utterly arbitrary reasons. Han Solo can shoot straight, but none of the bad guys can--even though they train more. John McClane beats the terrorists because he has toughness and perseverance--something the bad guys lack, even though they should be equally desperate. If a guy and a girl are right for each other, they always wind up together, careers and geography and personal hang-ups be damned.

Here's the problem: these fantasies were created by adults, as a means of escape from the real world. You, however, have been watching them since you were five--for most of us these were our first impressions of how the adult world works, even if on a subconscious level. You had no context to realize they were bullshit. It sounds frivolous, but that doesn't change the fact that some of you reading this will not survive the long process of learning how different the real world is.

If it helps, try to remember that you're still one of the one percent of humanity that was born in a time and place where there is such a thing as anesthesia.

Chapters Include:
I. You Can Die at Any Moment, Get Over It;
II. Required Reading: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy;
III. Roleplay Exercise: Various Scenes from The Road, by Cormac McCarthy;
IV. Yes, It Takes 10,000 Hours to Get Really Good at Something, But At Least You're Not Scavenging Through a Post-Apocalyptic Wasteland.

Definitely check out the whole article for a few good laughs and few insights that will make you nod in appreciation.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

the roots of power

Three really insightful paragraphs from the classic 1977 book, Poor People's Movements:

Common sense and historical experience combine to suggest a simple but compelling view of the roots of power in any society.  Crudely but clearly stated, those who control the means of physical coercion, and those who control the means of producing wealth, have power over those who do not.  This much is true whether the means of coercion consists in the primitive force of a warrior caste or the technological force of a modern army.  And it is true whether the control of production consists in control by priests of the mysteries of the calendar on which agriculture depends, or control by financiers of the large-scale capital on which industrial production depends. Since coercive force can be used to gain control of the means of producing wealth, and since control of wealth can be used to gain coercive force, those two sources of power tend over time to be drawn together within one ruling class.

Common sense and historical experience also combine to suggest that these sources of power are protected and enlarged by the use of that power not only to control the actions of men and women, but also to control their beliefs.  What some call superstructure, and what others call culture, includes an elaborate system of beliefs and ritual behaviors which defines for people what is right and what is wrong and why; what is possible and what is impossible; and the behavioral imperatives that follow from these beliefs.  Because this superstructure of beliefs and rituals is evolved in the context of unequal power, it is inevitable that beliefs and rituals reinforce inequality, by rendering the powerful divine and the challengers evil.  Thus the class struggles that might otherwise be inevitable in sharply unequal societies ordinarily do not seem either possible or right from the perspective of those who live within the structure of belief and ritual fashioned by those societies.  People whose only possible recourse in struggle is to defy the beliefs and rituals laid down by their rulers ordinarily do not.

What common sense and historical experience suggest has been true of many society is no less true of modern capitalist societies, the United States among them.  Power is rooted in the control of coercive force and in the control of the means of production.  However, in capitalist societies this reality is not legitimated by rendering the powerful divine, but by obscuring their existence....

--Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, Poor People's Movements: Why They Success, How they Fail, p. 1-2.

For more on the way that culture normalizes and obscures the true workings of society, please see my earlier posts on Freire. For a very different look at the role of culture and what it can mean to suddenly see and understand the culture all around us, check out this brilliant speech by the late novelist David Foster Wallace titled, This is Water.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Are markets actually calling on governments to raise taxes?

It seems to me that the markets are actually calling for higher taxes.  Because look -- the markets seem to want deficit reduction.  Got it.  But if you do deficit reduction through spending cuts you kill the recovery and send the economy into a double dip recession.  So the only way to get deficit reduction plus growth is through increasing taxes.  For Greece, or the UK, or Germany, or the U.S. to cut deficits through cutting spending right now would be complete insanity. 

Monday, June 07, 2010

This is the "NAFTA and WTO Recession" and it's not gonna end until trade policy changes

If we had the NAFTA debate to do all over again, I think the soundbite that could have won it for us would have been this:

NAFTA would make it illegal to do any manufacturing in this country. 

It's exactly the sort of cut-to-the-marrow soundbite that the right loves to use to polarize debate -- to say 'you're either with us or you are America-hating scum.'  And unlike conservative talking points this soundbite has the added benefit of being true.

Here's why it's true:

For-profit corporations in this country are required by law to maximize profits for shareholders.  That's what it means to be a for-profit company.  So if a U.S. company can have its product manufactured here for $17 dollars an hour or manufactured in another country for $1 an hour -- the U.S. company is required, through its legal obligation to shareholders, to offshore the production to the lowest cost manufacturing center. 

But here's the thing.  We very well may get to have the NAFTA and WTO debates all over again -- because the recession we are going through right now is the direct result of NAFTA & WTO.  And the recession is not going to end (in any meaningful lasting way) until trade policy changes. 

Both of these trade agreements were based on absolute intellectual horseshit.  The idea was that yes, the U.S. would end up sending a lot of manufacturing jobs to lower cost production countries. BUT! the argument went, everything would be okay because U.S. workers would still be the ones designing and managing and marketing those products -- and those management jobs would grow and would be far better jobs than the lousy manufacturing jobs they replaced. 

Here's why that's complete nonsense: 

Under currently international trade agreements, Hewlett Packard could offshore every single job in the company -- manufacturing, design, marketing, legal, etc. to India -- leaving one single job left in the U.S. for the CEO (if he chose to live in Malibu or something).  And we can't all be the CEO of HP.  The U.S. economy needs at least 150 million jobs in order for our people to survive. We need a natural diversity of different types of job to match the natural diversity in our population -- namely we need an economy such that anyone with a strong back and a good attitude can make a middle class standard of living in this country -- and that's what we had before NAFTA & the WTO. 

So the prosperity that we saw over the last 20 years was an illusion.  Suddenly, TVs and electronics and clothes got really really cheap.  And we felt wealthy because we could buy more of them.  But all the while, the core of our economy was being hollowed out as manufacturing jobs were being sent overseas.  Specifically, that cheap big screen TV at Best Buy was only cheap because it came at the expense of a unionized manufacturing job in the U.S.  The $500 you saved on the TV came out of the salary of an American worker.  And now 20 years later, SURPRISE! all the manufacturing jobs are gone and they aren't coming back.  An entire generation of American men with only a high school education has been sacrificed to the beautiful equations of Milton Friedman that turn out, in the real world, to only benefit his corporatist friends.  And then endless cheap credit kept the illusion of prosperity going, even as we had run out of jobs and the salaries that went with them.  But now that bubble has popped and all of the gauges are showing empty, empty, empty. 

As the Obama administration strives to jump start the economy -- there is quite literally nowhere to pump the stimulus money.  You can't pump it into traditional manufacturing -- because those jobs are gone.  So they try to pump it into green manufacturing and energy efficiency -- which is great.  Until you realize that U.S. corporations are still required by law to maximize profits for their shareholders and Chinese manufacturers can make anything we can make here -- and only pay their workers $1 an hour (sometimes less).  So then you realize that the hundreds of billions of dollars we are pumping into green manufacturing -- is really just the U.S. government funding the R&D that is going to make Chinese manufacturers rich. 

