Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

“Far From the Tree” – Parenting Non-normal Children

February 27, 2015

images-2Sometimes while reading I must stop, and shut my eyes, to absorb, process and recover from some shocker. This happened a lot with Andrew Solomon’s 2012 book, Far From The Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity. It concerns non-normal children – mostly with deficits – deaf, autistic, disabled, etc.

“Deficit” is already a fraught word; the subtitle’s mention of “identity” is telling. We see here an element of identity politics, that is, based not on interests or beliefs but, rather, personal characteristics like ethnicity or sexuality. UnknownA major example is people who see their deafness not as a problem but as their identity. Indeed, there is deaf chauvinism, opposing medical ameliorations of deafness (mainly, cochlear implants), even equating them with genocide (killing deaf culture by depopulating it).

The argument is that they’re not defective but different, and it’s understandable that a deaf person might resent the concept of “cure” as implying something wrong. True, deaf culture, within its own boundaries, is a rich one, and adds to the overall diversity of human culture, which might be seen as diminished were deaf culture lost. imagesBut, to quote Robert Frost, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” – and deaf culture lies behind one, sealed off, not completely but partially, largely inaccessible by the rest of human culture. And, politically incorrect though it may be to point out the obvious, four senses are less than five.*

Pluralism is central to the concept of a truly democratic society. And everyone should be empowered to live the best lives they can. However, when we see “neurodiversity” advocates holding in effect that autism ought to be honored as though it were a lifestyle choice, that goes too far. Sure, autistics can and should live rewarding lives. But there is something very important missing. No one should argue this is not tragic.

Central to this book is what parental love is. It’s easy enough to bloviate all day about the ordinary kind. images-1But the book’s numerous personal stories often depict extraordinary circumstances, that stress-test the concept. Loving deaf children is no surprise, but then there are the children from Hell, turning their parents’ lives into painful, grueling ordeals.

Yet even they are loved. One can understand parents accepting responsibility toward even the most unresponsive, even anti-responsive, offspring; but love? What’s to love? one’s rational mind wants to ask. But while love often does have a (perhaps unconsciously) rational component, of course love is not entirely a manifestation of human rationality. Often it seemed the love depicted in the book existed for its own sake. Parents love children from Hell because, well, they just do. (And sometimes children love parents from Hell.)

Thus one striking impression from this book is that the world is full of saints. Unknown-1Now, admittedly, some selection bias clearly operated; Solomon talks only about people who were willing to talk to him; and few (at least in the medical-type situations) were non-affluent or culturally from the other side of the tracks. But I’ve never believed well-off or upper class people are inherently “better” than others. So if those in the book behaved well, that speaks about human universals.

And in fact, in case after case, people thrown-for-a-loop with an unexpected non-normal child rallied their inner resources and responded to the situation in ways they could never have foreseen. Yet I was not surprised; having long since grown to understand this human characteristic. Again and again, people do rise to the occasion, with an extraordinary capacity for responding to extraordinary situations in extraordinary ways.

Then there’s the chapter about children of rape. Few saints here; a parade of horrors and depravity (refer back to my first sentence). Of course we mustn’t “blame the victim.” And yet Solomon was struck how often being victimized and abused reflected an inability to foresee danger in one’s choices. “Every bad thing that befell them, even at the hands of previous aggressors, came as a surprise. They could not tell the difference between people who warranted trust and those who didn’t.” Why? Their childhood experience. “They did not know what caring behavior felt like, so they were unable to recognize it.”

Unknown-2What a contrast – the loving parental nurture of even profoundly disabled children, versus parenting of initially normal children that turned them into emotionally disabled people. But even some of those latter stories had good redemptive endings, with protagonists ultimately able to rise above all that had gone wrong in their lives. The good outweighs the bad; the tears of love outweigh those of rage.

That’s the human story. It makes me a humanist – a lover of humankind – and an optimist.

 

 

* I’m normally a stickler for the distinction between “less” and “fewer.” But sometimes rules must be broken. Here, “less” is the more fitting word.

