Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Over Here, over there, and eveywhere

I began reading a novel last week called Over Here, by Jame Hockenberry.  (My wife gave it to me for Christmas last year, autographed by the author; thanks Nora).  It is the fictionalized account of the activity that occurred in the United States just before America entered World War One.   While I am just about 1/3 through the book, I am finding it to be an interesting portrayal of the mixed emotions that existed in our country before we entered WW1 in April 1917, especially among those who considered themselves German-Americans, either because they were born in Germany, or because they were raised by German born parents in the United States.

Obviously, those Americans with ties to Germany, were conflicted by the war in Europe, a war which many considered to be the primary fault of German leaders' desires to break the Franco-Russia alliance, while elevating Germany to the class of world leader nation.  Throw in the rumors on both sides of the war of atrocities against civilians, and the unwillingness for all concerned to contain the initial outbreak to a localized war between Serbia and Austria-Hungary, and we have a recipe for both individuals and nations to be torn over which side to support.

Perhaps the parallel is not quite as solid, but I have to imagine that similar internal battles exist in the hearts of Mexican Americans when they here some of our our leaders disparage their country and its people, as well as those Americans who practice Islam, when they hear the phrase Islamist terrorist bandied about without regard to the vast majority of Islams who are not infected with a deep case of "ism-ness".  In each case, I imagine that being proud of one's heritage or religion, as well as one's adopted country, should not necessitate the need to choose one over the other.  Unfortunately, like some Americans during World War 1, distrust of their German neighbors, fueled by the occasional act of violence, is easy to see in action today by some who distrust people born south of our border or who worship a different God.    

One particular moment in the book struck me as both interesting and poignant.  At one point, one of the Bomb Squad detectives is discussing with his wife the recently released movie they had just seen; A Birth of a Nation.  The wife, Corinne, pushes her husband to understand that the awful actions of the KKK as depicted in the movie are similar to those being perpetrated by the mostly German American saboteurs that he is sworn to hunt down and stop.  But more importantly, while we might agree that their actions are horrible, to them their actions are in defense of their way of life.  In essence, Corinne is acting as the conscious of all of us to remember that men do many awful things in the name of self preservation, loyalty to country and family, and to defend their beliefs and values. She reminds her husband that those who used guerrilla tactics during the War for Independence were most likely considered barbarians and traitors by the majority of people in England at that time.

Corinne ends her side of the conversation with the question, if all people on both sides of a conflict believe that God is on their side, whose God is right if there is only one?

Which brings us "over there" where a nation of people institutionalized by government propaganda which controls their news, education, and virtually every aspect of their lives, believes that the only way to protect their way of life is to construct a huge military, enhanced with nuclear weapons capability.  While we may know that their leader, Kim Jong-un, is a brutal dictator who prefers to spend his country's money on weapons rather than food and medicine, they only know from years of teachings that America may strike first, at any moment, and their only alternative is to acquire similar weapons.  Certainly, Kim Jong-un is a despot of the worst magnitude, but when our President threatens to bring "fire and fury the likes of which the world has never seen" he is only adding fuel to the fire of those poor people who live in an ignorant cloud of deception.  The sad thing is that it is those very same people who will suffer the consequences of some type of military operation, while the escalators of the violence, the two leaders of the countries, will emerge unharmed.  And, in the end, the majority of North Koreans who have no other source of information, will have their worst fears about American aggressiveness realized.  

And then there is Charlottesville, Virginia.  A small town rocked over the weekend by violence over the plan to move some statues of Civil War era heroes.  Certainly, there are some people who feel pride in their Confederate heritage.  They do not glorify the horrors of the War between the States, but do respect the values of the South, which helped build and bind their communities, perhaps conveniently ignoring the damage caused by slavery, but not maliciously so.

Unfortunately, there are too many who would eagerly bring back the days of white domination over other races.  Their rhetoric was all too obvious in the signs and speeches of the march, as was the intent of the young man who drove his car into the crowd of protesters.  The good news is that, while vocal, it is a minority of people who learned to hate, as ex-President Obama's tweet so eloquently described.  The bad news is that, purposefully or not, President Trump's election has emboldened some of these groups into thinking that making America great again means putting minorities back in their place, and recognizing that America was founded by white men for white men and that their heritage is at risk due to the insidiousness of diversity.

History, while occurring, is a fluid thing.  Individual historic moments can be recognized when they occur, but generally are not realized until time has passed.  We of course, egocentric as we are, tend to think that everything that is happening is historic.  With the advent of the "Breaking News" crawl on every opinion and news show, it is no wonder that we think our time is so important.

I can only hope that future historians will mark this time, and the next few years, as an important watershed in America, as a time when the electorate realized that a democracy ignored is doomed to collapse, that a true moral compass requires a moral foundation upon which the needle moves, and that those who have learned to hate can be taught, if not to love, at least to un-hate.

        

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Joseph Heller, Fear and Immigration

Today I read an excerpt from Something Happened by Joseph Heller.  It is the beginning of the second chapter, entitled "the office in which I work", and I read it in the summer edition of Lapham's Quarterly.  I also spent some time today reading the recently released transcripts of President Trump's phone calls during his first weeks of office to the Presidents of Mexico and Australia.

The first paragraph of the reprinted portion of Something Happened is as follows:

"In the office in which I work there are five people of whom I am afraid.  Each of these five people is afraid of four people (excluding overlaps), for a total of twenty, and each of these twenty people is afraid of six people, making a total of 120 people who are feared by at least one person.  Each of these 120 people is afraid of the other 119, and all of these 145 people area afraid of the twelve men at the top who helped found and build the company and now own and direct it."