So Obama and his boys Tim Geithner & Larry Summers then try to reinflate the housing bubble through tax credits and guarantees for big banks to take big risks again -- because really, other than financial ponzi schemes, we don't really make anything in this country anymore.  But how long is that papering over of the problem gonna last?  Until the mid-terms in November?  Until the 2012 presidential election at the latest.  But then the clock runs out again. 

So when the double dip recession comes and the economy completely flatlines because we don't have any manufacturing jobs in this country (and the white collar research and design jobs are not nearly enough to make up for the jobs that are lost) -- I propose that we start the debate about rebuilding our economy by canceling NAFTA and dismantling the WTO.

Quite literally the kids in black were correct and the white (University of Chicago) guys with Ph.D's were terribly, catastrophically wrong. 

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

communist and corporatist kitsch

The other day, I had a cup of "The People's Green Tea" made by the The Republic of Tea (those nice cylindrical tins with the paper wrappers you can get at Whole Foods).  The branding of the tea seems intentionally to invoke the People's Republic of China and Maoist simplicity.  And I got to thinking -- communism and communist kitsch is irresistible to corporate marketers because communism is fundamentally aspirational and communal.  Marketers know that people want not just a product but an experience, a brand that appeals to their aspirations in life.  Furthermore, people want connection with others.  And communism supplies a readily recognizable utopian ideal and communal emphasis.  Which is kinda fascinating when you think about it -- that both communism and corporatism are appeal to the same fundamental human desires for transcendence and connection. 

Sunday, May 16, 2010

the measure of a relationship

For me, the measure of any relationship -- romantic, friendship, work, family -- is that when we have a disagreement, can we talk about it thoroughly and openly enough such that we are able to reach a higher synthesis?  The ideal synthesis speaks to the relative truth of both of our positions while transcending our prior partial views on the matter.  I think we've all had relationships where people come to loggerheads and have to "agree to disagree" (permanent stalemate) or find ways to water each other down through some sort of lowest common denominator compromise (where neither person gets what he or she wants).  But those sorts of compromises, don't strike me as sustainable (I suppose they are sustainable in the very very short term but they fall apart in the short, medium, and long term). 

For me some of the greatest joys in life come from talking through something in a way that leads to an "aha moment" -- the intimacy of discovering a new higher truth bigger than the one we held before.  I've had jobs where my boss and I traded drafts (of grant proposals, press releases, speeches, etc.) back and forth -- and each person's ideas sparked a new burst of creativity and discovery in the other.  And I've also had jobs where the boss just had not done his/her (personal psychological) work, wasn't a great writer, or was just a dick -- where each disagreement led to stalemate or a series of lowest common denominator compromises until the draft was incoherent.  The same thing happens in friendships, intimate relationships, family relationships, etc. -- some are characterized by heart dialogue and higher synthesis and some are characterized by endless conflict and unresolved disagreement.  The higher synthesis relationships make me feel happy to be alive while it seems to me that the endlessly conflicted ones are not really worth spending much effort on because that relationship is not gonna be sustainable for any length of time anyway.

Over time, you can tell pretty quickly who you can riff and improvise with and who you can't.  And in the very best relationships, you are doing the dance of thesis, antithesis, synthesis all the time without a lot of conflict or disagreement because you've created enough space (trust + love + communication) for an ever-unfolding dialogue of exploration and discovery. 

I guess this makes me a Hegelian (thesis, antithesis, synthesis).  [And my boy Ken Wilber borrows this idea from Hegel and adopts it to Buddhism (even though I don't think it has anything to do with Buddhism -- the steps towards transcendence in Buddhism seem to go thesis, antithesis, nothingness, everythingness).]  But really it's Marx too -- Marx borrowed from Hegel, believing that the march of history consisted of thesis, antithesis, (higher) synthesis.

For me, one of the best resources for learning how to have the sort of dialogue that can lead to a higher synthesis is the book: Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

What if one could look up the credit score of every company -- just like they are able to look up the credit scores of customers?

All of us are walking around with a credit score hanging over our heads.  If you go to make any major purchase on credit -- a car or house -- even renting an apartment or applying for a credit card -- the lender will want to know your credit score.  A credit score is a measure of character -- it gives a numerical value for how trustworthy you are based solely on your past history.  It gives the lender a reasonable understanding of his/her/its risk and the likelihood that you will repay the loan.

Which I guess is fine as far as that goes.

But when I'm looking to buy a mutual fund, where is the credit score that tells me how trustworthy the financial services company is?  When I go to buy a car, where's the credit score that tells me how likely it is that company will follow through on its warranty?  When I buy a house, where is the credit score that tells me how trustworthy the builder is?  

See, the odd thing about our market economy is that it is completely asymmetrical.  Consumers, regular human beings, are all walking around with a number over our heads (instantly available online) that tells lenders exactly how much we're good for.  But there is no objective measure that tells us whether the company on the other side of the deal is trustworthy or not. In short, labor and consumers are graded, but in our capitalist system, capital itself never gets graded (which is how they are able to steal your 401(k), the U.S. Treasury, and the wealth of the entire planet...). 

That's really the problem with Wall Street right now.  There is no objective measure that tells us the credit score of Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley etc.  That's why Retail Investors are Fleeing the Stock Market and YTD Domestic Flows Into Stocks Are Negative. Indeed if these companies were given a credit score based on their past history -- no one would ever do business with them again because they are not creditworthy.  That's the crazy thing about the present political moment -- the U.S. and the E.U. are throwing trillions of dollars at companies that, if they were a person, would not qualify for even the most basic entry-level credit card. 

In some ways then, Yelp and Zagat's Guide and Consumer Reports and Edmunds Car Buyers Guides and even customer reviews on are an attempt by people to create a credit score for companies and products.  But it still seems to me that there is an ENORMOUS UNMET DEMAND for a single trustworthy measure of the creditworthiness of major corporations themselves (not a particular product that the company sells -- but the company itself).  And really, if we could build a system to score the trustworthiness of each corporation, it could become the basis for reregulation the economy --  requiring every company to live up to the highest standards of creditworthiness or lose their license to operate in our economy.

Update #1Branding is an attempt, by corporations, to finesse the issue of creditworthiness -- to create the impression and emotional sensation of trust, without any bona fide data to back it up.  In fact, branding is the opposite of creditworthiness in a way -- in human terms it's the equivalent of a person applying for a credit card saying, 'don't bother researching my credit history -- look at how pretty I am!'  Branding intentionally lights up the emotional parts of the brain associated with desire so that we will turn off the rational parts of the brain used to assess risk -- in order to sell products at a higher profit margin.  So at the core then of the capitalist system there is this disconnect (between the brand image and the actual product itself), this built in incentive to lie in order to generate ever higher profits.  Thus one of the key functions of the public sector is to reign in this impulse to lie that always appears in the marketplace.  That's the point of regulation, to correct for the defects that are an inherent part of a market economy.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

going to church vs. seeing a psychologist

Okay last post for the day...

