Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Individual vs Group Success

Interesting article in the June National Geographic called "Greed vs the Common Good" written by Dylan Selterman, psychology teacher for undergrads at the University of Maryland.  The article is based on the reaction of Selterman's students to his offer of extra credit points on their term papers.

The origin of Selterman's exercise was inspired by an address delivered by Garrett Hardin 50 years ago which described what Hardin termed "the tragedy of the commons", which explains Hardin's belief that when many individuals act in their own self-interest without regard for society, the effects can be catastrophic.  (For more info, simply google "tragedy of the commons" and you will find many resources to read).

Selterman's exercise, which was developed by Professor Steve Drigotas of Johns Hopkins University (and which Selterman experienced as a student), offers each student of the class the option of choosing 2 points or 6 points, but with the proviso that if more than 10% of the students choose 6 points then no points are awarded to anyone.  The theory behind the exercise is to illustrate that extra credit points are analogous to any finite resource, water, land, fuel, etc, and that when too many people take too much of any resource, the community as a whole suffers, but when everyone takes just enough, the resource is sustainable and the society thrives.

Over the years, most of Selterman's classes received no points, as did Selterman's own class when he was a student.  Even after it became known that this exercise was part of the class, the reward was rarely achieved. 

Why can't his students put aside their greed and take the easy two points?  Selterman has concluded that, while he still believes that most people are willing to sacrifice for the common good, it can be very tricky to get people to cooperate, especially in large groups of complete strangers.  Combine that difficulty with the societal pressure to accumulate wealth, and the free market theory that if everyone strives for maximum personal benefit, society as a whole will thrive, it is easy to see why students aren't inclined to think of wealth accumulation as a cooperative goal rather than a personal goal.  It becomes a race to have more than others, not for all people to have more.

Selterman recently added a wrinkle to his exercise, to emphasize the point that despite the lack of cooperation among large groups, the group can still prosper if just a few more individuals act in its interest over their own.  To check this theory, Selterman gave the students a third option, to receive no points.  Each student choosing zero points would cancel out one who chose 6, thereby reducing the percentage, perhaps even to less than 10%.   So far, a higher percentage of classes have earned the extra two points than under the original premise, but this new option has only been used for a few years.  And, success in the classroom is a far cry from success on a global scale. 

Still, the point is clear that everyone can have an impact, that all actions are worthwhile and meaningful because one might never know when you represent the one action (or vote) that makes the difference.
It is a wonderful message that reminds us that we can solve our problems, even when they require a global approach, but that each one of us is responsible to do our part, regardless of how significant (or insignificant) our action may appear.

I too, remain hopeful that a more collective approach, one that attaches value and significance to how prosperity is gained, is achievable, despite the dual threats of America first, and the prestige associated with accumulating individual wealth. 

My hope is that a values based perception will gradually alter our adoration for those with riches beyond what any individual needs, resulting in a judgement of the super rich to include the harm that accumulated individual wealth does to society as a whole.  It seems obvious that there is no justification for one percent of a population to enjoy 50% (or more) of the fruits of a group's efforts, yet that is what capitalism without morals or restrictions can produce.  Add to that the popular viewpoint that tribalism is patriotism, and the motivation for any individual for self-sacrifice is limited at best, completely eliminated at worst. 

The unfortunate problem is that it is most often those with the most accumulated wealth, those for whom dog eat dog, or survival of the fittest, or any other such trite saying that rewards selfishness, backstabbing, and success no matter the cost, use that very same wealth and power to convince the everyday person that only the rich know how to handle money (trickle down economics), that only deals that advantage us should be signed (the art of the deal), and that all of our problems are the result of other groups (the Wall) which discourages cooperation, foments distrust, and makes solving the BIG problems of climate change, income inequality, and poverty all the more daunting.

Sometimes I wonder why Death is the not the great equalizer for theories that rejoice over individual accomplishments but downplay communal ones.  After all, in the end, everyone dies, regardless of how many homes, or cars or wives you collect.  And, very few religions teach that the richer you are, the better the afterlife you will earn.  One might even say that most religions teach the opposite. 

Perhaps the answer to why Selterman's students don't often take the easy two points is the same for why we delude ourselves into thinking that during the 80 or so years we exist in our lifetime, as compared to all eternity, he who has the most toys wins is a valid hypothesis.  This may simply be a function of the fact that homo sapiens have only existed a few hundred thousand years, as compared to a universe billions of years old.  We are infants, still understanding our role in the cosmos, still exploring our relationship with ourselves, our fellow travelers, and our Creator.

Let's hope we give ourselves the time and the chance to discover some real answers and develop some longer lasting priorities.

Thursday, May 17, 2018


This morning I encountered a sidebar discussion called The Rights of Things in the Laphams Quartterly called Rule of Law.  It reviewed 10 situations in which the rights of "things" were debated, either through theoretical articles or actual law suits.

The 10 things were: Artificial Intelligence, the Whanganui River, frozen embryos, apes, trees, corporations, cetaceans, a monkey selfie, autonomous cars, and zombies.

A few thoughts.

Obviously, those that involved lawsuits for "things" that were not human, the monkey selfie, apes, cetaceans, the Whanganui River, and the frozen embryos, were filed on behalf of those things by humans in an attempt to acquire rights for those things. 

In the case of the river, a New Zealand court granted legal personhood thereby giving the river recognized rights as to how it is used, or abused, and which led to other rivers receiving personhood as well, something I did not know.