At some point in my career as a mid level manager, I internalized the notion that management by fear was an outdated concept.  While certainly, a respect for the chain of command was necessary for the orderly functioning of any organization, the management style that emphasized blind obedience over constructive disagreements, the promotion of yes men (women) over those who questioned inefficient procedures, and the overall belief that keeping one's staff in a perpetual state of fearing for the loss of their job or promotion opportunities, inexorably led to the best people leaving for more challenging opportunities, condemning the organization to mediocrity, at best, eventual failure at worst.

Of course, Heller wrote Something Happened in the 1970's, yet it seems that management by fear and intimidation is still alive and well, perhaps not surprisingly within the biggest corporations and most extensive bureaucracies.  What is unfortunate is that, as Heller continues to describe the various bosses at his present and past employers, it becomes clear that once fear is the modus operandi of an organization, it permeates all levels, from the top to the bottom, even going so far as to create the insidious feeling within many of the workers that "someone nearby is soon going to find out something about me that will mean the end, although I can't imagine what that something is."  In essence, an outlook of fear and dread is created which infects other aspects of the employee's life, even outside of work.

I recently saw this kind of dread in a number of people in my circle of acquaintances.  For one, a lurking fear that his employer, after 25+ years of service, is setting the table for dismissal, just when the fruits of his longevity are about to pay off.  For another, that a reassignment is the result of an opinion viewed, not as professional disagreement, but as questioning the decisions of those in charge, and for a third, the harrowing perspective that the skill set of a mature worker is not applicable in today's employment market, so its best to tolerate poor working conditions and sub par instructions for fear of loss of income and health care insurance.  

I had often stated that I hoped that those employers who took advantage of the recession of 2008-2010 by cutting benefits, salary or both with the admonition that workers "should just be grateful they have a job", would be the first to lose good people when the economy recovered.  Now, 8 years into the recovery, there is still little progress on raising minimum wages, addressing overall income inequality, and creating a foundation for the middle class to recapture the loss of buying power that has resulted from the love affair with trickle down economics.  All the while, and sadly, despite having a two term Democratic President, the incomes and wealth of the top 5% has improved at a staggering pace.

Which brings us to President Trump.

While I hope that these first 6 months can be chalked up to the learning curve of a CEO who must absorb the difference between running a business and running a government, I am not encouraged by his use of fear in his dealings with the media, his critics, those in the GOP establishment, various judges, our allies, our healthcare conundrum, and, it appears, even those he has chosen to be in his cabinet.

Clearly, his travel bans, a policy based on the fear of immigrants and refugees and which played well with those Americans with a similar fear, as well as his recent reversal of allowing transgender people to serve in the military, establish a pattern of blaming various minority populations for all our troubles which enhances the fears of those who find it easy to dehumanize a group based on their differences.

When I read the aforementioned transcripts, especially the one detailing his conversation with Australia's Prime Minister, I found a man unwilling to listen to the specifics of the deal created to provide new homes for some middle eastern refugees.  He had promised his supporters to ban those "bad" people, and was unable or unwilling to separate economic refugees from terrorists.  He had successfully used blind fear to gain votes, and was not about to attempt to separate blind fear from a reality based fear for those who were so easy to sway.

Additionally, in both conversations, President Trump emphasized, at times even exaggerated, his popularity, in part to hammer home his points that he couldn't go back on his campaign promises about the wall and about immigration, but also, it seemed, to remind the foreign presidents that they should also fear the ramifications of statements and actions not in line with Trump's perspective.  Not that I would expect our president to do anything rash against either of these countries, rash being defined as a military response, but it reveals an attitude that says "Your lack of cooperation and agreement will ultimately result in a detrimental consequence".  Whether that level of consequence is trade related or force related seems dependent on the country and its misstep.

Curiously, President Trump does not seem to exhibit that same attitude when it comes to Russia. Even in signing the bipartisan sanctions bill against Russia he found it necessary to express his displeasure with the bill, a displeasure that may reflect both his opinion of the sanctions and the fact that he felt compelled to sign them.

Is immigration, illegal and otherwise, the biggest threat to America?  Is ISIS and other forms of terrorism?  Is it North Korea and their over the top nationalism that is fueled by a dictator who is loved by all his citizens and takes pains to prove it everyday?

Or is it the threats to our democracy? Threats that have existed since the Cold War began and are very really positioned at the end of thousands of ICBM's pointed to Europe and America, threats that were exercised in both overt invasions of minor countries and subversive cyber invasions which created and enhanced misinformation meant to sow doubts in our allegiances to other democracies.  Threats that attack our democracy from within by legitimizing the power of money to sway elections, and that leave the vast majority without recourse when the minority creates laws that reinforce the circle of influence, power, and control.

We all feel fear, personally and collectively.  We don't always gauge it properly, whether it is an unhealthy fear of closed spaces, or a xenophobic fear of those who look differently.  But we should expect, especially from our leaders, an assessment of fear that is based on facts not phobias.

      

  


Monday, July 31, 2017

Fear

Began reading the Summer Edition of Lapham's Quarterly, called Fear.  Encountered a number of quotes related to the topic, then decided to peruse the entire volume for others that I found interesting.
Thought I might surround this post with "fear" quotes.

 - A man from hell is not afraid of ashes.  Burmese proverb

I thought this an interesting quote in light of my belief that continuing to elect rich men and women who have spent all their lives insulated from the daily difficulties that beset most people, will rarely if ever produce effective policy that addresses hunger, poverty, lack of opportunity, income inequality, etc.  Unfamiliar situations of which they do not fear.

 - Fear is the foundation of most governments.  John Adams, 1776
 - War is fear cloaked in courage.  William Westmoreland, 1966
 - Nothing is more despicable than respect based on fear.  Albert Camus, c. 1940

I wonder if our current attitude about America's role as policeman of the world, reflects the notion that we have created our military industrial complex as a way to gain respect from both our citizenry, and those born in other countries.  And, if being able to wage war at any time in any land at any level of potency actually gains that respect, or inspires internal resistance to Big Government, and external attitudes that view our overt militarism as a mask of insecurity.