A while back I spoke with a friend who used to be a church pastor but who now does one-on-one (psychological) counseling with people.  I asked her which one she preferred.  "Oh being a counselor is soooo much better than being a pastor!" she said. Surprised, I asked her why.  She explained that when people come to church, they are looking to sit back and be entertained.  When someone goes for counseling, they are looking to do work, they are looking to grow and change and become a better person. 

That conversation has really stuck with me because it rings true from my experience. 

And it got me wondering whether perhaps, the purpose of religion is NOT to help people become more ethical, but rather to make people feel righteous about stuff they are already doing (usually homophobia, male domination, reinforcing the status quo, etc.)

Because really when you think about it, religious people are some of the LEAST ethical people in society.  Ask any waitress in America about the horrible tips from people who come to brunch straight from church and you'll see what I'm talking about.  And people who really want to grow, who really want to challenge themselves, and who really want to change who they are to become better people -- almost always go see a counselor/therapist to help them get there.  It's really quite fascinating. 

Please boycott the American Cancer Society

Talk about being a card carrying member of the veal pen, Holy shit! 

This week, the White House released an advanced copy of a report from the President’s Cancer Panel.  It's surprisingly good.  Among the findings:

It calls on America to rethink the way we confront cancer, including much more rigorous regulation of chemicals. Traditionally, we reduce cancer risks through regular doctor visits, self-examinations and screenings such as mammograms. The President’s Cancer Panel suggests other eye-opening steps as well, such as giving preference to organic food, checking radon levels in the home and microwaving food in glass containers rather than plastic.

More importantly, the report suggests that the dangers of cancer from chemicals in the environment are a huge problem that deserves more attention.

“Only a few hundred of the more than 80,000 chemicals in use in the United States have been tested for safety,” the report says. It adds: “Many known or suspected carcinogens are completely unregulated.”

The President’s Cancer Panel report will give a boost to Senator Feinstein’s efforts. It may also help the prospects of the Safe Chemicals Act, backed by Senator Frank Lautenberg and several colleagues, to improve the safety of chemicals on the market.

Finally, finally(!) we have a rigorous scientific study that will get lots of attention and begin the process of regulating some of the 80,000 synthetic chemicals in our environment that are untested and unregulated -- and likely causing cancer in children and adults.

So what does the American Cancer Society do with this good news? In a statement this week they poured cold water all over it and said it went too far:

A dire government report on cancer risks from chemicals and other hazards in the environment has drawn criticism from the American Cancer Society, which says government experts are overstating their case. 

WTF!?  Complete and total insanity.  Or rather, this is what your brain looks like on corporatism. 

The American Cancer Society is one of the wealthiest non-profits in the world.  For every $1 spent on direct service, approximately $6.40 is spent on compensation and overhead.  Their board is chock full of wealthy corporatists and pharmaceutical executives who don't make money on prevention -- they only make money on new drugs to treat cancer.  So faced with the opportunity to REDUCE cancer by regulating synthetic chemicals in the environment that may cause cancer, the American Cancer Society says "no thanks."

That's cool.  Fuck 'em.  If the American Cancer Society won't step up to prevent and reduce toxins in the environment (for fear it would hurt the interests of their corporate board members) then I say we boycott their ass. 

So please don't give money to the American Cancer Society -- no matter how nice those return address labels they send you for free in the mail might be.  Thanks!  

Also if the American Cancer Society wants to be the PR firm for wealth industrialists (read: toxic polluters) and pharmaceutical companies, that's fine.  But they should have their 501(c)(3) non-profit status revoked as a result.   

Update #1:  Yeah, yeah I know that the American Cancer Society statement was kinda nuanced and said a few nice things about regulation as well.  But they also knew full well that they are an issue validator (meaning that people look to them to lead on the issue of cancer -- and if they don't choose to lead on a particular fight, no one else is going to get out further in front than they are. Issue validators, because they are closer to the issue than the general public, give the signal to the wider community when something is worth fighting and when it is not).  And when Dr. Michael Thun, an epidemiologist from the cancer society, posts a statement calling the report unbalanced -- they knew full well how it would be used in the debate to knock down attempts at regulation.  It's really quite shameful. 

If you want to reduce cancer causing toxic chemicals in the environment, please donate to the Environmental Working Group instead.

Update #2.  Apparently, this is not the first time that the American Cancer Society has gone out of its way to oppose efforts to alert the public about environmental causes of cancer.  From the May 10, 2010 edition of the New York Times:

New York unveiled what it billed as the nation’s first comprehensive statewide cancer map, which became available Monday on the Web site of the State Department of Health. The creation of the map was opposed by the American Cancer Society when it was proposed two years ago...

It's really hard to overstate how completely vile it is for a group called the American Cancer Society to go out of its way to shield industrial polluters from scrutiny, so that the the pharmaceutical companies on their board can make more money. 

Charles Murray finally admits that school choice isn't about performance, it's about ideology

For decades conservatives have been telling anyone who would listen that U.S. needed to destroy the entire public education system in this country and replace it with a system of vouchers whereby parents could send their kids to any school -- public or private.  We were told that if schools were forced to compete with each other, the magic of the market would naturally lead to better schools and improved test scores.  Never mind that this same market just pissed your 401(k) down the drain while enriching Goldman Sachs and destroying the global financial system almost overnight.

Progressives correctly recognized the wolf in sheep's clothing -- vouchers would be a subsidy to conservative families who already pull their kids out of public schools to send them to religious schools.  And progressives knew that the vouchers would never be large enough to cover the full cost of education -- conservatives' goal of course was to punish poor people and brown people by giving tax breaks to the rich while destroying the educational system serving the rest of the country.

Then a funny thing happened.  President Clinton called their bluff.  He said 'you want to create your own schools -- fine.  We'll call 'em charter schools -- they'll still exist within the public school system -- but you can run 'em and any kid who wants to can attend your charter school.'

So all sorts of philanthropists and entrepreneurs and ideologues of various stripes poured into the school system to create charter school -- all with the goal of showing the existing educational leaders that they (the newbies) knew better.

Now after a nearly 18 years of experimentation in creating and running charter schools a new study is out that looks at the effectiveness of charter schools.  And results are not impressive:

But for all their support and cultural cachet, the majority of the 5,000 or so charter schools nationwide appear to be no better, and in many cases worse, than local public schools when measured by achievement on standardized tests, according to experts citing years of research. Last year one of the most comprehensive studies, by researchers from Stanford University, found that fewer than one-fifth of charter schools nationally offered a better education than comparable local schools, almost half offered an equivalent education and more than a third, 37 percent, were “significantly worse.” 