Fear and Loathing at Sears Auto Center

February 5, 2015

UnknownOnce, at a fancy New Orleans restaurant, we didn’t get bread like other tables. I told the Maitre D’. He shrugged and said, “Sometimes you get bread and sometimes you don’t.”* This has become a family catch-phrase.

Recently my car battery needed immediate replacement. Unknown-1I went to  Sears in Albany, phoning first to confirm availability. After a 15 minute queue, Tim at the front station went to the shelf, and came back saying, “You’re in luck, we have one left.” So we did up the paperwork; he said installation wouldn’t take long.

An hour later, I checked with Tim; he said my car was next. After almost a further hour, enduring daytime TV noise in the waiting room, I asked him what was going on. I might have sounded frustrated. Tim snarled, “You can take your car and leave if you want.” I didn’t reply. A little while later, he finally called my name.

images“We don’t have the battery,” Tim said, without even the word “sorry.” Dumbfounded, I pointed out that he’d told me they had it. Tim denied this.

Sometimes you get a battery and sometimes you don’t.

Luckily my car would still start and I got one quickly at Hyundai. Then I phoned the manager at Sears Auto, Steve, to complain. After several attempted excuses, he finally conceded, “I have no excuse.” But I never actually got an apology.

This was certainly one of my most egregious consumer experiences. I’m still literally incredulous that a major business like Sears would operate like that. Unknown-2But after I calmed down and pondered, I was bemused to consider how minor this was, in the great scheme of things, and how rare even such minor foul-ups are in an advanced country like America. My Sears episode, standing out like a sore thumb, really points up how beautifully our society functions ordinarily. We should be tremendously grateful, not taking it for granted. Life wasn’t always like this, and still isn’t in many places even today.

I was put in mind of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book Infidel which I’ve reviewed. After living in several Muslim societies, she washed up as a refugee in the Netherlands; straight off the plane, she encountered a policeman, who helped her, rather than trying to victimize her. This blew her mind; an epiphany in which Hirsi Ali instantly understood that, so unlike all her past experience, here is a society that works.

My car works too now. It only took three and a half hours.

Unknown-3*I whispered to my wife, “Sometimes you get a tip and sometimes you don’t.”

The Pacific Jewel in the Liberty Cap

February 2, 2015

UnknownQuestion: which state’s flag incorporates the British Union Jack?

Answer: Hawaii, which was (consensually) a British protectorate for most of the 19th century, while an independent kingdom.* In 1893, Queen Lili’uokalani was deposed in a coup organized mainly by American planters. Annexed in 1898, Hawaii became the 50th state in 1959.

Dennis

Dennis

We spent a week in Maui in January as guests of my Albany coin collecting friend Dennis Ryan and his wife Paulette. Dennis is an amazing character. Though in Maui only a couple of months each year, he seems to know everybody and is very active in local history and preservation communities; his knowledge is legion, and he is voluble in sharing it. We got an intensive tour. It was a bit weird to travel 6,000 miles** and find Dennis’s familiar squirrely handwriting in a museum exhibit case; several sites display his coins and other objects.

The Hawaiian islands were settled many centuries ago by people from other, quite distant Pacific locales. I was astounded yet again to contemplate the gutsiness of those people setting out in flimsy vessels to cross vast stretches of open ocean. And what it took, once they arrived, to survive and prosper. They had nothing of the technology we so take for granted (not even the wheel). images-1They were handed no instruction manual for how to utilize the stones, bones, plants, animals, and shells, etc., they found. They had to figure it all out for themselves. “Primitive savages?” I don’t think so.

Hawaii, consonant with its geographic remoteness, is certainly culturally the most distinctive of the 50 states. It’s American diversity par excellence. Unlike in the continental U.S., the natives were not driven out or marginalized, but remain an integral part of Hawaiian life – albeit with ethnic admixtures from all the Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, Portuguese, Germans, Koreans, etc., and of course Americans who migrated mainly to work the plantations.