 -Great self-destruction follows upon unfounded fear.  Ursula K. Le Guin
 - Neither a man nor a crowd nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think
sanely under the influence of fear.  Bertrand Russell, 1943

It is easy to reference the recent presidential election as a time when a politician and political party was able to harness the fears of the voters to garner a victory.  But this was not the first time the United States electorate rewarded such appeals with a win.  The bigger question is, will we awaken in time to scale back our reliance on fear to justify our future actions, or will this mark a continuation of the decline of the perception that America is the shining light upon the hill.

 - Who lives in fear will never be a free man.  Horace, 19 BC
 - The man in constant fear is every day condemned.  Publilius Syrun, c. 50 BC
 - Suffering has its limits, but fears are endless.  Pliny the Younger, c. 108

We all have fears.  Many fears are universal, shared by the vast majority of people regardless of race, gender or ethnicity.  But we also each have our own particular set of fears, including those we may have conquered through experience and maturity, those we recognize which help us to avoid situations which may cause them to surface, and those of which we remain unaware.  It is this last batch that can lead us to perceptions and actions, both individually and in concert with others, that can be manipulated.

It is in those times that we are goaded to react to an event, or a campaign slogan, or a slanted news story that exacerbates our fears.  We are hesitant to engage in conversation or activity with someone who looks, worships or loves differently than us, then we are presented with news that portrays that type of person in a negative way and our fear is solidified.  More negative stories, more justified fear until we cannot fathom tolerating such a person in our life, in our country.  No matter that people who look, worship and love as we do are also guilty of poor judgement and criminal actions, we are no longer judging individuals.  It is the lot of them that are judged.

Sadly, once people become united in their fear against an entire demographic, it is easy to add another, similarly perceived "bad" demographic to the list.  Once the pattern is established, it takes an overwhelming, usually personal experience to break that fear.  Discrimination spreads astronomically, while anti-discrimination more geometrically.   While I did not encounter the phrase, it is easy to be fearful, if you are always afraid, it is certainly true that a citizenry that is bombarded with doomsayers from both sides of the philosophical divide, will be that much more easily manipulated by those seeking to prosper from our fears, whether it be political or financial.

 - Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear - not absence of fear.  Mark Twain, 1894
 - People living deeply have no fear of death.  Anais Nin, 1935
 - I must not fear.  Fear is the mind killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.  I will face my fear.  I will permit it to pass over me and through me.  From Dune, written by Frank Herbert

Perhaps now is the time for each of us to examine our fears, spell them out, imagine what would happen if they became reality.  For some, the fear of losing one's job and the corresponding financial problems such an event would bring.  For others, losing a spouse to disease, divorce or accident rekindles the fear of loneliness and being alone.  And for most, the fear of death, of a possible nothingness for all eternity, or worse, a punishment meted out forever due to our sins, both conscious and unconscious.

For me, it is the fear of a life lived unremarkable.  To have 70, 80, 90 years of life summed up by a two paragraph obituary.  And, worse, to wonder for all eternity if my life was unremarkable due to a lack of talent or lack of ambition.  My vision of hell.

 - Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself - nameless,
unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat
into adventure.  Franklin D. Roosevelt

And so, with that quote we find hope that once recognized, our fears can be named, and once named, made less potent, less paralyzing, so that each of us can discover the needed efforts to convert retreat into a financially untenable, or lonely, or hopeless life into a life full of hope and adventure.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Taming Healthcare Costs

In my last post, I mentioned that the most contentious aspect of the health care debate is costs.  For instance, media groups leaning right as well as the architects of the Republican proposal known as the Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA) will tell you in response to the statement that it cuts Medicaid payments, that it in fact increases them, which is true.  Unfortunately, it is also true that this increase is much less than those under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) which is why media groups which lean left are emphasizing this reduction, and why many Governors from both parties are nervous about their ability to make up the difference.

My own Senator, Pat Toomey from Pennsylvania, from whom I receive a weekly update, makes the former case by emphasizing that it "puts Medicaid on a sustainable path, averting a future fiscal crisis".  In other words, less payments from the federal level, so that we can still afford the program at all.  How Toomey expects states like Pennsylvania to make up the difference is not part of his defense.

And, that is the rub.  Regardless of which side you lean to, costs have been rising, and will continue to rise if we don't examine the facts behind the problem.

America is aging, its population increasing on average by two years every decade, and will continue to do so as a result of the plethora of baby boomers (those born from 1946 to 1964).  For those 19 years, just about 4 million live births occurred in America every year; that is over 75 million people! In addition to this burst of births, we are living longer as life expectancy for Americans has increased on the average by 9 years (from just under 70 to just under 79) since 1960.

In other words, more people are living longer which produces higher health care costs. But that is just the beginning of the story.  It is not just that there are and will continue to be more older people, but our expectations of the quality of our health have also increased dramatically.  New knees, new hips, new faces, new organs, all extend our lives, but cost much more money. And the incredible boom in the pharmaceutical industry which now provides easy relief for so many real and imagined ailments, adds even more to the rising costs.

We experience pain, no one's favorite feeling, and rush to the local health care provider or upstairs medicine cabinet to ease our suffering.  Not necessarily a bad thing, but not cheap in comparison to understanding and accepting that a little pain is a signal from our body that we are doing something wrong.  Indigestion?  Take a purple pill and eat whatever you like.

It is a bit ironic that we turn to pharmaceuticals for what ails us in record numbers, yet we bemoan the outrageous profits and salaries in the pharma industry, and are aghast at the spreading opioid epidemic.  When the common answer to life's ups and downs is a little yellow pill, then we must expect to pay for all that medication, one way or the other.  But, solving the increasing federal funding morass for health care costs by passing along the responsibility to the next level is less an answer, more a case of passing the buck.

So, what is the answer?