Like always, exposed to the rigors of the real world, conservative ideology falls apart:

Perhaps the sharpest knock on charters — one that even some proponents acknowledge — is that mediocrity is widely tolerated. Authorities are reluctant to close poor schools. Some advocates concede that the intellectual premise behind school choice — that in a free market for education, parents will remove students from bad schools in favor of good ones — has not proved true.

“If you look at the hopes and dreams from 1992, it didn’t pan out that quality would rise because of marketplace accountability,” said James Merriman, chief executive of the New York City Charter School Center. “It turns out you need government accreditation to drive quality, and the human capital to make schools go. The hard lesson is, it is so dependent on human capital.” 

You would think that conservatives would put their tail between their legs and crawl back under the rock they came from.  But if there is one thing we know about conservatives, evidence to the contrary rarely derails their dystopian dreams.

So into the debate walks cracker ass cracker racist mutherfucker Charles Murray with an Op Ed in the New York Times this week. [For those who don't know Charles Murray, he's the author of the Mein Kampf of modern conservatism, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life that argues that wealthy white people who have every advantage in the world are just better people than poor people of color and so they deserve all the advantages they get.  Like Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged it's an execrable piece of writing and thinking -- and like Atlas Shrugged it sold like crazy because it basically functions as conservative porn.]  And in his Op Ed on May 4, Why Charter Schools Fail the Test, Murray finally admits what progressive have been pointing out for years -- school choice isn't about effectiveness, it isn't about test scores, it isn't about education, it is solely about ideology.  Murray:

As an advocate of school choice, all I can say is thank heavens for the Milwaukee results [that showed the charter schools underperformed regular public schools]. Here’s why: If my fellow supporters of charter schools and vouchers can finally be pushed off their obsession with test scores, maybe we can focus on the real reason that school choice is a good idea. Schools differ in what they teach and how they teach it, and parents care deeply about both, regardless of whether test scores rise.

...And yet, knowing that [that charter schools do not outperform regular public schools], I would still send my own children to that charter school in a heartbeat. They would be taught the content that I think they need to learn, in a manner that I consider appropriate. 

Murray doesn't care if kids are learning.  He doesn't care if the nation falls behind other nations in math and science and economic competitiveness.  His ideology tells him that schools should teach in a certain way and the results be damned.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

New Rule: No Civil Disobedience Until You've Made 1,000 Phone Calls

White people love getting arrested for protesting things they claim to care about. In fact, I'm surprised that the blog Stuff White People Like hasn't already done a post on civil disobedience -- because if there is one thing white people love, it's getting arrested for a good cause. 

I want to share my own experiences with civil disobedience briefly and then make the case that white people should do a whole lot more phone calling and a whole lot less getting arrested to show how much they care.

Nineteen years ago, the first Persian Gulf War was just starting to heat up.  I was in college and I started participating in meetings on campus about how to stop the war.  One of the first suggestions that came up was, 'let's commit civil disobedience.'  Out of an anti-war group of roughly 200 people, about 30 of us split off to form an Affinity Group dedicated to pursuing civil disobedience. As I learned, ya gotta have an Affinity Group to do this kinda thing.  Everyone in the Affinity Group plans an action and then some members volunteer to get arrested while the rest of the members witness (talk with press and police) and then post bail to get the arrested members our of jail.

Members of our Affinity Group tried to get arrested in a "Die In" at the White House prior to the start of the war.  But the D.C. police have seen everything and they hate the additional paperwork from having to arrest people every weekend.  So they just let us die in and lay on the cold hard pavement while they stood around chatting with each other.  Their supply of donuts and coffee was greater than our supply of warm clothes and patience, so we returned home unarrested.

Undaunted we did a civil disobedience vigil at the Federal Building in Philadelphia a few days later.  But again, we couldn't get arrested to save our lives.  Black people get arrested for driving a car in the wrong neighborhood, brown people get arrested on the flimsiest of pretexts but white people can't get arrested even when they BEG the cops to arrest them.

And then, the 100-hour (1st) Persian Gulf War was over.  The short duration of the war was actually a problem because many of our non-hierarchical Affinity Group meetings took 5 or 6 hours.  By the end of the war our Affinity Group had probably spent more hours in planning meetings than the war itself took.

But we were determined to get arrested doing civil disobedience.  The next event on the progressive protest calendar was Earth Day.  So a subset of our Affinity Group -- the more environmentally minded members, split off to form a separate Affinity Group to do civil disobedience in connection with Earth Day.

So on April 22, we dutifully headed up to Manhattan for an Earth Day protest on Wall Street.  While the D.C. police seem intent on ignoring you, the NYPD seemed more focused on humiliating protesters.  They herded us into a little square "official protest zone" purposefully designed to make our numbers look small and pitiful against the backdrop of the NY Stock Exchange.  Too cramped to march around, we were supposed to yell while standing in place behind a series of metal barricades across the street and down about a block from our intended target.

Our group quickly surmised that being crammed into the official protest zone was worse than useless.  So we wandered around looking for ways to get our message across.  And sure enough, a couple blocks away we discovered a local news crew doing a live broadcast about the protests.  Sensing correctly that this was about the only chance we were going to have to get our message out -- one of the members of our group walked out into the middle of the street and just stood there.  He was promptly joined by four or five other members of our group and they stood together holding hands in a line blocking traffic on a major Manhattan street (now that I think about it, I believe the street they were blocking was Broadway).  The timing was impeccable.  The news cameras had something to focus on, the reporter had something to talk about, and the riot police had someone to arrest.

I videotaped the whole encounter.  The Rodney King beatings had just happened in LA, showing both the ruthlessness of the LAPD and the importance of videotape.  We figured that if police could see that we had a camera recording our actions -- that our protesters would be less likely to be harmed.  

Within about two minutes our group was rustled into the back of a waiting NYPD paddy wagon. Our members sang a little song as the doors closed and the paddy wagon drove off.  And our Earth Day Protest had made the morning news in the largest media market in the U.S.

But here's the thing -- the protest made absolutely no difference.  There was no policy that we were advocating, no specific law that we were trying to pass.  It was pure white guilt kabuki theater.  It made us feel better for a day -- that we were doing something -- when in fact, we weren't actually accomplishing anything.  

So I just want to make 2 related points about civil disobedience:

1.  We are doing it wrong.  Almost all modern uses of civil disobedience bear NO resemblance to the civil disobedience committed by Martin Luther King, Jr.  The situation facing the civil rights movement was completely different than the situation facing privileged white Americans today.  In the deep south in the 1950s blacks couldn't vote so they had to resort to means outside of the electoral system. Moreover, MLK and the SCLC were breaking unjust laws.  MLK wasn't blocking traffic just to get arrested.  The laws that were broken -- sitting in at lunch counters, crossing a bridge to the other side of town (where blacks weren't allowed), sitting at the front of a public bus -- all of those were unjust laws.  Through their actions the civil rights movement was saying, 'we are challenging your authority to rule because you are violating widely held moral principles of fairness and justice.'  The thing I disliked about our Wall Street protest was that we had no problem with the traffic laws in Manhattan -- but that was the law that we were breaking.  In most modern uses of civil disobedience, the law that is being broken is completely unrelated to the issue that is being protested.  It's just protest as theater -- which is not the purpose of civil disobedience.