My wife Therese doing yoga on Maui

My wife Therese doing yoga on Maui

There is a viewpoint that sees 1893 as a crime; and controversial legislation has been promoted that would give native Hawaiians (as if that status could be definitively determined) some sort of special status, almost a parallel government to negotiate with the U.S. one. It’s all very politically correct, but I consider it un-American. Of all the crimes in the annals of world history, 1893 wasn’t much of one. I’m no fan of monarchy generally as a political system, and while Hawaii’s later royals may not have been bad, earlier ones were not mild Barack Obama types. America took the islands virtually without bloodshed and comparatively little dissension; and few of those with native Hawaiian ancestry today seem desirous of undoing the past century’s developments.

Unknown-2I certainly did not feel like I was touring a crime scene. Instead, I glory in how so many different kinds of people get along so well in Hawaii. To me, that we have taken to our bosom this remote speck of civilization in the middle of the Pacific, as an equal and valued member of our polity, bespeaks the great soul of this nation. I came back – if this were possible – loving America even more.

* In 1843, a British naval officer arrived and forced the king to cede the islands to Britain; but the British government quickly disavowed his action and returned sovereignty to the natives.

** Hawaii is not our westernmost state. Alaska is.

Kids First: Pre-K, Pre-pre-K, Marshmallows, and Fish

January 20, 2015

Our kids come first – how often is this heard? From parents, politicians, and do-gooders alike. Children are our future; we should invest in them, with programs like pre-K.

UnknownWe do know that the first months or years in a child’s life are crucial influences on the future person and his or her success. Recall the famous “Marshmallow Test” – if a young child has the self-discipline to defer gratification for the sake of later rewards, this is a powerful predictor of flourishing in school and life. Pre-K education has also been shown very helpful in a person’s future trajectory. Modest societal investments like this, in youngsters, deliver huge returns – making productive citizens who contribute to society, as opposed to losers and criminals who detract from it and soak up resources.

imagesBut we actually should take it one level back. What’s the biggest influence on a child’s earliest years? Parents. Differential parenting is a huge explanatory factor for the kinds of people we become. And let’s be frank: parenting styles tend to differ greatly among social classes. For example, it’s estimated that by age 3, kids in lower socio-economic homes hear 30 million fewer spoken words than in affluent homes – and in the former, more of the words are discouraging rather than encouraging. Such factors tend to perpetuate divergent social outcomes from generation to generation.

images-1So Pre-K is all well and good, but we need Pre-pre-K: early education for parents. Teaching them how to break out of dysfunctional ancestral patterns, to equip their kids to pass the Marshmallow Test, and so forth. I can’t claim this as my own brilliant idea; in fact such programs do exist, notably at Harlem Children’s Zone. Investments in such efforts would generate gigantic future dividends, both economically and in quality of life.

As an example, The Economist recently noted a program in Jamaica teaching mothers of chronically malnourished youngsters how to play with them in ways that promote verbal and physical skills. Those kids grew up to earn higher incomes than “untreated” kids – even those who had not been malnourished.

The Economist was making a broader point about poverty. Many conservatives think the poor are basically responsible for their situation, while progressives blame society. Conventional economics suggests that the answer is to give people opportunities to earn their way out of poverty, and many millions have indeed done so. But it’s not quite that simple; poverty has a tendency to be self-perpetuating because of its behavioral effects. images-2Poor people often make bad economic decisions, not because they are irrational or foolish, but because they lack access to the necessary information; their poverty may make them feel powerless as well as overly risk-averse; and the resulting stressful existence is not conducive to calm deliberation. They also face structural obstacles – as I’ve written, it’s costly to be poor.

The Economist points out that whereas traditional anti-poverty programs stress supplying resources, a behavioral approach focuses instead on how choices are made and how they can be improved. For instance, sending kids to school should be a no-brainer for their future well-being; yet in many poor countries, parents often don’t send them; however, some Latin American programs giving cash payments to those who do have dramatically boosted school attendance.

images-3There’s some truth in the old saw about giving people fish versus teaching them to fish. But teaching fishing may not be enough. People may need to be taught to want to fish.