First, we need to admit that we have a spending problem.  The United States spends significantly more money per capita than any other country.  In one of the tables I found, in 2015 we spent two times as much per person, or more, than all but 9 other countries in the world, including Canada, Australia, France, Japan, and the United Kingdom, among others, while attaining only limited benefits from these extra expenditures.  Most rankings of healthcare outcomes by country lists the United States in the middle of the pack  (or lower) in life expectancy, infant mortality, cancer survival rates ,etc.  All which means that we are not getting good value for the money we are spending. Or put another way, too much of the money is being diverted from addressing health problems to maintaining profits, excessive executive salaries, political campaign donations, advertising which convinces consumers that they are sicker than they are, and, most of all, to maintain the medical/pharmaceutical complex at the cost of actually improving wellness.  

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_total_health_expenditure_per_capita,

Second, if we are going to continue to be apoplectic in thinking that a single payer/universal health care system is "socialized medicine", then we need to come up with another method of creating the biggest pools possible so as to spread out the higher costs for the elderly and sick among the young and healthy, while maintaining reasonable premiums.  There is not doubt that costs are lower in countries with single payer systems, but perhaps those models don't automatically apply to a country with a higher population and more diverse economic and cultural demographics.

One aspect of the recent GOP proposal isolates the sick into pools outside the mainstream, thereby lowering costs for the majority but forcing those with chronic or fatal diseases to choose between life and money.  Yikes!

Perhaps a better answer lies somewhere in between.  I have often proposed a single payer system run by the states.  The federal requirement of a minimum level of insurance coverage for all would still be law, but each state would be charged with establishing exchanges which feature a variety of health insurance plan options, but still offered by the current health insurance industry.  Remove employers from the equation to eliminate the disadvantage that the self employed currently faces, and include all elected officials who serve that state, regardless if they work in a state capital or Washington thereby making them consumers of the same system they help develop.  (Removing the employer participation may also free up some money, perhaps to invest in more livable wages, and, of course, capital improvements for the business itself).

Certainly, the federal government would still need to provide some funds for this system but the states would be tasked with negotiating the costs and details of the various insurance plans to be offered to its citizens.  Those that qualify for assistance, based on that state's particular demographics, would be eligible, as opposed to making it a federal demographic.

The goals would be to redirect responsibility for health care insurance back to the individual family or person, provide affordable options that balance low premiums with high deductibles for those with few health issues, higher premiums but lower deductibles for those with chronic health issues, caps on yearly and lifetime expenditures regardless of health, and no preexisting conditions clauses. Health care insurance becomes a right but a right that requires individual responsibility to manage.

The good news in all this is that the baby boomer peak will occur and we will reach a point where costs may somewhat flatten on their own.  But that is still 20 years away, if we assume the majority of people born in the baby boomer generation, will be dead by 2037.  

In the meantime, we might also want to remind our elected officials and those we see in the mirror each day, that there is plenty of money in these great United States to pay for better outcomes and provide health insurance for all American citizens.  Considering the $200 million contracts being signed by various athletes, the eight figure salaries being paid to CEO's, the billions of dollars being spent by the American public on entertainment, and the literally, trillions of dollars that are safely tucked offshore by the 1% who value their wealth more than their country's future, it is hard to fathom why we agonize over the costs of providing health insurance and improving health outcomes.

Perhaps a reevaluation of our priorities is the true path to finding a solution.

 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

GOP Healthcare Plan

It appears that the long awaited repeal and replace Obamacare health care bill that was promised will not come to fruition in the near future.  It is truly a sad indicator of how partisan the politics of America has become that we find ourselves in the unenviable position of having a flawed national healthcare program in place as acknowledged by both parties, most Americans, and the majority of health care providers and insurance companies, but do not have the stomach, guts, leadership or whatever other word you might want to use, to fix it.

As far back as I can remember, our collective approach to the problem of providing a reasonable cost for the majority of Americans to pay for their moderate health care costs, while addressing the needs of the minority of Americans who cannot afford to pay for their above average health care costs, has ranged from assuming the heath insurance industry would humanely balance their profit with the well being of their customers, to creating arbitrary affinity groups (through employment, union or other trade or age related membership) to increase the pool thereby spreading out the costs, to the truly horrific idea that sick people deserve to be sick due to their poor lifestyle choices or equally poor luck from the birth lottery.

Mixed in with these inadequate approaches, the specter of America's love affair with individualism and capitalism pretends that health care is a commodity just like a car or a house, so that those with the most money will naturally be able to purchase the best health care, and those with the least will have to make do with the economy version.

And, we eschew the national health care model of most of the rest of the "civilized" world which creates a national pool of customers to lessen the costs of individual sickness or group trends of disease, by asking everyone to pay a little more in taxes.  The fact that this bigger pool is really just an extension of the affinity groups we are using today, is lost in the angst created by those who use the S word (socialism) to belittle the universal health care model that addresses the real issue behind our debate: costs.

The good news is that we should recognize that in their lack of unity, the GOP has done a valuable service to America in their inability to create a better plan.  It is imperative that the liberal media and pundits try to avoid gloating over the fact that they had 8 years to come up with a new plan and failed miserably, and focus on the fact that for whatever reason, concerns over the reduction of insured Americans, concerns over the sky rocketing costs which would have been passed along to the states, or even concerns that the GOP repeal bill did not go far enough to remove government from the heath care morass, whatever the reason, we must praise our GOP controlled legislature for not following through on their repeal and replace mantra by voting for just any new piece of legislation.  I applaud them for finally realizing that it is easy to criticize, but much harder to govern.

Will they merely repeal?  I would like to think that the answer is no, even if only because they are afraid of losing their job when they next run for office.

And who knows, perhaps the loss of the last 8 years, which might have afforded the chance to amend the ACA so that the needs of the truly sick, and those with limited access to health care insurance could have been addressed while balancing the costs to the aforementioned chronically ill along with the majority of Americans who face average and less than average health care needs, will spur us to find common ground across the water cooler, and common ground across the political aisle.