The rights of Great apes were first recognized, also in New Zealand in 1999, and in Spain in 2008.  A number of lawsuits aimed to protect specific cetaceans, and the entire class as a whole have been unsuccessful in the United States.  The monkey selfie was ruled to be "owned" by neither the monkey or the human who owned the camera used by the monkey.

The bit on trees was from a comment by a legal scholar who believed that trees might be an example of a natural object that could be recognized as having legally protected interests, an opinion reflected in the fact that there is a white oak tree in Athens, Georgia that, legend claims has ownership of itself, and for which that status is recognized by the local government, not state or federal, however.

In the case of the frozen embryos, Louisiana, in 1999,  designated that ex utero embryos are "judicial persons" that can sue and be sued.  When a group attempted to sue, on behalf of the embryos, the woman from whom the embryos were harvested because she decided not to use them (decided to destroy them, in other words), the courts ruled against the group, but only because the embryos had been created in California, and were therefor citizens of that state.

The paragraphs on AI, zombies and autonomous cars were comments by legal theorists on the possibility that some types of rights or personhood may eventually be granted to these "thing". For AI, perhaps some form of First Amendment protection, for autonomous cars, a legal recognition as nonhuman entities so they might carry insurance like human drivers, and for zombies a similar designation, perhaps suspended personhood, which might protect and hold them to certain legal obligations,

And then there is the corporation.

First, it seems to be the ultimate expression of arrogance by humans that, while granting rights or personhood to "things" that God created, such as rivers, apes, cetaceans, and trees, most likely seems ludicrous to a majority of people, granting the same rights to a man made entity, the corporation, doesn't provoke the same befuddlement. 

The idea that the corporation can hold property, enter into contracts, sue and be sued seems almost second nature, even though if you think about it for a second, you realize that the idea that one can divert responsibility for ones actions to an entity created out of nothing seems much more ridiculous than a monkey owning a picture of itself.  Why then do we accept this fact as obvious, even indisputable?  First, it might surprise you to know (it surprised me) that the Supreme Court established in 1886 that corporations are protected under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.  (To refresh your memory, the 14th Amendment addresses citizenship rights and equal protection laws and was proposed in response to issues related to former slaves following the Civil War.) 

I know it is fashionable to pretend to know what the founders were thinking when they created those wonderful documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and its Amendments so I won't engage in such speculation.  I feel very certain that this amendment was conceptualized in the smoke filled rooms of the super rich of the late 19th century who required a legal way to continue to amass their fortunes, a legal way, set in what one might call the stone of our democracy, the Constitution.  In essence, an iron clad way for rich people to protect their wealth and property.  And, even more insidious, to protect them from their greed and incompetence when the corporation fails or engages in illegal acts. 

Wow, what a coup!

And, of course, we come to the 2010 Citizens United decision which, based on the precedent that corporations have legal rights, rules that restrictions on campaign spending is a violation of the first amendment, freedom of speech.

The coup de grace!!

I am not sure how I feel about granting personhood to animals or rivers.  Clearly, it seems that we need some type of legal protection for the various entities on planet Earth, and the planet itself, due to the rampant greed that has created an entire legal cottage industry whereupon mankind uses and abuses whatever is necessary to make a profit.  If we assume our planet, our universe was made by the Creator, and that all the inhabitants, human as well as animal, the plants, the land itself, then one would think that it follows that we would revere the scope and breadth of this creation and not need laws to prevent us from spewing harmful vapors into the atmosphere and garbage into the oceans. 

Perhaps, some day, as we evolve to truly understand the gift that She has given us, we might consider such times when the existence of the Environmental Protection Agency was even necessary, yet alone assailed by its purported administrator and his president, as a time of great barbarism and backwardness.
For now, I applaud all those idealists who fight for legal protections of our fellow inhabitants on Earth, and our environment, who file lawsuits on behalf of the life all around us who do not have access to and representation within our legal system, and I vehemently disagree with those who expect me to accept the current state of the law of the land that has granted personhood to the corporation, an entity that can be created merely with a piece of paper and a signature.


Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Women in Charge

Not sure if I have mentioned it, but the Spring Edition of Lapham's Quarterly is titled Rule of Law.  So many interesting reflections on this topic, but today's post concerns two excerpts, one from a book and one from an address at the Third National Conference of Women of Color and the Law at Stanford University, written by women.

The first is from Birth Control Laws by Mary Ware Dennett,  For those of you unfamiliar with Dennett (and you can count me in that group), she was a contemporary and often time critic of Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood.  While both women advocated birth control for women, Sanger favored women accessing such control through the medical profession, while Dennett feared this restriction would limit access, especially among women in lower economic situations. 

Dennett's book attacks birth control laws from two fronts; that controlling the size of one's family, and all the issues involved in having children, economic, social, religious, etc, suggests that there should be no laws against birth control, and second, most birth control laws, especially those that prevent the dissemination of information about contraception by labeling them pornographic, are much more about society's perception of sex than about family planning.  (Dennett was arrested and convicted of mailing obscene material under the Comstock Act, but the ruling was overturned by a judge who deemed her pamphlets educational and scientifically accurate). 

The excerpt from the address is from Angela Y. Davis', activist and professor who spent time in jail while on trial for murder.  Her reflections about the law and the justice system make a number of points about how the law is used disproportionately against those of color, and those of the female gender.  Her time in jail, and afterwards in meeting with incarcerated women, paint us a picture of far too many people who, while guilty of criminal activity, are subjected to far more severe sentences than those with money or influence.  And worse, that the circumstances that might compel such criminal activity, again, while not justifying the action, remain ignored so that a woman with few, if any positive choices, turn to crime to support their families, or drugs to mask the nature of their impoverishment.

