Monday, May 18, 2015

Looking Forward

A few weeks ago, my wife and I spent the day with friends, walking around Peddlers Village, a local shopping area which features artisan shops, weekend special events, live music, and fattening food, in a pleasant outdoor setting.  At first, the guys accompanied the ladies into the shops, but soon we opted to stay outside and talk.  As usual, our conversation ranged from the metaphysical to sports to politics to religion.  In reality, this conversation was merely another chapter in a conversation that began almost 40 years ago, when we would shoot pool all night in his parent's basement, or I would visit him at work during his 11:00PM to 7:00AM shift.  While this recent encounter involved water only, our initial conversations were often enhanced with natural and artificial stimulants.  While my experience with the stereotypical portrayal of using such methods to delve into the deeper concepts of the universe seemed to corroborate the effectiveness of such props, it is also true that our current conversations are as deep, as reflective, as enjoyable as those from the early years, perhaps proving that artificially amplified discussions may be more an excuse to review life's mysteries than a requirement.   In other words, a need to be "not ourselves" to talk seriously.  I assume, of course, that that need is only required when we are young, as if being too serious is not a component of youth.  Also, life experiences, a missing component of those early conversations, often causes changes, sometimes profound changes, to our perspective, all too often leading to the decline of a relationship, friend or spouse, as points of view diverge.  Finally, sadly, what passes as serious debate in today's partisan environment, occasionally makes me wish that some "smoke" may be mixed into the air of the participants, or a "tab" slipped into their drinks.

As stated above, we had quickly passed into the heavier topics when my friend commented on the darkness of the times we lived in, darkness defined as the absence of awareness, consciousness, even spirituality.  It is easy to see why that opinion might exist.  The radical news outlets on each side, seem to feed on our fears, whether they be of the cataclysmic changes that climate change will bring, or the perceived Big Brother like takeover of our lives by the government.  When once "breaking news" was reserved for assassinations, tsunamis, or airplane crashes, now they are a daily occurrence, ranging from the latest Hollywood star to be arrested to whose leading on DWS to news of the latest "most evil" group of all time.   Worse, good news that effects everyone, is ignored by those whose political opinions differ from the current administration, or by those whose ratings depend on the continuation of "how bad it has become".

Also, and I can't put too fine a point on this, it seems that our current outlook in America (perhaps world-wide) is more negative than positive.  Certainly, compared to the 1950's when nothing was out of reach, no goal to lofty to aim for, no future too rosy to aspire to, there seems to be a cloud of pessimism hanging in the air, an expectation that something wicked this way comes.  If we were to take a psychological position, that negativity begets negativity, then perhaps we are reaping what we sow.  A more cyclical viewpoint might suggest that what we are experiencing today is a natural phenomenon, no more complex than that the pendulum of self-confidence, whether for an individual or a nation, must swing from high to low.  The debate then, is have we reached the nadir of optimism, are still on the downslide, or just beginning to emerge?

My reaction to my friend's assertion, was that we need to look at this on a bigger scale.  That, unlike the incredible technological breakthroughs and advances that we have witnessed in the past few decades, our spiritual evolution is on a much slower incline.  Compare our present day acceptance of people of different races, creeds, country of origin as opposed to the mainstream accepted thinking of a few centuries ago when slavery and genocide ruled the day.  So, while yes, there are still pockets of people who prefer to treat others inhumanely, the general population condemns such behavior.  While it is clear that we, as the population of planet Earth, still have a long way to go, it is also true that we have passed many milestones on our road to the lofty goals of guaranteeing the freedoms of every human and treating them as we would want to be treated. 

And then there is magazines like the Smithsonian.  In the current issue, there are a number of articles detailing the main idea of the issue, why you should be excited about the next decade.  While the details of the concepts center around science and technology, those areas of human endeavor that have always been turned to for solutions to our physical problems, I would like to think that the inspiration to develop such revolutionary devices, whether they be to improve communication, health, availability of food or even entertainment, emanates from man's innate desire to improve the lives of his fellow man.  And, it is that innate desire, which I truly believe in, that has advanced our species to the place we are today and will continue to propel us towards a time when the individual's desire for power, money and fame are balanced with the community's desire for equality, opportunity and freedom.         


Thursday, May 7, 2015

Money, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

When I log onto my computer, the MSN website is displayed first.  I generally glance at the weather for the day, check the state of the stock market, and peruse the "hot" topics, which consist generally of fluff and sensationalism, but occasionally includes something worthwhile.  Today I noticed a blurb about GOP candidate, ex Florida Gov Jeb Bush, and the fact that during his term, state pension money was invested in a video rental company that was known for having an "adult" section in the back of its stores.  Of course, the article used the word porn to attract readers, which, while some adult videos show all forms of sexual intercourse, it is usually of the soft porn type, meant to entertain consenting adults, and generally not hard core pornography that can feature children, bestiality, or violence.