2. Civil disobedience should only be a last resort, not a first resort.  Civil disobedience should only be used after ALL other avenues to reach a resolution have been exhausted.  Look, if you care enough to get arrested, you should care enough to at least make a few phone calls first to ask for a redress of your grievances.  But how many phone calls do most protesters make before getting arrested?  Real phone calls -- to people who don't agree with you but who are in a position to do something to improve the situation?  Prior to our protest on Wall Street NONE of our group had made ANY phone calls to any of these Wall Street firms to ask them to change their behavior.

Look, creating lasting change is about gaining power.  And the way you build power is through building relationships.  And the way you build relationships is through talking with lots and lots of people.

So I propose a new rule:

Thou Shalt Not Commit Civil Disobedience Until You've Made At Least 1,000 Phone Calls.

Calling the President, your two Senators, and your Representative in the House -- that takes 4 calls.  So what are you going to do with your other 996 calls?  Ah, that's where it gets interesting.  Who has a vote or say in making the decision that you want to see enacted?  Who are they connected with?  What do they care about?  How do they see the world?  If you are unhappy with a company -- who are their largest shareholders?  Largest customers? Points of vulnerability to public opinion? If you are upset with a politician -- how many calls can you make to voters in his/her district?

The fact is, if progressives (as a movement) required that no one could participate in a civil disobedience protest until he/she had made 1,000 targeted calls -- then we would never need to get arrested. If we each made 1,000 phone calls we would win on almost every issue that we care about because our members would be building the sorts of networks of relationships that lead to power.

The 1,000 phone call rule could be seen as a rite of passage -- like the100,000 prostrations, known as "chak-boom" in Tibetan, required of anyone who aspires to become a Buddhist monk. 

If you are not making phone calls, knocking on doors, and talking with people who can impact the outcome of a decision -- then you are not actually serious about your issue.  You are just engaging in kabuki -- narcissistic performance art to assuage your white guilt to make yourself feel better. 

Sunday, April 25, 2010

heckuva paragraph

In the midst of an otherwise unremarkable Modern Love column in today's NY Times comes this absolute gem of a paragraph:

It’s hard to say when our differences began to eclipse what we had in common. I kept thinking things would right themselves, but our marriage had become like a radio that played only static; we couldn’t find a clear frequency no matter how much we fiddled with the dial.
--Katie Brandi, Anchors Don't Come in Pretty Boxes

Saturday, April 24, 2010

link of the week

This is a topic I've touched on before.  But Ezra Klein really hits it out of the park with his interview of an anonymous Harvard graduate who went to work for Goldman Sachs in an article titled, "Why do Harvard kids head to Wall Street?"  Because really, at the end of the day it's kinda bizarre that many of Americas best and brightest go to work for these Wall Street firms that are basically mobsters with better clothes.  Money quote:

Investment banking was never something I thought I wanted to do. But the recruiting culture at Harvard is extremely powerful. In the midst of anxiety and trying to find a job at the end of college, the recruiters are really in your face, and they make it very easy. One thing is the internship program. It's your junior year, it's January or February, and you interview for internships. If all goes well, it's sort of a summer-long interview. And if that goes well, you have an offer by September of your senior year, and that's very appealing. It makes your senior year more relaxed, you can focus on your thesis, you can drink more. You just don't have to worry about getting a job.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Oh so THAT'S why Colgate Total Toothpaste causes my tongue to go numb!

A few months ago I bought a tube of Colgate Total Toothpaste at my local Target. It made my teeth look shiny but it also caused my tongue to go numb.  Not a good side effect for a toothpaste.  So I called Colgate and told them about the problem.  The customer service rep read a script that said, "We're sorry that you had that experience. It is not a problem that we expect.  But there are many ingredients in toothpaste and everyone reacts differently.  We'll send you a coupon for a free tube of toothpaste."  So I got a coupon worth $1.81 and felt pleased with myself for taking some sort of action.  And just as the lawyers (who drew up the script read by the customer service agent) hoped, that seemed like the end of the story. 

But today, buried deep within the LA Times health section was an article titled, "FDA is reviewing the use of antibacterial products containing triclosan."  It turns out that triclosan is an antibacterial chemical that is used in hand soaps and yes, Colgate Total Toothpaste.  Turns out triclosan is also an endocrine disruptor that interferes with "thyroid hormones, thereby impairing growth and brain development." It also interferes with the reproductive hormones estrogen and testosterone, leading to infertility. Money quotes from the article:

"There's no question that exposure to triclosan is widespread in the U.S. A national health survey found triclosan in the urine of 75% of the 2,517 people who gave samples. The chemical can enter the body via absorption through the skin or the lining of the mouth.

Mae Wu, a program attorney at the National Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group in Washington, D.C., says that even people who deliberately try to avoid antimicrobial products still end up getting exposed because the soaps are in public restrooms, offices and restaurants.

What triclosan does once it enters the body is not clear. Research in animals has found hormonal effects of triclosan, including upsetting the normal balance of thyroid hormones, thereby impairing growth and brain development, and of the reproductive hormones estrogen and testosterone, leading to infertility. These effects are similar to other so-called endocrine disruptors, such as bisphenol A, dioxins and pesticides such as DDT. The FDA says it intends to evaluate this new research."
-- LA Times, April 19, 2010

I thought it was a little creepy that they claimed that their toothpaste continued working for 12 hours!  But seriously, to put a fucking endocrine disruptor in my toothpaste!!!  WTF!? 

A few years ago I took a homeopathic treatment for a chronic ailment and it worked better than any prescription medicine I had tried.  Interestingly, the homeopath said that in order for this treatment to work I could never ever drink coffee, smoke, or use mint.  "It turns the remedy off," she said.  I don't think for a moment that the magic sugar pills actually produced the helpful result.  Rather, by religiously observing the rules about avoiding coffee I was finally able to sleep again and I believe that helped my body to repair itself. I imagine those who cut out smoking (not a problem for me since I already didn't smoke) also saw similar benefits from the subtraction of the toxic particle pollution rather than the addition of the sugar pills. But I could never figure out why mint was also prohibited.  The only real consequence of that prohibition was that I  changed toothpaste -- from Colgate to Tom's of Maine (Anise flavor).  But it now it makes sense -- by banning mint, homeopaths also get people to stop using traditional toothpaste -- and it turns out that traditional toothpastes are loaded with all sorts of nasty chemicals like saccharine, titanium dioxide, and triclosan.  And because the gums are a mucous membrane, brushing your teeth with traditional toothpaste then allows these chemicals to enter your bloodstream.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Elizabeth Gilbert on same-sex marriage

I'm a big fan of Elizabeth Gilbert.  I really enjoy her voice on the page and I benefit from watching how she works through problems -- depression in Eat, Pray, Love and her doubts about marriage in Committed. Look, I get the criticisms of her writing (that it can be self indulgent, self absorbed, unaware of the vast privileges she enjoys).  But really that criticism can be leveled against the entire memoir genre for the most part.