Davis was attempting to remind those future lawyers that it is not enough to understand the law.  One must understand the social conditions that define those people of color that find themselves at odds with the justice system. 

Which brings us to Pennsylvania politics.

Yesterday was primary day in Pennsylvania, a day like most others except that perhaps one if five registered voters also stopped at their local polling center.  For those of you who live in Pennsylvania, you may already know the dismal facts about the dearth of elected women in our political system.
For the rest of you, the statistics are disheartening. 

No woman has ever been elected Governor.  (Pennsylvania is among the majority here, as only 23 states have elected a female governor),

No woman has ever been elected Senator.  (Again, Pennsylvania is not alone; only 24 states' electorates have seen fit to elect a woman Senator.  However, Pennsylvania is one of only 14 states to have never elected either a female Governor or Senator).

Only seven women have been elected to serve in Congress, in the US House, and three of them were chosen in special elections after the death of their husbands.  Currently there are zero women representing Pa in Washington, the last being in 2015.

Woman don't fare much better in Harrisburg either.  Currently, Pa ranks 38th out of 50 in terms of % of women serving in office in state legislatures.

It is truly sad that in a nation which celebrates its stand for freedom and equality, that our record on female leadership in government is so dismal.  We barely crack the top 100 in rating I found.  And, of course, we have never elected a female president.  So, why is this so important? 

We are a representative democracy, emphasis on representative.  If those who make our laws, who are lobbied to alter existing laws, who decide which laws even to consider to vote on, are one dimensional in their ethnicity, gender, background, economic standing, etc, then our government will only represent that particular bias.  If women, or minorities, or any subset of our democracy has little or no access to the workings of our government, then we the people will suffer for its lack of diversity.

But, the times they are a changing.  Whether we credit the election of President Trump and his seemingly anti-women persona and agenda, or the fact that women have begun to break the glass ceilings which limited their rise in business, or the belief that women should not be limited because they are the primary care givers at home, women are seeking office in rising numbers.

For me, it seems plain enough that if we are interested in electing officials who understand the day to day struggles that American families face, we must vote for the true multi-taskers of our society, those who are expected to nurture our children, stroke the egos of the men, and keep the economy and structure of the family intact.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

States of Mind

I thought I might touch one last time on the Lapham's edition called States of Mind.  It is odd, as I reflect and glance through the edition, that I was expecting more from the essays and excerpts collected therein, yet was not disappointed once I finished.  As if I absorbed a state of mind from reading reflections on the subject gleaned from the best attempts to discuss said subject, a state of mind that reminds me that while history might recall past events, it also changes as time passes due to a change in perspective of those writing and reading history, and that if we accept that history is not static but a dynamic and evolving picture of events that have already taken place, then situational disappointment or elation with a magazine or other piece of literature, or a movie, or an event that just happened or will happen tomorrow, may also turn into the exact opposite response in time.

For instance, one might rightly assume that the marches led by Dr King during the struggle for civil rights, the passage of the Civil Rights Act in the mid-60's, and the elimination of whites only signs on restaurants, toilets and water fountains, might have filled the hearts of many black Americans with the belief that the tide had turned and soon true equality would arrive.  And, one might even conclude that the election of Barrack Obama proved that hope was true.  Yet, we might find that taking the pulse of race relations from the perspective of those who were 30 years old or less in 1964, might indicate that the hoped for progress was surface in its nature, not deep rooted.  That, in fact, the even deeper roots of white supremacy could not be eradicated by demonstrations or a presidential election.  And, if one remembers that history proclaims that slavery ended in 1865, 100 hundred years before marches were still required to obtain equal protection under the law, it seems clear that our collective state of mind, while having evolved past the acceptance of public lynchings, is still restrained by the accumulation of prejudice that has passed through dozens of generations. 

Or perhaps one might examine the euphoria that embraced Germany in the 1930's and 40's, when national pride was successfully stoked by the rhetoric which glorified the fatherland and united German citizens by blaming all its ills on Jews, foreigners and other people "not like us".  And, when the German war machine found success after success in rolling though its neighbors, I imagine that the average citizen was happy that German power and dominance was in show.  Now, of course, the German perspective on the atrocities committed against humanity demonstrates a much different state of mind.

It is in this regard that I, at times, feel sorry for President Trump.  His early morning tweets, his lack of civility towards those that disagree with him, his clear belief that president equates to King, his obvious perception that a women's purpose is to provide sexual release and bear progeny all indicate a person with a state of mind which stalled in its evolution.  Rather than progressing with the majority towards an understanding that all men are created equal does not refer to only white men, he remains stuck in a Mad Men episode.  Worse, all his past successes, actual and manufactured, led him to believe that it was all him, no help from anyone else, which is reflected in his speeches where any accomplishment is his, no mention of any assistance, and any void where a success may not have transpired is filled with a made up one. 

It is almost as if the collective angst felt by white men who, aware of how horribly they have treated anyone not in their white skinned, XY chromosome club, and fearful of how they might be treated  when their majority has passed, drives Trump to proclaim his superiority at every step while degrading anyone who came before him. 

So, what will the state of mind of America look like in 5 years, or 10 or 50?  Will we shake our head at the antics of a president who believed that laws were made for those without the money and influence to sidestep them, or will the successful candidacy of President Trump be another step towards America's experiment with oligarchy at best, fascism at worse.   Hopefully, we will get a glimpse of the answer in 6 months.