“Everything is Awesome” – The Lego Movie and Ideology

January 11, 2015

Unknown(Consonant with my ongoing effort to provide readers with insight concerning seminal cultural phenomena, herewith is my meditation on The Lego Movie)

A megalomaniacal corporate villain threatens to end Life As We Know It. A proletarian everyman transcends his limitations to save the world in an unexpected way; and gets the girl.

“We’ve seen this movie before” is the fitting cliché. Indeed, this is the unvarying plot for a certain species of animated epic (Robots was another example).

President Business

President Business

The Lego Movie’s evil entity isn’t exactly corporate – it seems to be governmental –but there’s a melding, with the bad guy named “President Business.”

That name makes a rather unsubtle ideological statement. Of course the creative types behind these films are all lefties, so there’s never a business or businessperson that’s anything but wicked. Yet it always amuses me to remember that these corporation-hating movies are financed, produced, and distributed by . . . corporations . . . to make profits. images-3Well, Lenin did say capitalists will sell the rope to hang them with.

But back to The Lego Movie. Despite my jaundiced remarks thus far, this is a wonderful film which we thoroughly enjoyed. Really. It’s actually not an extended commercial for Lego toys. From start to finish there’s not a dull minute in it. And with much droll humor, it’s not just a kid’s movie. Or maybe one has to be a kid at heart.

I’m not too jaded to appreciate the creativity that goes into something like this. It’s a visual phantasmagoria, that goes by so fast I almost wanted to view it in slo-mo. And having characters that are, well, mere Lego figures, was surely a creative challenge, but at every turn the film actually makes that work for the viewer’s entertainment. Although the characters are, to be sure, given human-like personalities, the ending sequence, in a truly brilliant and unexpected way (which I won’t reveal) plays upon the fact that they are after all in reality Lego toys.

images-1And so, while with evil “President Business” and all that, the film ritualistically carries the baggage of anti-capitalist ideology, on a meta level the fact that it was made by a corporation, for profit, shows us those are not dirty words. This film’s corporate producer profits because people willingly pay it for something they value more than the money spent, in this case, entertainment, amusement, enjoyment. images-2In a market economy the vast bulk of profits earned are likewise garnered by giving people things they value. Creating that value is how we all get richer and live better.

Go see The Lego Movie and do your bit for corporate profit.

Mario Cuomo and Bess Myerson

January 6, 2015

imagesMy view of Mario Cuomo was not colored by his having knocked me publicly.

I was a PSC administrative law judge, presiding over a case involving Long Island’s Shoreham nuclear power plant – at the time, a huge issue. Governor Cuomo was hostile to the plant and its utility builder. One day when I came to work, people made remarks like, “Hey Frank, how are your credentials?” I was mystified, until I saw a news report: asked at a press conference about one of my recommendations (contrary to his position), Cuomo dismissed it, saying, “Well, what are his credentials?”

images-2Shoreham fell victim to a safety hysteria. There was no undue risk, in relation to all the normal risks of modern life. But “nuclear” is a scare word, and opponents thought it reasonable to insist on literally zero risk (even those traveling to hearings by car, a technology with risks far above zero). The Cuomo administration aligned with those opponents and spearheaded a settlement to junk the nearly completed $5 billion project. The PSC had to approve this, and I was again the judge. I recommended against the settlement. At the Commission’s meeting I was given no speaking role – highly unusual. And my report was not made public, also highly unusual. However, one Commissioner cheekily appended it to his dissent. And PSC Chairman Bradford later told me he’d welcomed my recommendation – it gave the proceedings a veneer of objectivity!

images-3Later, one early evening I was driving not far from the Executive Mansion and ahead of me saw a man who seemed to be wandering aimlessly in the middle of the road. I thought he was drunk, and had to slow to avoid hitting him. As I passed, I recognized the Governor.