I actually think Gilbert is a much better writer than most folks (even her fans) give her credit for.  Gilbert's ability to synthesize and summarize massive amounts of research into just a paragraph or two to set up a scene or a chapter is really quite amazing.  In Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert gives the entire history of a town or a particular Buddhist meditation practice in just a few paragraphs to set up the narrative about her experience. Some of those paragraphs must have taken months of research just to get those 10 sentences right -- but she makes it look effortless. Her research into the history of marriage in Committed is equally skillful.

Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage is a different book than Eat, Pray, Love. Gilbert is older, a better writer, and wrestling with a different set of issues this time.  But the book stands on its own quite well and provides an insightful history of marriage and a compelling memoir of a woman wrestling with her doubts about getting married for the second time.

But today I want to quote from a section in chapter 3 of Committed to share her thoughts on same-sex marriage.  I think she makes a compelling, conservative case for gay marriage:

     Anyhow, to be perfectly honest, I find it a bit crazy that social conservatives are fighting so hard against this at all, considering that it's quite a positive thing for society in general when as many intact families as possible live under the estate of matrimony.  And I say this as someone who is -- I think we can all agree by now -- admittedly suspicious of marriage.  Yet it's true.  Legal marriage, because it restrains sexual promiscuity and yokes people to their social obligations, is an essential building block of any orderly community.  I'm not convinced that marriage is always so terrific for every individual within the relationship but that's another question altogether.  There is no doubt -- not even within my rebellious mind -- that in general, matrimony stabilizes the larger social order and is often exceedingly good for children.
     If I were a social conservative then -- that is to say, if I were somebody who cared deeply about social stability, economic prosperity, and sexual monogamy -- I would want as many gay couples as possible to get married.  I would want as many of every kind of couple as possible to get married.  I recognize that conservatives are worried that homosexuals will destroy and corrupt the institution of marriage, but perhaps they should consider the distinct possibility that gay couples are actually poised at this moment in history to save marriage.  Think of it!  Marriage is on the decline everywhere, all across the Western world.  People are getting married later in life, if they're getting married at all, or they are producing children willy-nilly out of wedlock, or (like me) they are approaching the whole institution with ambivalence or even hostility.  We don't trust marriage anymore, many of us straight folk.  We don't get it.  We're not at all convinced that we need it.  We feel as though we can take it or leave it behind forever.  All of which leaves poor old matrimony twisting in the winds of cold modernity.
     But just when it seems like maybe all is lost for marriage, just when matrimony is about to become as evolutionarily expendable as pinkie toes and appendixes, just when it appears that the institutions will wither slowly into obscurity due to a general lack of social interest, in come the gay couples, asking to be included!  Indeed, pleading to be included!  Indeed, fighting with all their might to be included in a custom which may be terrifically beneficial for society as a whole but which many -- like me -- find only suffocating and old-fashioned and irrelevant.
     It might seem ironic that homosexuals -- who have, other the centuries, made an art form out of leading bohemian lives on the outer fringes of society -- want so desperately now to be part of such a mainstream tradition.  Certainly not everyone understands this urge to assimilate, not even within the gay community.  The filmmaker John Waters, for one, says that he always thought the only advantages of being gay were that he didn't have to join the military and he didn't have to get married.  Still, it is true that many same-sex couples want nothing more than to join society as full integrated, socially responsible, family-centered, taxpaying, Little League-coaching, nation-serving, respectably married citizens.  So why not welcome them in? Why not recruit them by the vanload to sweep in on heroic wings and save the flagging and battered old institution of matrimony from a bunch of apathetic, ne'er-do-well, heterosexual deadbeats like me?  --Elizabeth Gilbert, pages 74 to 76, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage

a theory on relationships

Okay I've got a new theory on relationships:

The key to any relationship -- romantic, workplace, relationships between citizens, etc. -- is that both parties share the same platonic ideal of what that relationship should look like.

If you think the platonic ideal of a romantic relationship is a white picket fence with two kids and a dog -- and your partner thinks the platonic ideal of a romantic relationship is a life of vagabond travel with occassional bursts of polyamory -- that relationship just ain't ever gonna work.

By the same token, if your platonic ideal workplace is a vision of collaboration, communication, and democratic decision making -- and your boss's platonic ideal is a workplace where employees know their place and speak when spoken to -- it ain't gonna work.

And nationally, when one political party's vision of the platonic ideal of the nation-state is a European-style multicultural democracy with a vibrant public sector and a sturdy safety net, and the other party dreams of a Milton Friedman/Ayn Rand inspired White Somalia with no regulations governed by theocratic misogynistic Old Testament (Christian Sharia) law -- well, needless to say, the political debates are gonna be difficult. 

This post is really just the flip side of the coin to the argument I made in my earlier post on mutuality. It just seems to me that before any two parties (in ANY relationship -- romantic, workplace, citizen to citizen, etc.) get into a conversation about any specific area of disagreement, we should first have a conversation about what our platonic ideal is of how we think things ought to look (and why).  And furthermore, only through a  continual dialogue regarding the platonic ideal (the form, process, and goal -- the telos of the relationship) can we ever hope to see any sort of shift in our platonic ideals so that we might eventually come to some sort of consensus about how things ought to be.  

Friday, April 16, 2010

abaissement du niveau mental

Heckuva paragraph today by Olga Tokarczuk in an Op Ed in the NY Times about the plane crash that claimed the lives of the Polish President and many of the members of the Polish elite.  She writes:

I am reminded that when a major trauma occurs, the kind that is both individual and collective, something happens that Jungian psychology calls an “abaissement du niveau mental” — a lowering of the level of consciousness. Intellect gives way to the gloom of the collective psyche. The horrified mind tries to find meaning, but lets itself be seduced by old myths. -- Olga Tokarczuk, April 15, 2010

Yep, that is EXACTLY what happened in the U.S. following the 9/11 attacks.  The U.S. regressed in its collective consciousness back to a prior stage of development.  That's the reason that Dennis Miller and Victoria Jackson went from being smart edgy comedians to becoming paranoid delusional spokespeople for radical conservatism.  That's the reason that we were able to elect appoint Bush, a guy with the intelligence of an average high school kid who likes to party, to two terms.  That's the reason that otherwise decent people quickly embraced violations of international law including torture and pre-emptive war. 