Thursday, April 26, 2018


I finished reading the Winter Edition of Lahpam's Quarterly a while back, book-marking a few spots in "States of Mind" for possible future posts.  One in particular was a back-of-the-edition essay written by Damion Searls called The Difficult Task of the Future.  The essay discussed the dilemma faced by Carl Jung after the publication of his seminal work"Psychology of the Unconscious". 

Jung was perplexed that, faced with the exact same evidence and/or same situations, his colleagues in the field of psychologyy often came to divergent conclusions.  For instance, Freud traced everything to the instinctual sex drive, Adler to the ego's lust for power.  Unlike most of us, Jung wanted to examine how he might be imposing his own psychology on his conclusions as he suspected his contemporaries did, and to investigate these disparities.

Self reflection at its apex, one might say.

As described by Searls, Jung began developing a theory in which he concluded that there were two types of people, introvert and extravert (Jung's spelling).  Further, that each type of person was prone to different mental illnesses. and, most importantly, it was fundamentally impossible for a person of one type to rise above the restrictions and characteristics of that type to fully understand someone of the other kind.

This theory, which eventually resulted in Jung's Psychological Types, published in 1921, set forth his beliefs and set off a firestorm of responses as he was essentially saying that there could be no objective truth in psychology (or any belief system for that matter) because all explanations are colored by the psychology of the person creating the conclusion. 

Still, Jung understood that even this schema, created by him, was influenced by his psychology so he set off to find an intellectual sparring partner to help him overcome his prejudices.  To accomplish this herculean task, herculean in that it required Jung to attempt to identify his own biases in light of his conclusions, while also openly listening to the justification of another's different conclusions while also acknowledging that that person also was effected by their own biases, Jung eventually found a psychiatrist named Hans Schmid.

From here, it is best that you do your own research, perhaps by reading Searls essay, or by reading publications by Jung and/or Schmid relating to their correspondences.

For me, Jung's watershed theory seems applicable considering the partisanship of so much of the public debate that is rending our country apart at the seams.  For those that support President Trump, any fact which paints him in a light less than brilliant is false, while for those who do not support the President any story which depicts him unfavorably must be true.  Examination of the details is irrelevant, when seen through the eyes of blind support or discontented fervor.

I am just as guilty, despite my efforts to explain to those who have the opposite opinion of our president.  I would like to think that my disagreements with President Trump are due to a vast difference in our opinions on climate change, income inequality, immigration, gender equality, fair treatment for the LGBTQ community, nuclear war, protection of our environment, compassion for other species, and the rule of law, among others, but it is not hard for me to believe any story depicting Trump as a poor human, let alone president, considering my biases against his differing opinions.  Recognizing them is certainly a start, but doesn't make it any easier not to succumb to condemnation without proof, and most assuredly will not allow me to listen to his speeches, or read his tweets, or agree with his nominations or policies without the filter of my biases against his opinions which seem so foreign, dangerous, and occasionally inhumane to me.

So, what to do.

Resist is an easy answer, and a correct one, as long as it is policies we resist, and not just anything that comes from his office.  There will be decisions made by the GOP and President Trump that are positive, and, like the blind squirrel who finds a nut sometimes, we need to be able to recognize those times, just as we hoped that the GOP would have given Obama more of a chance rather that being against everything he proposed. 

On the other side, patience is a virtue and I must acknowledge that the patience shown by President Trump's supporters is impressive.  But please, keep your ears and eyes open.  This much smoke, from the abuse of public funds by some of his cabinet members, to the obvious disdain for any news that does not toe the party line, to the twisted road of money that began with unreleased tax returns, might indicate some fires.  Don't let your eagerness for a wall or an anti-abortion law override your concern for the overall health of America.

And finally, let us all take a cue from Carl Jung and analyze our biases, admit that they effect our opinions, and keep an eye on those opinions that merely reflect preconceived perceptions and not actual facts.


Wednesday, April 25, 2018

More on Income Inequality

In my last post, I discussed income inequality from a historical perspective, or more precisely, from the standpoint that income inequality has always existed, that there is a sweet spot somewhere between too much income in too few hands and the same income (equality of outcomes) for all, and that technology tends to enhance income inequality which does not bode well for the future and its imminent onslaught of medical, robotic, and information advances.

In this post I thought it might be interesting to review the concepts of too much, not enough, and just right as applied to income, spending and possessions.

One of the more insidious aspects of the GOP agenda as it relates to safety nets, is the dual premises that only lazy people need government help, and that "giving" money to the poor creates a dead end cycle of need addressed with hand outs rather than providing the means for self-sufficiency.   This tough love philosophy is reflected in the spate of mandatory drug testing and work requirements being appended to receiving everything from unemployment to disability to Medicare.  And, of course, it is an easy sell to the hardworking middle class who are presented with stories of welfare recipients eating surf and turf, or purchasing big screen TV's. 

Is there welfare fraud?  Are there people taking government checks who could and should be working?  Undoubtedly.   Depending on which source you believe, somewhere between 8-15% of government assistance is received in bad faith.  Is that percentage any higher than fraud that takes place in the private sector, among people with incomes far higher than those perpetrating fraud which takes our tax dollars?  From defense contractors overcharging for military funding to doctors and hospitals bilking Medicare and Medicaid to the everyday bribes and slush funds that are used to alter zoning regulations in the construction industry or OSHA regulations in the work place, fraud goes part and parcel with a money driven society. 