Recently I had occasion to comment on Cuomo’s most famous speech, the 1984 “tale of two cities.” UnknownI thought it was an unfair attack on President Reagan, as though he, and Republicans in general, were blind to those Americans having a tough time. Admittedly, Republicans do a good job opening themselves up to such jabs. I don’t understand how Democrats get away with posturing as the tribunes of the common man, when their policies are actually ruinous for the country as a whole. (Trade protectionism is a prime example: protecting the few at the expense of the many.)

But Cuomo’s 1984 speech made him a great liberal hero, so that 30 years later, the local paper and NPR station gave his death massive fawning coverage. I wonder whether his successor George Pataki, who served an equal three gubernatorial terms, will get anything remotely comparable.

I will say this about Mario Cuomo: he was an honorable politician, a mensch, a man of true substance, who played it straight. His son, not so much.

images-4Bess Myerson’s link with Cuomo was her being a big pal of Ed Koch, whom Cuomo beat for Governor. She was the first – and so far only – Jewish Miss America – before I was born, in 1945. Her ethnicity was actually very controversial then – how far we’ve come since! Unlike Cuomo, she died in obscurity, so much so that her December 14 death wasn’t even reported till January 5.

Unknown-1I had a Bess Myerson moment too. In the ‘70s she was New York City Consumer Affairs Commissioner; I met her when she testified at a PSC hearing. A recess found me in a side-room talking on the telephone. Myerson walked in and said to me, “Is that phone working?”

Has Progress Stalled?

January 3, 2015

UnknownOn December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers achieved a 12-second, 120-foot flight. Within about half a century, we were flying to Europe in eight hours. After a further half century, we’re doing it in . . . eight hours. Meantime, the Concorde, that could do it in three, was abandoned.

So has progress actually juddered to a halt? Michael Hanlon, writing recently in Aeon, says yes. He sees a “Golden Quarter” (GQ) from about 1945 to 1971 as the source of all the innovations defining the modern world, with nothing comparable since. imagesAirplanes are Exhibit A; only marginally improved since the ‘60s, with no quantum leap analogous to that between the Wright Flyer and the Boeing 707. The Jetsons’ flying car never materialized. The Moon hasn’t been visited in 42 years. Similarly, in medicine, Hanlon puts all the world-changing advancements behind us, with continuing longevity gains being merely attributable to building on those past breakthroughs. We still haven’t cured cancer. Even social progress, he says, was great in the GQ, with nothing like it since.

Why? Hanlon proposes various answers. One is . . . wait for it . . . rising inequality. Progressives are obsessed over this, trying to prove inequality causes all manner of ills. Hanlon attributes the GQ innovation to a world getting richer, but says concentrating wealth in few hands somehow stifles innovation and breeds “planned obsolescence” of products instead. Unknown-1That linkage seems obscure; and anyway, while inequality within countries may be rising, worldwide it’s a different story, because the poorer nations – notably India and China, both huge – are experiencing faster economic growth than the advanced ones. Thus, far more people have far more income and wealth today.

More persuasive is Hanlon’s saying we’ve become less trusting of science and more risk-averse. An earlier generation was in love with technological and medical improvements, remembering how bad things were before. Today we forget, and even romanticize “the good old days.” Unknown-2There’s a belief that science and technology are false gods leading us astray, and a frightened focus on risks rather than rewards; thus a “precautionary principle” that rejects anything not proven riskless, an impossible standard. This gives us the misguided anti-immunization movement, opposition to fracking, and to Genetic Modification that could entail huge benefits for billions. Hanlon thinks a manned Moon mission would be considered too dangerous today.*

He also cites a 2011 essay, The Great Stagnation, by economist Tyler Cowen, suggesting that the U.S. in particular has reached a technological plateau. images-2Cowen thought past advances were grabbing “low hanging fruit,” and further progress is simply much harder. But Hanlon actually rejects that idea as “fanciful,” saying that historically, “it has often seemed that a plateau has been reached, only for a new discovery to shatter old paradigms completely.” He cites Kelvin in 1900 declaring physics essentially done – just before Einstein came along. (Perhaps an odd point to make in an article contending progress has stalled.)