Apparently, Bush did not deny the reports, instead justifying the investment as a way to maximize returns for the Florida taxpayers.  In essence, his excuse was that any vehicle to make money was fine.  I am not a Jeb Bush fan, and, frankly, am not looking forward to a Clinton-Bush presidential election, although I expect that is how it may play out, but I felt a bit sorry for him when I glanced at the article.  (I thought we fought a war, in part, as a protest for government by way of aristocracy, and to me another Bush or Clinton in the White House, belies that fight; it would mean that since 1988, we would have someone of those families as president 24 out of 32 years!)

Unfortunately, for Jeb Bush, the base of his party, loves to inject religion into politics.  Which, of course, is the height of irony since they despise those countries which feature the Muslim religion as a main force of their government.  Oh, that's right.  I forgot that the Christian right is OK with religion in government, as long as it is the religion they follow.  Anyway, poor Jeb is taking some heat from the religious right for contributing to the corruption of Floridians morals, by investing in a company that sells/rents such videos.  My previous prediction not withstanding, it seems clear that the evangelical block of the GOP will not support Bush in the primaries, especially when candidates such as Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee and the soon to announce Rick Santorum are running.  I expect, however, that those far right candidates will split the my-religion-is-the-best-of-all-religions voters, Bush will attract the big money from donors who want to actually have a shot at winning the White House, and voila, we are back to Bush-Clinton.

By the way, is it me or did those who are so upset about the investment in that video company, skip right over those movies that have wonton violence, huge amounts of gunplay, and murder.  I guess the lesson here is that a good killing is fine, but good lovemaking corrupts our morals.   

But I digress.

The point of this post was to comment on money, investing, and how much we are willing to compromise to gain wealth at any cost.  I am serious when I say that it is not an easy decision to forego profit, returns, perhaps even future financial security, when making choices about a job, an investment, or even the course of the nation.  For instance, most of us have mutual funds as part of our portfolios, but how many actually read the prospectus for those funds before making our decisions.  Isn't it more likely, we focus on our risk tolerance, check past returns, then choose according to how much money we may earn.  We may have very strong feelings about the environment, the fossil fuel industry, the proliferation of guns, yet may be investing in those very companies through our mutual funds.  

If you are the type of person who discusses investments, ask yourself how many conversations you have had which centered around socially responsible mutual funds, as opposed to the number of conversations that focused on percentage of  returns.  Like most of us, you either have not thought about investing in mutuals that do not include defense contractors, known polluters, companies that produce most of their product overseas with child labor, or whatever social problem you might feel strongly about, or you have decided long ago that the financial security of you and your family comes first and foremost, and how the money is accumulated is secondary.

Frankly, and don't get me wrong, I am not innocent in this area.  We are all guilty of contributing to the very social ills we deplore, if we are not cognizant of how and where our money is invested.  So, while the very rich can use the excuse that they don't know where all their money is invested, after all, that is why they hire investment planners, they are still guilty of contributing to the social problems of the day, if they do not specify industries, and/or companies that should be avoided, but instead just say, get me 10%, or I will find someone who will.

And that goes doubly for where we spend our money.  When we buy the cheapest things we can, not noticing that those products are made overseas to the detriment of American jobs, when we demand $1 stores in every community, and are ignorant of the fact that cheap products are the result of cheap ingredients and poverty wages, then our righteousness concerning those companies that produce and sell those cheap products is misplaced.  It is the person in the mirror who is at fault.

It is easy to get mad at those perpetrators of scams that target grand moms with stories of grand children in trouble who need wire transfers, but what about those who have attained great wealth, not through great ideas and innovations, but through the abuse of employees and the rape of the land.  Do we have a scale that measures wealth and considers the source, or once wealthy, does it not matter how that wealth was accumulated?

But how can we possibly know how all those companies, all those wealthy people came to be rich?  Good question.  And, before the explosion of social media, I would have said, it can be tough.  But, when someone slaps their child and a million people know about it a few days later, it is clear that we have the vehicle.  The bigger question is, do our journalists, our news media outlets, our social networks, spend the time to dig into the important questions, track the dollars, so to speak.  Or, are our media giants bombarding us with information meant to distract us from the real data we need to know.  Is it coincidence that so much of our news is fluff and sensationalistic in nature, or the very distraction necessary to keep us from knowing what we should know.

Money, like all inventions of mankind, can be used for good and for bad.  And, despite what some who are devotees of capitalism might say, some money, some wealth, is accumulated, and used for very wrong reasons, to the detriment of people, not their benefit.  Now, I will admit that sometimes I go too far, mislabeling all those that are rich as someone who must have twisted the rules to their benefit, stepped on the backs of many to gain their advantage, or just paid some politician to make  legal all they do that is unethical.  There are clearly people who have used, and continue to use their wealth to help those in need.  To those philanthropists, kudos for knowing the point of wealth, that, like all tools, it should be used to advance mankind, not be accumulated for its own sake.