The fact that fraud exists at all levels of business, does not justify a poor person from taking welfare when they can work, or an unemployed person receiving unemployment monies while working under the table.  It is one thing to wish to reduce the tax money spent on fraudulent activities, but quite another to pretend that only poor people engage in it.  If we are to conclude that the vast amount of people of means are acquiring their wealth legally, then perhaps we should assign the same attribute to those who seek temporary assistance from the government.  If it is our assertion that rich people have, by and large attained their vast stores of money through immoral and illegal means, that in fact, all people are prone to do so, then shouldn't we be focused more on the billionaires than those receiving $6,000 a year in welfare payments?

But I digress.

When is too much, too much, and not enough actually not enough, and how much is just right?  And how are these amounts relative?

I have maintained that salaries should be capped, just as there should be minimums.  While I have never earned tens of millions of dollars in a year, I would like to believe I could struggle by if I earned only $20 million as opposed to $25 million.  Or even $5 million as opposed to $10 million.  Do those who innovate, create businesses from the ground up, imagine the impossible and then achieve it, do they deserve more for their efforts than most?  Surely, but 100 times more?  1000 times?  1 million times?
If we are to agree that all who work should earn a livable wage, even if that job require the most basic of skills, then it seems pretty easy to cap the salaries of those at the top to more evenly distribute to those in the middle and at the bottom.  Same expense, just less extremes at either end.  Would it not reduce the dependence of the working poor for government assistance, thereby reducing taxes for all?
If, accumulating wealth is the only goal, wealth without limits, then is seems pretty hypocritical for the wealthy to grumble about paying taxes when it is their greed that is partly causing the poor to need assistance in the first place. 

Still, there is some responsibility for those living with less income to spend more wisely.  The newest phone is not a necessity,  200+ cable channels are not required to live.  Some things can be fixed, not automatically replaced.   Does one really need 20 pairs of shoes, or 50 sports tee shirts, or 40 pairs of pants?   Is there something inherently wrong with leftovers, or packing a lunch?  Do we need to buy a 35 pack of bottled water every week, or can we drink from the tap, and if not, how about buying a gallon of water at a time and refilling a water bottle everyday? 

And, why isn't recycling, plastic, glass, cardboard, paper, metal, etc, not a daily habit?

There really is no need for poverty or malnutrition in a country where politicians have $10000 a plate fundraisers merely so they can run for public office.    No need for schools to run out of books or pens when we can manufacture and sell an fighter jet for $1 billion.  No need for lead leaching pipes to slowly poison poor inner city children when we have off shore oil rigs and fracking technology that can remove fossil fuels from the depths beneath our feet.

Income inequality has always existed, but it exists because we choose to tolerate it.  We lack the will to place the welfare of those who have less, were born with less, have been victims of unfortunate accidents, or were simply born the wrong gender, or in the wrong country, or to the wrong parents on an equal footing as our own.  We lack the vision to understand that any one of us, at any time, might find themselves in the exact same position as those we demonize as being lazy, or "takers" or without ambition.

Just right?  It will always be relative to the speaker and the listener.  Just right in Hong Kong is much different than just right in Ames, Iowa, or Sri Lanka, or Bolivia.  Just right might be that second house on the Jersey shore, or a yearly trip to Europe, or a roof that only leaks in really hard rains.  Just right might be pizza every other Friday night, or lobster salad at the club, or meat once a week. 

If just right is impossible to define then perhaps the best way to understand it is to imagine too little, then go from there.   

Too little means working as hard as you can and still not having enough to provide a better life for your children.  Too little is reading about CEO's, athletes, entertainers, hedge fund managers who make as much money in a month as you will make in your life.  Too little is contributing the best you can within a society that rates those efforts as inconsequential.  Too little is how too many people feel when their money runs out before the end of the month, even though it is through their efforts that so many of the rich have accumulated such wealth.

I have generally not been in favor of one issue voters.  People who decide that as long as the candidate agrees with them on one main point, everything else can be overlooked.  It is hard to imagine this philosophy being displayed more pointedly than the support that President Trump receives from the evangelical community.  But perhaps it is time for the American electorate to focus on one issue, income inequality, by voting for the least rich of the candidates, demanding that only public funds be used to pay for election campaigns, and by demanding that the vast resources of America be distributed in such a way that we can maintain our democracy, invest in our schools and infrastructure, eliminate the phrase working poor from our vocabulary, and, perhaps, even the more despicable phrase filthy rich, which connotes more the method of acquiring riches than the toilet habits of those described.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Income inequality

Interesting short article in the March Smithsonian called "The Archaeology of Wealth" which touches upon research which traces the inequality gap back into history, upwards of 11,000 years ago.  The basis of the research is to compare the size of dwellings in archaeological ruins, calculate the Gini coefficient for each, then chart the changes in wealth disparity over time. 

First, what is the Gini coefficient?  In layman's terms, it is a statistical instrument developed by an Italian statistician in the early 20th century and has been generally accepted as a way to measure income/wealth distribution of a nation's residents.  The range is 0 to 1 where 0 represents a perfect distribution of wealth, while a 1 rating indicates that all wealth lies in the hands of a small percentage of the population. 

Second, since this is a statistical representation of a subject, we should be cautious when we assign a value to the results, in that a value of 0 may not necessarily be the ideal, and conversely, a value of 1 may not necessarily be the worst possible result.  Societies perception of wealth and its distribution has changed, and will continue to change as humanity evolves. 

For instance, having all the wealth in the hands of a local land owner with all the surrounding population working a plot of land near their small dwelling, turning over excess harvests to the land owner, might seem extremely unfair to all but the family residing on the top of the hill.  But, perhaps, if the land owner respected the work of those living under his rule, made sure not to leave the peasants, so to speak, with less than they needed, provided a system of rewards so their might be varying degrees of livelihood for those toiling the fields, then such a system, while low on the Gini scale, might result in a positive life for most of those subject to its rules. 