I’m no physicist, but I do think we’ve now reached a point where nothing could “shatter old paradigms completely.” images-1The “low hanging fruit” metaphor also seems applicable to Hanlon’s prime exhibit, air travel. Not that jet planes aren’t a technological miracle – but, for moving lots of people long distances, this may be about the best that’s practicable, and any greater speed would entail a host of problems. We gave up on the Concorde for good reasons. And never got flying cars because that’s actually not a very good idea either.**

This perspective prompts a broader response to Hanlon – a la “what more do you want?” We can travel to Europe in eight hours! Moreover, as Hanlon actually acknowledges, that’s become affordable to ordinary people. Unknown-3(Which happened after the GQ.) Similarly, social progress has been enormous – civil rights, women’s liberation, etc. – also mostly subsequent to the GQ – and is still unfolding for gay rights. Violence (as Steven Pinker has persuasively shown), of all sorts, continues to decline. We may not be perfect yet, but surely there’s a lot less work still to do.

But none of this means progress, in all its manifestations, has fizzled out, and Hanlon has to twist things hard to make it seem so. While early on he sneers that progress today “is defined almost entirely by consumer-driven, often banal improvements to information technology,” later he allows that “the modern internet is a wonder, more impressive in many ways than Apollo.” The Internet too postdated the GQ.

images-1Hanlon is ultimately a victim of a myopia he himself describes. It is indeed easy to take for granted and belittle modern amenities, forgetting what went before. It’s what Barry Schwartz, in The Paradox of Choice, called the adaptation effect – one adapts to the life one has now, which does seem banal, underappreciated as merely what one now expects. Day-to-day, or even year-to-year, progress may not seem evident. But if you compare today with 1971 – the end of Hanlon’s Golden Quarter – the difference is huge on a host of fronts.

And while “what more do you want?” may be a fair perspective on modernity, there are still big things we can yet aim for. We won’t blow ourselves up, or be done in by climate change. For all the fretting over that and rising inequality, I actually foresee steady economic advancement and a global mass affluence that will truly constitute a quantum change in the human condition. Similarly transformative will be further progress on health. Death by old age is a solvable medical problem.

Finally, all this improvement will be propelled by advancing artificial intelligence. That looms as a stupendous game-changer – Ray Kurzweil’s “singularity” when life becomes altogether different. images-3Stephen Hawking actually worries this threatens humanity (and I recently reviewed a movie with that view). I’m more optimistic, and foresee an eventual convergence between Humanity 1.0, of the flesh, and a cybernetic version 2.0.

I discussed this in my famous 2013 Humanist magazine article, The Human Future: Upgrade or Replacement? And if anyone in that future remembers the Hanlon article, it’ll quaintly sound like Kelvin in 1900.

* He aptly notes that the thalidomide episode was awful, but such occasional screw-ups are the inevitable costs of trying out new things, the benefits of which exceed such downsides. That perspective is being lost, an attitudinal change to which Thalidomide contributed.

** But self-driving cars are coming.

The Big Picture

December 26, 2014

imagesFor all America’s partisan divisions, we’re in remarkable agreement on one thing: the country is on the “wrong track,” the American dream is struggling, and our children will have trouble equaling, let alone surpassing, today’s living standard.

Each side blames the other. The right sees the left as buying votes with government handouts, fostering a feckless paternalistic culture, while killing businesses and jobs with over-regulation, and out-of-control spending presages financial ruin. The left sees rising inequality, with a corporate conspiracy to control government for its own greedy ends, heartless toward victims and their economic plight.

Both views reflect a generalized loss of trust in the institutions of society, which is not unique to America, but is mirrored all across the developed world – whether countries are governed by the left or right. In truth the difference is mere nuance on the edges of policy.

UnknownTake France (please). Sarkozy (on the right) was elected promising a “rupture” with past complacency. In office he could manage only minimal tweaks, but even that was too much for the French, who chucked him out for an assertively lefty Hollande – who promised they could have their cake and eat it too. Now he’s even more unpopular than Sarkozy, who is attempting a comeback.