 

      

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Discovery

Slow month in June; less than 20 hits a day on my blog.  It is months like that which make me question why I continue to share my thoughts.  Am I kidding myself to think that anyone cares to read my opinions?  Am I fooling myself to think that my writing is cogent, thoughtful, relevant, or any other term one might consider a compliment?

I rationalize the time I spend in this endeavor with the possibility that someday my posts will be read by someone of influence who will find them important enough to share within their circle of followers.  Or perhaps a particular opinion or thought might inspire someone to act in such a way that the world is better for it.  Or even that in continuing to record my thoughts, small ripples of change might begin their long journey towards an unknown shore, effecting behavior or a future philosophy in a positive way.

Or, perhaps, that those in my small circle of influence might feel better for having read them.

A resurgence of interest from Russia has me wondering.  In the past I have received some very nasty comments from a few Russian readers, making me think they might be the source of activity in that country.  Is negative interest better than no interest at all?  Is our president's fascination with Putin generating interest in that country for the opinions of Americans, even someone as obscure as myself?

Just finishing the Spring edition of Lapham's Quarterly, called Discovery.  As usual, many fascinating articles, essays, thoughts on the subject from the depths of history.  A few that I took note of.

In the opening essay by Lewis Lapham, founder and continued inspiration behind the quarterly, he laments the rise of the machine, and our burgeoning dependence on technology for our information. This is not to say that being able to access Laphams digitally is a problem, but that in our growing dependence on our phones and tablets for information, we too often eschew the knowledge of the past, alluded to in Goethe's observation, that he who cannot draw on three thousand years is living hand to mouth.  Lahpam's further comment that the failure to connect the past to the present, the present to the past, "breeds delusions of omniscience and omnipotence, which lead in turn to factories at Auschwitz and the emptiness of President Donald Trump."

--

A snippet from Vera Rubin's Women's Work, recounts how, as an astronomy student at Vassar College in 1947, she wrote a postcard to Princeton University asking for a catalog of the graduate school.  She received a nice little note in response from the dean of the graduate school that Princeton did not accept women in its graduate physics and astronomy programs, so he would not be sending along a catalog.  It wasn't until the 1970's that such a thing would happen.

Rubin also recounts how in 1976 when the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum presented as its first planetarium show a history of American astronomy, only male astronomers, all but one white males, were included.  To Rubin, the thousands of little girls who streamed into the show, in addition to learning about space, learned the limitations of their futures as a result of being born female. Repeated efforts by Rubin to request the addition of female astronomers and their contributions were met with a shrug, presumably by white males.

Stories like this make me laugh at the recent rise in white male angst over the perceived slights that the attempts to even the playing field for women and minorities has generated.  I guess practically forever in recorded history is not long enough for them to be given all the advantages!

--

From the House of Representatives' report on the Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011, a bill was voted on in the House which would prohibit the administrator of the EPA (that is Environmental Protection Agency, lest you forget, an agency created during Nixon's Administration) from "promulgating any regulation concerning, taking any action relating to, or taking into consideration the emission of greenhouse gas to address climate change".  During the vote, three amendments were offered by the Democratic minority, one which would accept the scientific evidence that climate change is unequivocal, one that would accept scientific evidence that greenhouse gases are the root cause of the observed climate changes, and the third that the public health of current generations ins endangered, and that the threat to public health will continue to increase as greenhouse gases continue to accumulate in the atmosphere.

Laphams recounts this episode under the heading "Tyranny of the Majority", reflecting that fact that the GOP majority defeated all amendments, and passed the bill as a way of protecting the fossil fuel industry to the detriment of public health.  Fortunately, the bill did not pass in the Senate. Unfortunately, it is not far-fetched to imagine a similar bill passing both houses, and then be certainly signed by President Trump.

It is understandable why so many voters chose to turn over control of both the executive and legislative branches to the GOP, after the stagnation of the political process the last 6 years of the Obama Administration, but there seems to be a precedent which indicates that when a split government is in place, and the voters hold both parties accountable to the concept that common ground must be found to create a government that considers both majority and minority perspectives, then the majority does not operate in a tyrannical fashion, nor does the minority embrace the role of obstructionism to detriment of all.

--

In a 1953 talk General Electric physicist Irving Langmuir, who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1932, identified several symptoms of what he called pathological science - that is, "the science of things that aren't so".  A few of his 6 symptoms of Fake News include:

Claims are of great accuracy.

Fantastic theories are contrary to experience

Criticisms are met by ad hoc excuses thought up on the spur of the moment

Finally, in reference again to the recollections of Vera Rubin and the open discrimination she fought as a career scientist, one can only wonder how many achievements were delayed or missed throughout history due to the premise that only white males should be given the opportunity to think, to research, to discover.  The good news is that the genie is out of the bottle.  When given the same opportunity and resources as their white male counterparts, similar levels of achievement, success, and innovation are attained by men and women, regardless of race, ethnicity, or any other means by which humans limit those who are different from themselves.  Especially in the case of women, one might say despite the obstacles placed in their path.

The bad news is that we seem to be in the midst of a cycle that finds the pendulum swinging in the wrong direction in this matter.  Let's hope that we can recover from our misdirection, and discover (again) that the nature of inspiration lands equally in the minds of all and every type of human, and that to fully take advantage of that muse we must reject the notion that She prefers one gender, one race, one country over the rest.


    



Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Environment vs Economics

There seems to be a belief that we cannot have a strong economy with strong environmental laws. Evidence of this belief is verbalized in most discussions concerning the record low growth rate of the economy coming out of the 2008 recession.  When the discussion involves business friendly participants, too much government regulation is the culprit, including over reaching environmental laws.  The recent decisions by the Trump Administration to opt out of the Paris Accord on climate change, and to roll back and/or negate the Obama Administration's rules for power plant emissions, seem to place him squarely in the camp that says jobs before environment.  