I'm just happy to have a term for it now. 

corporatist domination exists because it's an immortality project

As frequent readers of this blog will know, I'm keen to better understand the ways that domination shows up in the economy.  It's my contention that domination and its twin, violence, play a large role in our economy (even in "white collar" jobs); that domination/violence has been at the core of wealth creation for thousands of years; and that the goal of any sort of progressive movement is to move society away from systems of domination and towards systems based on love.  With that in mind...

I stumbled across this quote in Erich Fromm's, "On Disobedience and Other Essays" and thought it relevant to this discussion:

"Man can attempt to become one with the world by submission to a person, to a group, to an institution, to God.  In this way he transcends the separateness of his individual existence by becoming part of somebody or something bigger than himself and experiences his identity in connection with the power to which he has submitted.  Another possibility of overcoming separatness lies in the opposite direction: man can try to unite himself with the world by having power over it, by making others a part of himself, and thus transcending his individual existence by domination."  Erich Fromm, On Disobedience, page 2.

I think Fromm is really on to something quite profound.

I would argue that no one is a corporatist by nature.  No one comes out of the womb desiring to serve the interests of capital.  Babies want to be in union with others (primarily the mom, but also with dad, brothers, sisters, grandparents, the dog, other kids).  Thus, by definition, all babies are communists. If you want to base your politics on natural law, the only choice is communism because in nature, capital doesn't exist.

But later, as a child hits 7 or 8 years old, and becomes conscious of him/herself and becomes aware of the fact that he/she is finite, perishable, vulnerable, and mortal, he/she begins to search around for immortality projects. And capital, or rather, the pursuit of capital through the control and domination of others (either through slavery or wage slavery or off-shoring of production) becomes a popular immortality project.  Which explains then why corporatists fight against any attempts to regulate or restrict their actions -- as if their lives depended on it. If they ever stopped to think about it, common sense would tell them that their actions are immoral, that paying someone 80 cents an hour violates basic norms of human decency.  But corporatists can't stop -- because the domination of others -- whether it is people within their own household or factory workers 5,000 miles away is their immortality project, the means by which they transcend their individual existence and their fear of death. 

Update #1: Honestly, the more I think about the quote above, the more it seems to me the perfect description for the dynamics within the Republican party.  Namely, the Republican party consists of two blocks -- a handful of overclass corporatists who thrive on domination + large numbers of undereducated white males who submit to the corporatists -- and feel united with them through their acts of submission.  It's a perfect closed loop, an immortality project for both the dominators and the dominated.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Link of the week, April 11

Ian Welsh is one of the finest progressive thinkers in the world.  Largely self taught, his writing breaks through the myths and distortions that too often clutter our political debate.  So when Welsh writes a post called, "Books which influenced me the most" it's definitely worth a look.  As for me, I'm going to click over to to buy Jane Jacobs', “The Economy of Cities”, “Cities and the Wealth of Nations”, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.”

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Link of the week

For anyone who read my post on fractional reserve banking, I think you'll be interested in this guest post by George Washington over at Naked Capitalism titled: "Fraction...Er...Fictional Reserve Banking."

Money quote:
But whatever you think about fractional reserve banking, whether or not you agree with its critics, the truth is that we no longer have it.

The whole post is completely fascinating.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Are you smarter than a fifth grader? The ways that neoclassical economics obscures common sense

True story: I went to one of the most progressive colleges in the U.S. Friends who knew of my intense interest in politics thought that I would not enjoy microeconomics but that I would love macroeconomics. As it turns out I had a brilliant microeconomics professor and it was one of the best classes I ever took. But my experience of macroeconomics was another matter entirely.

Midway through the semester, after explaining the money supply, fractional reserve banking, and the role of the Fed, the professor spent most of one class on the "Chilean Economic Miracle." He talked about deregulation and privatization and 8% growth rates in the GDP. As he concluded his lecture I realized, with astonishment, that he was not ever going to mention the military brutality that went along with the Chicago School Economic Program. Look, if this was the University of Chicago Economics Department, I might have understood, embarrassed as they might be at the number of people murdered in the name of their theories. But this was one of the most liberal colleges in the country and yet, the thousands of people murdered under Pinochet in Chile were going to get no mention in this class.

I was alarmed and looked around the classroom to see if anyone else was similarly distressed by the sleight of hand that had just happened in front of us. But all of the other students were dutifully taking notes. So I slowly raised my hand, interrupting the professor as he blissfully moved on to another topic.

I don't remember exactly what I said but it was something along the lines of:

"Um, aren't you missing something? The economic growth that you are talking about happened under a military dictatorship. Pinochet murdered thousands of union members, rounded up people and tortured them in soccer stadiums, threw nuns out of helicopters, operated death squads throughout the regime. Don't you think it's a problem that the Chilean Economic Miracle that you are talking about was implemented by a fascist government? Doesn't that invalidate the economic growth that happened, if it had to happen under a military dictatorship?"

At the time, I was taking a class in modern Chilean literature, reading first-hand accounts of what it was like to live under the Pinochet government. Clearly my economics professor was not reading the same books.

The professor, clearly taken aback by my rather sharp criticism of his lecture proceeded to talk about the Pinochet government and the Pinochet/University of Chicago economic program as if they were two separate, unrelated things. He acknowledged that the Pinochet government was brutal, but said the military repression was not the cause of the economic growth. Rather, Chile, in spite of the military government, had implemented an economic program that would work regardless of who was in power.

His argument seemed disingenuous at best. A year before, I had traveled in Central America and seen what U.S. economic and military power did to people on the ground in these countries. And the U.S. had just concluded the first Persian Gulf, an unbelievably cynical corporatist war straight out of 3 Days of the Condor.

So, at the risk to my grade and to the horror of the econ majors in the room, I took another pass at explaining the problem with his argument. "If the Nazi's had had 8% economic growth, would you give an entire lecture on the economic growth in Germany without mentioning the rest of the Nazi program?" (lol. *sigh* I was much more brazen in those days).

The Professor, now clearly unhappy with me, explained that while the Pinochet government was surely brutal, they did not rise to the same level (of horror) as the Nazis; and that Chile under Pinochet and Nazi Germany were different examples. It is true that I probably erred in including the Nazi example (people get all woozily the moment anyone mentions Nazis -- any hope of reaching a new understanding pretty much goes out the window after that). But the point remains that if a nation has to use death squads and military dictatorship to implement their economic program -- it invalidates everything that happens afterward. You can't claim credit for increasing GDP if said increase in GDP required the murder of thousands of your fellow citizens in order to achieve that growth.

My point is this: I'm sure the economics professor was a great guy. In fact one of my friends thought this professor was the best in the whole college. I'm sure at a summertime bbq this professor would tend the grill and greet the guests and tell great stories. But his academic training had made him LESS smart than he would have been through common sense and living in the world.

That's always my question with various disciplines -- do they make people smarter, more able to see and understand the world around them? Because sadly, it seems to me that a lot of disciplines make people less smart -- dogma has a way of making things perfect on paper and yet, over time, rather unhelpful in the world.