Such serial disillusionment stokes the rise of populist third parties like France’s National Front and the United Kingdom Independence Party. This hasn’t happened in America mainly because our two-party system is more entrenched with structural roadblocks for third parties.

images-1But behind it all, what is really happening is that globalization is a hugely disruptive force, breaking down economic barriers and putting everybody in competition with everybody else. For the world as a whole, this is hugely positive, enlarging the economic pie by making stuff less costly, opening opportunities for billions more people to productively participate, and creating a burgeoning middle class in countries where there was none before. Of course there are losers as well as winners, and that’s why the political climate has become so febrile.

images-2But the remedy is not in trying to make globalization go away, demonizing businesses that strive to stay competitive via taking advantage of overseas opportunities; nor by decreeing higher wages or benefits as though the money comes from the sky (or from businesses being less “greedy”); or uselessly whining about inequality. Instead, the only thing that can actually save us is to raise our own competitive game: better products at better prices.

images-3Along similar lines, Kishore Mahbubani, a Singaporean, reminds us of the “seven pillars of wisdom” that our Asian competitors have imported from the West, in their “March to Modernity” —

  • Free market economics and capitalism (large-scale investment). Sorry, lefties: not by socialism did worldwide average real dollar incomes grow five-fold in the last century – a giant fact that makes pining for an alternative economic system simply silly.
  • Science and technology. The central human story has always been our use technology to overcome nature’s impersonal forces. (Listening to all the anti-frackers you wouldn’t know that fracking has been massively underway worldwide for decades with only minimal problems; it has revolutionized America’s energy picture and overall economic strength.)
  • Meritocracy. China actually pioneered the idea yet pervasively violates it. One facet of a profoundly corrupt social system that bodes ill for realizing China’s full economic potential.
  • Culture of Peace. Russian military adventurism is a grave threat to the world system.
  • Pragmatism.
  • Unknown-2Rule of law (including secure property rights, contract enforceability, judicial transparency, etc.) China’s regime lately has been talking “rule of law,” but that’s a mistranslation. It’s really rule by law – a tool for maintaining control. Not the same thing. Here again, China actually fails to follow Mahbubani’s program.
  • Education – empowering more people to participate more productively in the global economy.

Unknown-1Now you have the full big picture.*

*Someone will say, “climate change.” Not insignificant – but actually a lesser factor in shaping the human future.

Christmas in July: An Economic Program

December 23, 2014

UnknownIt’s fashionable to decry the commercialism and materialism of Christmas. And I recently reviewed Naomi Klein’s book saying we must cut back our consumer society, preaching asceticism as virtue. The problem is, if A doesn’t buy what B is employed to produce, B loses his job, and can’t buy what A is employed to produce, so A loses his job too. Pretty soon nobody has jobs. A fine virtuous society we’d have then.

 

imagesI thought about this, passing by a mall thronged with Christmas shoppers. Indeed, imagine where our economy would be without that. A whole lot of people are employed producing and selling all the stuff that’s gifted; absent Xmas, they’d be out of work. Sneer as you will at the crass commercialism, but without it our economy would be in deep doo-doo. If Christmas didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it (like FDR invented the WPA).

Unknown-1This got me thinking that if Christmas is such an economic boon, why not have two Christmases? We can invent a second one. Of course, they’d have to be spaced well apart, so by the time the next one rolls around folks can have recovered financially from the prior one. About mid-year would be ideal. And in fact, what luck, we wouldn’t have to create a new holiday from scratch – we can simply re-tool an old one – July 4.