But is it necessarily true that we can't have both?

The May edition of the National Geographic Magazine has an interesting chart which ranks 100 of the world's major cities in three areas; people (social), planet (environmental), and profit (economic health).  It is called the Arcadis Sustainable Cities Index.  

Before detailing some of the more interesting findings, I thought it best to research Arcadis, to find the source of the information.  As we all too painfully know, proving a point through scientific study or research is quite easy when the answer is predetermined.  I am sure if one were to look hard enough, "science" which debunks the connection between coal mining and black lung disease can be found.  In the case of Arcadis, it is a global design, engineering and management consulting company based in Amsterdam, Netherlands, with origins dating back to 1868.   While this indicates a bias towards their version of what a sustainable city might look like, now and into the future, they are successful at what they do; 350 offices in 40 countries with revenue of 3.3 billion euro in 2016.  So, factoring in a bias towards "greener" projects, and perhaps European cities, I am comfortable offering the following information from their chart.

Of the three factors, the social aspect ranks lowest for 34 cities.  Sixteen of those are in North America, 16 out of the 23 cities ranked.  For 12 of those 23 cities, profit was the highest of the three factors.   Certainly, a clear indicator of priorities for our continent.

Profit is ranked last in 19 of the 32 European cities while 14 of the 32 rank highest in people.  Again, a clear indicator of priority.

There are three Canadian cities on the chart, and they ranked first, second and fourth overall in North America with New York ranking third between them.  

The highest ranking city in the United States, overall, was New York which also ranked first in Profit, and Environment but in the middle of the pack in People.  The top ranked city in the People category was Boston which was also second overall.  Following New York and Boston, were San Francisco and Seattle.

Zurich was the highest rated city overall, first in planet, top 5 in Profit, mid 20's in People.

Interestingly, of the top 10 ranked cities in the Profit category, eight of them also ranked in the top sixteen overall; Singapore, Hong Kong, London, Edinburgh, Stockholm, Paris and Prague, along with the aforementioned Zurich.  Perhaps some evidence that profit need not eliminate all concern for people and environment.

Conversely, of those cities in the top 10 rankings for Environment, all but one were in the top 50, six were in the top 25, three were in the top 10, and two were in the top 5 for Profit. Hmm.

Could there be a correlation between people who feel that when factors such as health, education, income equality, work-life balance, crime, housing and living costs are adequately addressed, profit follows?  It is certainly true that a robust economy does not usually exist when there is chaos, whether politically or socially generated.   The bottom five ranked cities were Kolkata, Cairo, Nairobi, New Delhi and Manila.  None had any factors which placed them in the top 75.  

Certainly, the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and London might effect future rankings.  And I doubt we will see a migration of people from North America to Edinburgh or Prague in the near future.  But the point is that profit can exist side by side with a concern for the environment and the people who live there when cities make an effort to consider its inhabitants as more than just income generators. 

Of course, there were some places where the difference between profit ranking and environmental ranking was 65 or more; Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Kuala Lumpar.  Hopefully, those who stress the incompatibility between profit and environmental concern are not offering these cities as their model.

In the end, as usual, it comes down to balance.  Certainly, the debate is necessary as to how far the pendulum should swing in any one direction.  Stifling economic growth unless a project or plan perfectly protects all living things is as absurd as approving all business plans as long as one new job is created.  But the premise that we can't have both, in varying degrees is just plain wrong.  It surely belies the belief that by ignoring our responsibility towards keeping our planet and its occupants healthy, America will be great again.         
     

Thursday, June 15, 2017

DC shooting

I thought it important to comment on the horrific shooting which occurred in Washington a few days ago.  Regardless of how we feel about the current direction of the GOP and the Administration, there is absolutely NO justification for this behavior.  When we resort to violence to communicate our displeasure with our elected officials, with our neighbors, with our family or with those who look, worship, or believe differently than ourselves, we spit on the very fabric of our democracy, and move one step closer to being exactly like those we like to call terrorists.

I would also like to call on every liberal, democrat and progressive to make a similar statement, either on Twitter, or Facebook, or on their respective TV, radio or other media outlets.  We MUST not condone this behavior through silence.

Finally, I would ask both sides of the various debates that surround such a shooting, Dem vs GOP, liberal vs conservative, Trump supporter vs non-supporter, more gun control advocate vs less gun control proponent, and any of the other myriad issues which are contributing to such a vitriolic atmosphere that encourages acts such as this latest shooting, to be aware that we are all guilty of inspiring violent outbursts when we exaggerate, misrepresent, stereotype, and outright lie about the actions and beliefs of those with whom we disagree.

Being in the public eye through achievement, intelligence, education, success or fame includes a responsibility to present information that is factually based, perhaps tinged with opinion, but at least founded in provable elements.  There are far too many people who read for content they agree with, and are far too eager to be provided with a rationalization to lash out with violence.  Our right to free speech is precious, but perhaps there are times when we must question whether it should be exercised if the content is inflammatory.  It is far better that we exercise self restraint rather than create a situation where free speech is rationed via a political or institutional filter.

Finally, to all Americans who are involved in the discussions of the day, who feel our country is moving in the wrong direction or finally moving on the correct course, channel your energy to create talking points and common ground with those with whom you differ.  Work with or for an elected official or perhaps even run for office in an effort to better understand how our government works, or volunteer to a particular cause which inspires you.

There is only one other option if we allow our democracy to collapse through skepticism, complacency and the exponential growth of us vs them politics.  Anarchy might make for an entertaining TV show, but it is not a reality we would enjoy.      

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Russian Controversy

I haven't commented on the Trump/Russian controversy yet.  Partly, I have been reticent due to the extremely partisanship nature of the debate.  On the left there is salivating at the idea that Trump might be caught colluding with our most dangerous adversary, and on the right there is rampant amnesia in regards to which country stands to gain the most from western democracies which fall too far down the rabbit hole of nationalism.