Take the Buddhist story of the faithful monk who meditated so long that he developed gangrene in his legs but kept meditating to show his faithfulness to a discipline that devalues the physical world in favor of the spiritual world. (Now maybe the story is apocryphal, but it certainly illustrates a certain mindset of those who keep pressing on even when evidence suggests one should stop.) I'm sure the monk was a great guy, but his dogma had made him less smart than he would have been through just common sense and living in the world.

It seems to me that religion, neoclassical economics, and scientific disciplines that downplay the importance of emotions and human experience all make their practitioners less smart than they would have been on their own, left to their own devices.

Which brings me to my next example. The March 1, 2010 edition of The New Yorker has a long profile on Paul Krugman (again it appears free right now but if you want to read it, do it soon before they move it behind their subscription pay wall). It's definitely worth a read. Paul Krugman is brilliant. He's one of the smartest economists in the world and a winner of the Noble Prize in economics. He's also a progressive and one of the most important public voices in the country challenging neoclassical orthodoxy and conservative policies that don't make sense. But what really jumped out at me about the article, were Paul Krugman's blind-spots -- the areas in which economics as a discipline had made him less smart than he might have been through just common sense and experience in the world. I want to quote several sections at length:

Krugman’s tribe was academic economists, and insofar as he paid any attention to people outside that tribe, his enemy was stupid pseudo-economists who didn't understand what they were talking about but who, with attention-grabbing titles and simplistic ideas, persuaded lots of powerful people to listen to them. He called these types “policy entrepreneurs”—a term that, by differentiating them from the academic economists he respected, was meant to be horribly biting. He was driven mad by Lester Thurow and Robert Reich in particular, both of whom had written books touting a theory that he believed to be nonsense: that America was competing in a global marketplace with other countries in much the same way that corporations competed with one another. In fact, Krugman argued, in a series of contemptuous articles in Foreign Affairs and elsewhere, countries were not at all like corporations. While another country’s success might injure our pride, it would not likely injure our wallets. Quite the opposite: it would be more likely to provide us with a bigger market for our products and send our consumers cheaper, better-made goods to buy. A trade surplus might be a sign of weakness, a trade deficit a sign of strength. And, anyway, a nation’s standard of living was determined almost entirely by its productivity—trade was just not that important.

When Krugman first began writing articles for popular publications, in the mid-nineties, Bill Clinton was in office, and Krugman thought of the left and the right as more or less equal in power. Thus, there was no pressing need for him to take sides—he would shoot down idiocy wherever it presented itself, which was, in his opinion, all over the place. He thought of himself as a liberal, but he was a liberal economist, which wasn’t quite the same thing as a regular liberal. Until the late nineties, when he became absorbed by what was going wrong with Japan, he believed that monetary policy, rather than government spending, was all that was needed to avoid recessions: he agreed with Milton Friedman that if only the Fed had done its job better the Great Depression would never have happened. He thought that people who wanted to boycott Nike and other companies that ran sweatshops abroad were sentimental and stupid. Yes, of course, those foreign workers weren't earning American wages and didn't have American protections, but working in a sweatshop was still much better than their alternatives—that’s why they chose to work there. Moreover, sweatshops really weren't the threat to American workers that the left claimed they were. “A back-of-the-envelope calculation . . . suggests that capital flows to the Third World since 1990 . . . have reduced real wages in the advanced world by about 0.15%,” he wrote in 1994. That was not nothing, but it certainly wasn't anything to get paranoid about. The world needed more sweatshops, not fewer. Free trade was good for everyone. He felt that there was a market hatred on the left that was as dogmatic and irrational as government hatred on the right. --The New Yorker

Take any fifth grader in the U.S. and explain the situation to him or her as follows: there is a factory that makes running shoes that pays their workers $18 an hour. Now another factory opens up and instead of paying their workers $18 an hour -- they pay their workers less than $1 an hour -- and the shoes are about the same quality. What will happen to the workers at the first factory?

I would wager that the average fifth grader will be able to figure out that all of the workers at the first factory will lose their jobs. Furthermore, if one continues the example and says that "the worker from the first factory is now looking for work, what are his/her wages likely to be at the next job?" the average fifth grader will be able to figure out that the wages for the worker are likely to be significantly less at the next job than in his/her former job.

But if you put that average fifth grader through a Ph.D. program in economics that only looks at neoclassical economics models, voila, that person might now conclude that "A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that capital flows to the Third World since 1990 have reduced real wages in the advanced world by about 0.15%." Neoclassical economic dogma actually made a really smart guy less smart than an average fifth grader.

An entire generation of American workers (those with only a high school diploma who worked in manufacturing) has had their economic aspirations crushed by U.S. free trade policies based on these incorrect models of how the global economy works. And yet, because these workers didn't neatly fit into the economists' models, they weren't factored into policy.

The extent of the corruption in corporate America, was also missed by Krugman until recently:

Certainly until the Enron scandal, Krugman had no sense that there was any kind of problem in American corporate governance. (He consulted briefly for Enron before he went to the Times.) Occasionally, he received letters from people claiming that corporations were cooking the books, but he thought this sounded so implausible that he dismissed them. “I believed that the market was enforcing,” he says. “I believed in the S.E.C. I just never really thought about it. It seemed like a pretty sunny world in 1999, and, for all of my cynicism, I shared a lot of that. The extent of corporate fraud, the financial malfeasance, the sheer viciousness of the political scene—those are all things that, ten years ago, I didn't see.” --The New Yorker

Look, I don't want to cap on Paul Krugman. He's one of the finest thinkers in our country. And unlike many neoclassical economists, he's willing to admit when he is wrong and shine a light on the limitations of the thinking that characterized his earlier career. But it is a striking illustration of just how primitive economics remains as a field at this point that such glaring errors show up in the writings of one of our finest economists.

And the reason these errors show up is that economics as a discipline has placed priority on mathematical models over experience.

Again, as in his trade theory, it was not so much his idea that was significant as the translation of the idea into mathematical language. “I explained this basic idea”—of economic geography—“to a non-economist friend,” Krugman wrote, “who replied in some dismay, ‘Isn't that pretty obvious?’ And of course it is.” Yet, because it had not been well modelled, the idea had been disregarded by economists for years. Krugman began to realize that in the previous few decades economic knowledge that had not been translated into models had been effectively lost, because economists didn't know what to do with it. --The New Yorker

Krugman makes this point eloquently in an article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine titled, "How Did Economists Get it So Wrong?" His short answer: economists mistook (mathematical) beauty for truth.

This is not a small matter. Economists have enormous influence over policy. Quite literally, life and death policy matters are being decided based not on the facts but on how pretty the economic model looks.

I will have much more discussion on this topic in a future post when I review Yves Smith's extraordinary book, "Econned: How unenlightened self interest undermined democracy and corrupted capitalism." I'm just two chapters in but it is amazing -- the best book I've read since Shock Doctrine.