So all we need do is make Independence Day into a gifting occasion. We can give it many Xmas-like accoutrements. For example, instead of Christmas trees, people can put up Liberty poles, and decorate them with little continental soldiers, drummer boys, flags, etc. images-3In place of crèches, we can have dioramas of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Instead of carols we can sing Yankee Doodle and other stirring patriotic songs. Houses would be festooned with red, white, and blue lights. TV would endlessly re-broadcast “1776” rather than “It’s a Wonderful Life” and mawkish Peanuts cartoons. In the role of the Grinch, you’ve got your King George III. And sending another round of greeting cards would help keep the struggling Postal Service in business. Fireworks would be an added bonus for which I can’t think of a Christmas analog.

images-4Of course, to promote the all-important gifting element, we’d need a Santa-equivalent. For this I’d propose Jefferson. We can overlook that he had slaves rather than elves (I’m not sure there’s much difference, actually). He’d keep a list of which children are naughty or nice – that is, patriots versus tory sympathizers. Happily, few of the latter will be found nowadays. And, to deliver the presents, perhaps he could borrow Santa’s sleigh and reindeer; as Santa’s summer replacement, so to speak.

images-1Christmas originated to celebrate the birth of Christ. July 4 celebrates the birth of our country. At least we can be sure that really happened. Thus this would be a holiday for everyone (with no nonsense about a “War on July 4;” though we’d probably get some griping about its commercialization).

So to help our economy by turning The Fourth into another gift-giving festival, images-5please spread the word, by reblogging this, or re-tweeting it, or snapchatting or instagramming it, or whatever people do nowadays who are more tech-savvy than me. If this goes viral, the economic benefits could be huge.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS to all my blog readers!

Torturing America

December 12, 2014

Some things are just wrong. Absolutely, and always. Surely torture is one of them. That it’s even necessary to say this, in America, in the 21st century, seems bizarre.

Torture not only damages the victims, but also the perpetrators, and the societies that tolerate it.

images“Enhanced interrogation” was torture. Even if it did produce helpful information, it was still wrong, and should never have been done. Ends don’t justify means.

But the Senate report refutes every claim that helpful information was garnered. All the pushback to that conclusion is nothing but bald assertions, “yes it did,” without specifying exactly when and how. And meantime, as the report also documents, the CIA has lied pervasively about this subject.

As if all that wasn’t bad enough, it’s also revealed that the CIA paid $81 million in taxpayer money, to a couple of bozos, for the precious advice to copy Chinese Communist torture techniques.

And even if the torture had produced good information, it would not have been worth the price paid, in shredded American moral credibility. UnknownWhen China, and Iran can, with straight faces, shake their scolding fingers at America on human rights, we know we’re off the rails. Now, when we criticize them, many will think we’re the moral hypocrites. America’s thusly squandering its role as the world’s conscience will make it all the easier for the worst human rights abusers to act with impunity. It’s a big setback to the global moral progress so painstakingly achieved. Altogether a prohibitively huge cost for whatever information (if any) we got through torture.

But 9/11 blinded us to our true national interests, making us so hysterically fearful of terrorism as to pay almost any price to thwart it. Horrible as it was, 9/11 did not harm America, or undermine what we cherish about our society, nearly as much as what we’ve done in response to it. th-2Like all the surveillance, TSA madness, hostility toward foreign visitors, curtailment of civil liberties, and distortions to our foreign policy. And torture, giving ourselves one heck of a black eye. That self-inflicted damage to America, and to human values globally, is greater than a dozen 9/11s would have done.

Legacy_of_AshesI am not of the Andrew Bacevich school, holding that anything we try to do to make the world better is futile, and we shouldn’t even try. Being proactive to improve things is the essence of the human character. But Tim Weiner’s aptly titled history of the CIA, Legacy of Ashes, shows that the CIA has never gotten anything right, never done anything that truly served America’s interests, while doing things, again and again and again, that disserved them. We’d be better off had the CIA never existed.

Nor am I of the Noam Chomsky school, seeing nothing good about America. images-1Yes, our country has blemishes, this is Earth, not Heaven, populated by humans, not angels. But the Chomskys are morally blind to the bigger picture. And part of what is truly great about America is the spirit of openness, self-criticism, and self-correction exemplified by the Senate report. You will see nothing like that in China or Iran (or Russia, Cuba, Venezuela, or Egypt).*

*China has just awarded its annual Peace Prize to Fidel Castro. Last year’s winner was Putin.


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