Conversely, a society where everyone has the same wealth but which that wealth is dispersed based on existence as opposed to contribution, may attain a high Gini score but not necessarily result in a satisfying experience for its citizens.

That being said, there is probably a sweet spot on the scale which equates to a society which tolerates some wealth inequality to encourage innovation, ambition, and achievement but without subjecting a significant percentage of its citizens to poverty, lack of opportunity or overt discrimination.

So, what does the article reveal about the research?  There seems to be a trend in that technology accelerates the disparity.  Whether that technology be the attainment of fire, the ability to farm and develop the land, the domestication of animals, or the creation of hedge fund accounts, as technologies develop, wealth distribution becomes skewed.  This, of course, sends a mix signal concerning the rapid advancements that are occurring in medicine, communication, transportation, and robotics.  While we can clearly see that advancing technologies has improved the standards of living for all of Earth's inhabitants, whether it be as simple as my ability to sit at my desk in Perkasie, Pa, and have my thoughts available to anyone on the internet anywhere in the world, or as complex as the effect that  social media has had on documenting atrocities in previously closed societies, or bringing the viewpoints of previously unknown perspectives right to our phones, it is also true that those same advances have created a class of people with wealth greater than entire countries of tens of millions of people.

To me, the question is how do we monitor wealth in our country, our world, to achieve that sweet spot I mention above.  Capitalism provides the means to reward those who put to best use their skills.  It fosters innovation and creativity by providing the positive results, money, possessions, freedom, which encourage even more innovation.  But greed is its main enemy, and when greed infects capitalism through doctrines that advocate selfishness and tribalism, capitalism can quickly produce a society high on the Gini scale and low on values that separate us from our animal heredity. 

Nora and I have been watching the new HBO series called Here and Now.  One of the characters, a friend of the lead couple of the show, Audrey and Greg, is known to them from their college days of anti-establishment protests.  Now, while he is trying to help Audrey in her attempts to teach compassion and understanding at a time when conflict and vitriol seems the norm, it becomes known that his wealth has been partially attained through his use of third world labor that features harsh working conditions.  Audrey is aghast at this revelation, wondering how such an idealist (past) could justify engaging in such abuse of fellow humans to make his fortune while he has long ago convinced himself that the wages he pays are and improvement, and that through their (cheap) labor he is providing millions of Americans with cheaper products, and that if he didn't do it someone even less nice than he, would be doing it.  And, of course, he believes that funding Audrey's positive programs somehow washes him clean of his human abuse, and that the two dramatically different ways he treats people evens out in the end. 

Socialism for all its suppression of individual achievement, can also act as a conscious and regulator to capitalism that runs amok.   Whether it be through programs for the most needy, safety nets for the aged and infirmed, or temporary assistance when unforeseen events occur, a socialistic outlook that recognizes our duty to take care of each other, especially those that are unable to take care of themselves, is a necessary filter through which we must gauge our capitalistic tendencies. 

Images of income inequality when shown to us through the horrible examples of third world countries where the leaders live a lavish lifestyle while the children of the poor have bloated stomachs and a one if five chance of death before reaching school age, make us shake our heads, hug our kids and thank god we live in America.  But income inequality reflected through million dollar mega mansions, CEO salaries as compared to minimum wage employees, multi-national companies that pick and choose their home base to pay the least taxes, and public servants that spit in the face of the electorate by using their positions to gain even more wealth and resources while dehumanizing those who turn to the government, we the people, for some aid, we somehow accept as a way to make America better.

The Gini scale indicates that the United States has a poor grade in the area of income inequality.  We can do better, we must do better, before we find ourselves in a future filled with wonderful innovations that only a small percentage of Americans enjoy. 


Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Green Energy in Texas

Among the articles in the April Smithsonian was an interesting piece about the most populous city in America that is fully powered by renewable energy sources.  While the city that previously held the title, Burlington, Vermont, home to Senator Bernie Sanders, is no surprise, the current leader is a city of 67,000 people located in Texas.  Yes, Texas.

The article details how the mayor of Georgetown, Texas, a lifelong Republican, did the math after becoming mayor in 2014, and within 2 years Georgetown was completely powered by wind and solar energy.  What is even more startling is that Georgetown isn't producing this energy on its own, but is purchasing the power from Adrian, Texas, 500 miles away, and Fort Stockton, Texas, 340 miles distant.

There are two keys to this situation,  First, Georgetown owns the utility company that serves the city, so it can negotiate and purchase from suppliers without interference from a mega utility or some such middleman.  Second, and even more vital, Texas has invested heavily in expanding its network of transmission lines, without which long distance deals to buy energy would not exist.

Of course, powering a much larger city with renewable energy sources only would be much more difficult and take more time, which is why cities like Atlanta has set its goal to be entirely powered in this fashion by 2035, San Francisco by 2030.  But the point is that it can be done, if we plan, begin investing in the infrastructure now, and continue to monitor progress.  Yes, it will take long term thinking, unlike Mayor Ross's two year plan, but will reap huge benefits in money savings, a cleaner environment, and a reduced entanglement with the areas of the world that provide most of our fossil fuels.   

And, oh yes, more jobs.

Because, as the article also details, investment in clean energy has surged in the last decade, topping $50 billion each of the last four, as has the number of employees working in the wind and solar industries.  As of 2016, there were about 50,000 employees in the coal industry, a little over 100,000 in the wind industry and over 250,000 in the solar industry. 