At this point, rather than wait for Special Prosecutor Mueller's probe to come to fruition, I thought I would offer my assessment of the situation, and prediction for the outcome.

First, it is certainly true that the Democrats are still reeling from their surprise defeat last November. While calling the investigation a witch hunt is certainly disingenuous coming from a party that held countless Benghazi hearings, I also think that this is more of a red herring, on both sides.  I say red herring, not necessarily because I believe the Russian connection is false, but because there is far bigger fish to fry in reference to the agenda of this president and his (current) allies in the legislative branch.

It seems clear that their is a concerted effort to undo everything President Obama accomplished, either by an ongoing stream of exaggerations and outright lies, or through executive orders and legislative efforts.   From statements referencing the "absolute mess" that Trump inherited, to the constant predictions of the failure of the Affordable Care Act which has its existence controlled by the very people who are eager for its demise, our continued focus on the Russia Controversy seems to be a classic trick of magicians and con men alike.  Look over here while what is really happening occurs over there.

I say this, because in the end, President Trump will not be impeached over this embroilment.  Perhaps a couple of his associates, Manafort and Flynn to name a few, will be found guilty of some sort of misdeed, or Sessions might be forced to resign, but Trump will escape with his supporters in tack. Not necessarily because he is innocent, but because the standard which needs to be attained for obstruction is not reachable.  Clearly, presidential candidate Trump encouraged the hacking of DNC and Clinton emails, perhaps conveniently ignorant of the fact that his election was desired by Putin, but I don't expect there to be any smoking gun to prove that he traded such activity for future easements of the penalties imposed on Russia by the west as a result of the Crimean annexation, as well as those imposed by Obama due to the suspicions of an organized cyber attack during the recent presidential election.

The fact is that Hillary Clinton and the DNC made some critical mistakes in regards to Bernie Sanders during the campaign, provocateurs under the direction of Putin's government disclosed them and Clinton (or Sanders) lost an election she should have won handily.  As a result, there are many democrats looking under any and every rock to delegitimize their loss.

On the other side, we have a president who is such an egoist that he can't fathom the idea that he didn't win the election due to his brilliance.  That he was helped in any way.  It is reflected in his exaggerations about the size of his inaugural crowds, in his constant use of phrases like "the greatest, the best, the most" and in his over riding belief that he alone can solve all the problems that we face. From there, his unwavering supporters quickly move to the premise that anyone against him is against America, any news that contradicts him is fake news.

Sometime I have real sympathy for President Trump.  He won, yet he is constantly on the defense. His attempts to fulfill his campaign promises are thwarted at every turn, and he is expected to be on point at all times, while his tweets are expected to be always factual, more presidential than whatever thought floated into his head at the time.  His behavior is no different from his successful campaign, yet it is no longer working for him.  But then I remember that he spent a number of years questioning the birth nation of ex-President Obama, while he and many of the far right news and media machine took little pains in questioning Obama's love of America in general, and white people in particular. Kharma can be a bitch!!

When it came time to vote last November, I considered Trump and Clinton two sides of the same coin.  Clearly, there is too much money being used to pervert our democracy.  Clinton, as a career politician, represented the perspective that all politicians are self serving, and so many middle class Americans chose to vote for Trump even though, in my mind, he represented the class of rich people who had enabled those greedy politicians to fill their coffers at the expense of the American taxpayer. For me, assuming both had baggage, it came down to the candidate who most shared viewpoints that I deemed most important; climate change, income inequality, access to affordable health insurance and quality health care, and a humane immigration policy.  On those issues, Hillary Clinton was more in line with my values.

Ironically, many Trump supporters thought that electing a successful and rich businessman would help reduce the flow of red ink in Washington and scale back the influence of special interest groups.
Unfortunately, Trump is a novice when it comes to governing, and his many mistakes reflect this learning curve.  Also, he appears to be loyal to those within his circle, but, as they are a reflection of himself, he cannot see their faults.  And, of course, campaigning is far easier than governing.  As a CEO and business icon, Trump is ill prepared to navigate the waters of politics where many opinions and perspectives must be considered when creating policy.

Washington, for all its problems, is not like the business world of a billionaire.  It is not an environment where Trump can "suggest" to an employee that a certain thing must happen without actually saying, knowing it will be "taken care of".  It is not an environment where Trump can dismiss the thoughts of those who disagree with him knowing that, as the boss, it is his way or the highway.  And, even more strangely, it is not an environment where rules can be ignored as long as results are produced.  Perhaps that was one reason that Trump garnered some votes, people tired of politically correct politics and decisions which consider everyone's feelings, but that is precisely the strength of our democracy.  We allow those in the minority, whether it be based on race, religion, political affiliation or gender preference, to have a say.

In the end, the Russian Controversy is just another example of Trump attempting to run America as CEO rather than as president.  We know he had dealings with Russian businesses and Russian banks, just as we know that Exxon Mobil and Rex Tillerson have/had business dealings with Russia.
If there is one thing that is true, it is that the opportunity to make large sums of money trumps politics and national affiliation.  As a private citizen, Donald Trump sought outlets to expand his brand all over the world, Russia included.  If I knew that, through such business ties, Russia would aim their nuclear weapons away from Europe and the United States, I might feel heartened.  But, alas, I think that a win is a win, and if looking away while a foreign entity works to disclose private thoughts of ones' competition while spreading half truths as well, then Machiavelli would be proud.

Sadly, regardless of the outcome of Special Prosecutor Mueller's investigation, both sides will claim victory.  The left will focus on the statement that inappropriate communications did occur but nothing illegal, and the right will celebrate the conclusion that Trump did nothing wrong.  And that is the problem, neither side willing to seek truth regardless of who is at fault, both sides willing to ignore culpability when someone else can be blamed.