Lest you think that it is only blue states that are increasing their percentage of electricity derived from renewable fuels, as of 2016, Iowa was #1, followed by South Dakota, Kansas and Oklahoma with North Dakota, Minnesota and Nevada also in the top 10.  Andy, before you claim it can only be done by the less populated states, California is 5th and Texas 14th on the list.

To me, what it comes down to is the political will to "do the math", a paradigm shift that embraces the change to renewable energy sources rather than fighting it or claiming it is not possible, and, perhaps most important in these times of conflict rather than cooperation and the resurgence of tribal thinking that focuses on us vs them rather than we, the belief that we can harness nature without destroying it, reorganize our economy with minimal upset, and create policies that focus on results more so than the origin of the idea, individual, party or country.


Thursday, March 29, 2018

Race and ethnicity

Just about through the April edition of National Geographic, an issue devoted entirely to discussing race and ethnicity.  The issue touches on all the hot topics, how race divides us, how race effects our actions and perspectives, white majority angst, the growing acceptance of interracial marriage, the disparity in occurrence of something as simple as vehicle stops by the police, and how the advances of science, especially in the areas of DNA and human genome research may help us individually and collectively evolve our understanding of race, and specifically ethnicity, so that it might become a uniting force rather than an area of conflict.

Of course, reading such a magazine requires one to acknowledge the hidden, yet powerful effect that racism has had throughout America's history.  And it requires an acceptance of the science of our evolution which indicates that we are all descendants of ancestors that came from Africa.  That skin color is an adaptation in response to the need for our bodies to absorb certain benefits from sunlight or to reflect the damaging effects that too much sun can cause.  That, light skin in humans evolved from the dark skinned humans who were the original color our species.

A particularly interesting observation in this edition was the admission by the current editor of Nat Geo that this well regarded magazine was just as guilty of promoting racial stereotypes as most other publications during the first half of the 20th century.  From its depiction of isolated tribes in Africa to its omission of the thriving black middle class in place like Harlem, added to its white readership's beliefs that the black race was one dimensional, different from us.  This example of admitting past wrongs, owning those sins of overt racism as well as hidden racism, sets a wonderful example, and a much stronger starting point to have the necessary discussions about race in America.

It is an encouraging, thoughtful and challenging issue.  Something that is sorely lacking in most of the rhetoric and vitriol that encompasses the majority of discussions about race.

I encourage those of you who might encounter this post, to purchase this issue, or find it at a local library or perhaps even borrow it from a friend or family member.  And for those who do read it, use it as a basis for your future discussions about race, encourage others to read it.  Finally, perhaps if someone among you has access to President Trump, you might encourage him to read it as well.



Wednesday, February 28, 2018

More guns, trained guns, no guns

As a precursor to today's post, I would be remiss if I didn't remind my readers that all posts I create which address what most people debate as the gun control issue, are saved in my blog under the title

Violence Control

I do so, not because I am trying to avoid the phrase gun control, but because it is clear that merely mentioning that phrase causes more ends to conversations as beginnings.  My recommendation for all people who perceive the need for an honest, sensible debate about guns in America, is to begin caching the issue as violence control.  While it is bewildering to me why any sane person believes that rapid fire, military weapons have a place in society, perhaps we can convince them the need to get a handle on the too easily used solution of resorting to violence to address conflict and disagreement.

So, before starting this post, I decided to read some of my other posts so as not to repeat what I have previously stated.  Sadly there were a number to read as many of them were written after previous mass killings.

To paraphrase a testimony given by General Mattis a few years ago during a congressional hearing on funding, he was adamant in stating that insufficient funding of the state department and its job of diplomacy, will result in the need for more funding for bullets and guns.  Conversely, it is not a big jump to the thought that without addressing the messages of our culture that advocate and even glorify violence, we will find ourselves wringing our hands over future mass killings.

Or, as the President has proposed, arming even more people.

So, let's get into it.

The premise is that by arming and properly training more people who are within the "soft" target areas, we will discourage future mass killings as the perpetrators will be reluctant to enter a place where certain death awaits.

Of course, there are a number of assumptions at work here.  First, that the mass killer uses logic to choose his targets (I won't say his or her targets since the vast majority of these people are male), and that death would be a deterrent.  Well, considering that most proponents of new gun control legislation argue that this is a mental health issue, doesn't that eliminate that line of reasoning?  If a mass killer is mentally unstable, the notion that logic is involved in the act is absurd.  And, I would posit that most mass killers are sociopaths at worst, temporarily bereft of any sense of humanity, at best.  If, however, a mass killer is sane, then he certainly knows that there are scant few instances where death or life in prison is not the end result of the act, so either the sane mass killer wants to die or somehow thinks that he will get away with it.  To me, any sane mass killer who believes he will escape justice for such a horrendous act, is probably not sane, revert back to example one.

The second assumption is that, under stress, an armed and specially trained teacher will hit their target.  This seems a bit of a stretch considering that there are many instances when the armed and specially trained among us, police and military personnel, have shot the wrong person.  Death by friendly fire in military conflicts is well documented, among the more famous being the friendly fire death of ex-NFL player Pat Tillman. Even more alarming, most articles about friendly fire deaths also mention the instances of death by one's fellow combatants on purpose which can arise from a lower rank soldier killing one of higher rank, or killing among the soldiers after disputes or fights.  What better place to hide a murder than in war.  And, of course, examples of police officers shooting unarmed citizens, innocents caught in the crossfire, and police using excess force when apprehending suspects, are all too familiar.  Would we therefore expect more or less instances of these errors by teachers who may only ever use their gun for cause once in a lifetime?  Or, in the apparent case of the trained gun on site at the Parkland School, would the armed and specially trained teacher even react in an appropriate way?

Additionally, and I know details of this plan are non-existent at this early stage, would the teacher actually carry a loaded gun in class?  On their person?  Again, are there not enough instances where victims are shot with their own guns when overcome or surprised by a third party?  Would we rethink the plan after the first instance of a teacher or student being killed by the gun assigned to protect the class, or would it take two instances?  Three?  Or, if, like those in the military who, under duress, use the cover of war to mask an non-authorized shooting, how do we react if an armed and specially trained teacher uses his/her gun inappropriately against a fellow teacher, administrator or pain in the ass student.  

Finally, there is the assumption that good people with guns will make the right decisions to use them, and that these armed and specially trained teachers, all certainly good people, will be perfect in this regard.  Huh? Again, we know that our military and police forces are filled with good people who have made poor decisions, or committed bad acts.  Yes, Virginia, good people sometimes do bad things.  Notwithstanding people like Bruce Willis in Death Wish, most relatives of victims are not people we should encourage to mete out justice themselves.  

Not withstanding this logic, lets pretend that specially armed and trained teachers are placed in every school that requests them, or every school if this becomes general practice, and lets further assume an example occurs in which a mass killing is shortened or stopped by one such armed teacher.  Success!!  Do we then move on to other soft targets?  Armed and specially trained ushers at all movie theaters, guides at churches, bouncers at nightclubs, seating helpers at music and sporting events, or any other such places where people congregate?

Many gun rights fight any and all gun control legislation for fear that it might the beginning of a trend to disarm all Americans.  Would a program arming teachers in classrooms be the beginning of arming all Americans?

Do we really want a society in which at any time someone could legally use their concealed weapon to address a situation which they interpret as hostile or dangerous?  Knowing that good people, trained people with guns use them improperly, imagine the result if more people, simply by hitting a few targets in a controlled setting, were armed?  

I saw Paul Ryan on TV talking about the action the House of Representatives might take in response to the most recent mass killing.  He mentioned the culture of violence that I alluded to in this post.  Good for him. But when will he connect our culture of violence with our obscene $600 billion a year military budget? And where is his reference to the fact that our current President uses threats of violence in response to many issues.  The method in which he blithely discusses using nuclear weapons against our enemies is appalling! And his horrendous record of so many ambassadorships being unfilled to the various countries of the world. President Trump seems to be all about, I have the biggest, baddest weapons, so do what I say or else. Does this not contribute to a culture of violence, and perhaps effect a confused teenager who sees violence as the only answer to the problems of his life?  If Ryan wants to truly change our culture from shoot first, talk later, perhaps he needs to take Trump aside and remind him that the perception starts at the top.

Of course, it is not President Donald Trump's fault that a troubled youth in Florida went on a killing spree. For better or worse, we get the leadership we deserve, are led by those we elect.  If our leadership believes that more guns is the answer to violence control, then we need to put up or shut up in the next election.

Without putting too fine a point on it, I also think that the violence control issue is becoming a watershed moment for America and Americans.  Do we really believe that God is on our side when it comes to using violence to address our problems?  Is she really looking down upon us and saying, yes, more guns to the good people, and I will continue to make the bad people shoot poorly.  (Another Hollywood created falsehood; bad guy with machine gun misses every time, good guy with handgun kills with each shot).  Now, clearly, it is difficult to know the reasoning of the Almighty.  Perhaps she allowed us to create weapons of mass destruction as a test.  Perhaps it is just a phase we need to pass through as a society before we achieve a more enlightened state of mind.

But what if there is a revelation on the horizon of mankind's perception that can only be realized when we eschew violence as a means to resolve conflict?  If so, will America be on the forefront, leading the way towards that realization, or will she be holding back the rest of humanity simply because we need to justify spending so much money on "defense"?

The simple fact is, guns make killing people easier, and rapid fire guns easier still.  The 2nd Amendment does not guarantee the right to an assault weapon, only "arms", and we can choose, legislatively, how we define arms without amending or repealing that amendment.  Assault weapons of any type are weapons of violence. I imagine that most Americans would be aghast at using an assault weapon to hunt animals, yet we seem OK with using them to kill our fellow citizens.  There is no other use than for killing, so it seems obvious that we should be adamant in insisting that no citizen should legally possess one as a means of self defense, or, more likely as a means to kill multiple humans.  Similarly, devices like bump stocks which transform a
semi-automatic weapon into a more rapid fire one should be illegal.  Frankly, I am not sure why a citizen needs even a semi-automatic weapon, but we can at least start with those weapons that allow multiple shots to be fired with one pull.

Folks, in this age of instant information, it is quite simple to research firearm ownership and death by firearms.  And just as easily, it is clear that Americans own, per capita, more guns than any other nation, and that we consistently rank in the top 10 for most deaths by firearms.  Each and every year.  We are sacrificing our fellow citizens, and our children, to keep alive the illusion that our founders wanted us to be armed and ready to kill each other, when in fact they wanted us to be armed and ready to defend our nation against foreign invaders.  Happily, we have a well funded military for that, and state and local police forces to protect and serve our communities.

Violence control demands that we identify the tools which are used by both good and bad people to harm and kill Americans, limit and/or eliminate those tools from public access, and follow the example of the vast majority of civilized countries which experience death rates by firearms that are 50, 75, even 90% less than are own.