Perhaps someday the American voter will stop accepting the concept that it is OK to flaunt the law if you can prove someone else did it as well, will stop believing that our problems can be solved without communication and compromise, and will begin to vote for their interests knowing that no candidate will agree 100% with their perspective, but 7 out of 10 is pretty good.  Of course, telling voters what is in their best interest is the mark of a skilled campaigner, as is connecting with the one issue voter, so actually taking our responsibility more seriously when in the voting booth might be the real, the only answer, to our shared problems.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

America First

The recent decision by President Trump to remove the United States from the Paris Climate Change Agreement, was defended by the President, as well as his supporters, as another example of putting America first.  The specifics of that reasoning seem to center around the requirement for the nations of the developed world to offset the costs of nations in the undeveloped world as they switch from cheaper, but dirtier forms of energy to cleaner but less cost effective methods, as well as the short term cost to the United States for doing the same.  

Strictly speaking, there is logic to such assertions.  Why should the tax payers of Pittsburgh or Des Moines foot the bill for foreign nations to change their energy strategy?  Even more pointedly, why should Americans risk an improving economy by committing to future emission reductions which will harm the existing energy industry, possibly resulting in lost jobs and higher energy costs?

Why indeed?

Perhaps the answer lies in the basis of an America first policy.  Certainly, maintaining the status quo in terms of carbon emissions and greenhouse gasses relieves us from the pressure of thinking about the possible consequences of such actions.  While defending the status quo is not generally a rallying cry for a populist movement, such as the one which resulted in Trump's election, it is certainly easily justifiable if one assumes change will be disruptive.  When America First translates into going it alone, without the cooperation of other countries, then there is very little reason to engage in any cooperative enterprise because cooperation with others necessitates compromise.  

This mantra should not be surprising as we try to understand our President's logic; time after time during the campaign and since his inauguration, Trump has repeatedly claimed that he alone could fix our problems.  It is reflected in his comments about the Middle East situation being not that hard to resolve, in his comments about how surprised he was that health care is so complicated, and even his admission that being president is much harder that he thought.  When one is used to making a decision then having zero negative feedback on its merits, when one is used to working with people whose only goal is to tell you how wonderful you and your ideas are, when one is able to fall back on unbalanced tax laws that enable you to write off your mistakes while raking in as much as possible when successful,  America First is just an extension of Donald Trump first.

But that doesn't necessarily mean that this decision is unwise.  The real question is, does reducing greenhouse gasses by moving away from fossil fuels to more greener energy sources, put America first?  

If you believe that climate change is the biggest challenge facing America, and the world, then any program that reduces our carbon emissions places the short and long term interests of America first. Put another way, the costs of doing nothing far outweigh the cost of working gradually, so that short term expenses can be spread out over time and be less intrusive.  What seems ironic to me is that even if you believe that the rising temperature of the earth is natural, part of a cycle beyond the capacity of man to influence, it is still true that the earth is warming.  Again then, wouldn't a plan which helps to minimize the effects of such warming, flooding of coastal cities, changing weather patterns, alterations of growing seasons, etc, place America First?  

Pulling out of the Paris agreement and then proposing a more specifics driven plan to address the changing climate in a way that will be the most beneficial for America and her citizens might be unpopular abroad but, perhaps acceptable to those of us who believe a strategy is required.  But pretending that there is no future cost for our delays, or worse, that the science is not in yet, smacks more of a strategy aimed at rewarding the fossil fuel industry for its campaign donations.  

But there is more to this America First philosophy that troubles me.  Clearly the name itself, America First, is hard to counter.  Why wouldn't we want to place America First?  Of course, actually placing America First and just talking about it are two different things, but perhaps it is the ease at which the America First doctrine is accepted that is the real danger.

History, even recent history in the form of the Patriot Act, teaches us that too large a percentage of the population judges a program or policy based on its name, not its content.  The fact that the Patriot Act, among other things, authorized the interception and accumulation of emails, telephone calls, and other forms of communications of the American people by the government was buried in the vast number of pages of that law.  Perhaps justified in our war on terrorism, but buried nonetheless so as not to glaringly contradict the name of the act.  Had it been called the Advanced Surveillance Act of American Citizens it may not have garnered as much support!

As those born in the early 20th century continue to pass from our lives, we are being inundated with a lot of articles about this "greatest generation" who were called upon to suffer not only the horrible days of the Great Depression, but to actively fight (and die) in the world wide effort to defeat Hitler and the Nazis.  One might argue that they placed America First, if we surmise that they knew that should Europe fall, so then might the United States.  But we call them the greatest generation because they accepted the sacrifices demanded, to save all of humanity; it wasn't in answer to cries of America First that inspired the millions of young men and women to serve in WW2.

America First feeds from the hubris that only America can solve the problems of the world, just as it feeds from the hubris that President Trump knows more about wars than the generals.  Sadly, once the American people fully internalize such a belief, it is easy to appeal to the more damaging concepts of isolationism, nationalism, xenophobia, and outright prejudice against anything not American.

What is truly unfortunate is that we have seen this play before.  It was rampant nationalism that helped fuel the two World Wars.  But it was nations cooperating which produced the defeat of those who, at the time, rallied to one man's views on the superiority of the Aryan race, the greatness of the Fatherland, and the importance of ridding the earth of those he found inferior.

The Paris Climate Accord was not a perfect document, as few, if any documents are that are signed by as varied a group as was represented by the 195 signatories.  But, it is perhaps the first document whose sole aim is to provide an agreed upon set of guidelines for combating a problem that threatens the entire planet.  The first Earth First document, one might say.  

It can be said that the greatest generation understood the challenge, understood the short term costs and sacrifices needed to overcome that challenge, and still rushed headlong into the fray.  I hope that our backwards slide to a more selfish perspective is brief and someday, hopefully soon, the next greatest generation will emerge, a generation able to understand and dismiss the limits of America First, and embrace a larger viewpoint that puts Earth First.