But, in the end, it all starts with us.  Like electing public servants that will do the will of the people, keeping our neighborhoods safe and clean, rewarding those corporations and people who do good rather than promote violence and greed, each of us has the responsibility to make conscious choices, and understand the repercussions of those choices. 

I recently heard a phrase on a movie that I know I heard before as I have seen the movie many times before, Bull Durham but didn't really hear.  The phrase was "the world was made for people who are not cursed with self awareness".  Perhaps, with a little bit of effort, we might hear someone say some day, "the world has been remade by those with self awareness".

Thursday, April 30, 2015

God given rights

Protesting against various government actions or laws is nothing new.  In fact, you might even call it  tradition in America, part of the founding of our country.  From marches organized to shed light on a problem, to demonstrations against established policy, to specific reactions to specific instances, Americans have exercised our civil rights to free speech and to assemble since before our founding.

As is true of all people who observe protests without participating, individual reaction and the reporting of these events, depend greatly on one's own perspective of the group and its method of protest, and the actual topic of dissent.  Clearly, the recent reaction in Baltimore to yet another death of a black man at the hands of the police, is viewed by most people, including myself, as an inappropriate response to a tragic situation.  We acknowledge the right of people to be angry at police abuse, but disagree with violence as the vehicle to express this anger.  As is so often the case, a legitimate complaint is overshadowed by the reaction, hence the root of the problem is not addressed.

Perhaps I am wrong in saying this, but it seems that during the Obama Presidential years, there has been an increase in the sentiment that our rights originate from God, not the government.  Whether the upsurge of this belief is related to the misinformation that the president is a Muslim, or merely that, like all Democrats, he is portrayed as proponent of BIG government, especially as it is perceived that BIG government functions by chipping away at our rights, it seems that this sentiment is much more pervasive now than during President Bush's 2 terms, even though provisions of the Patriot Act, which was enacted during his presidency, are considered by some as the most blatant example of infringement of our right to privacy in the history of our country.  

I do not mean to say that the phrase God given rights, or inalienable rights as they are referred to in our Constitution, is something new, only that its use seems to be on the rise.  Clearly, should you have the time and the inclination, research on this topic would produce information and input ranging beyond Aristotle to the ancient Zoroastrian religion, through the Middle Ages when the Magna Carta was used to combat the "divine" right to rule, and culminate in the Age of Enlightenment when minds such as Luther, Locke, Hobbes (among many others) postulated on the concepts of legal rights, natural rights, the difference between them and their source. 

At the end of the day, the question seems to be, what commonalities can be found among this large volume of information.  And, in practical terms, what are we willing to sacrifice in terms of our rights in order to function in a society which includes a myriad of interpretations of what those rights are and what they mean.

For instance, once born, the right to life seems universal.  By definition then, any version of slavery should contradict the right to life as someone under the yoke of slavery does not have the freedom to conduct his life as he wants.  Yet, many of our founders were slave holders.  They considered their slaves as less than human, hence not covered under the inalienable rights they declared existed.  (Or, to be cynical, they knew that slavery, while inherently wrong, was an important ingredient to the economic well being of the times). 

Assuming though, that we have moved on (evolved?) on slavery, the next common tenet seems to be the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness, i,e, doing what you like.  Contrary to what might seem obvious, doing what you like is a great responsibility, because it assumes that in doing so you do not impinge upon someone else's rights.  I want to listen to loud music late at night, yet I understand that my neighbor has the right to a good night's sleep, so either I sacrifice my right to loud music at night or I move to a home without neighbors.  This might seem like a simple example, but imagine how this thinking pertains to marriage laws, gun laws, acts of discrimination that one's religion seems to uphold, what to teach our children, how to form our government.  It is so much more complicated than holding a sign at a rally.

Frankly, I am both a huge believer and complete non-believer in the concept of rights as given by God.  A huge believer in that I advocate the least amount of restrictions on one's time on earth to understand our uniqueness, and common ancestry with all other earthlings, to understand how we can optimize our talents while helping others do the same, and to figure our what it takes to be the best person possible while leaving the earth a better place once we are gone.  If there is a creator, I would like to think that philosophy would be acceptable. 

But more likely, we have been left to our own devices.  The rights we create to live for and live by, are our own creations.  Aligning them with god, generally results in rights that are parceled to those who follow a particular religion, or worse, away from those whom that religion has determined to be outside their god's circle of love.  

And, as for our rights not coming from government, but from God, it would be comical, if it weren't so commonly misquoted.  During the vast majority of our history, most humans have existed at the whim of the person, family, or group with the money, power and might.  They were ruled, at best, where ruled denotes some measure of consideration to their needs.  Remember, while philosophers may have grappled with the concepts of freedom and liberty through history, the idea of a government formed with those tenets as its base, is very new to humankind.  You might even say we are infants in terms of our experience with the ideas.  Does that mean that god decided to wait a couple hundred thousand years before deigning us with those rights, or more likely, did it take our species that long to arrive at the point where we were civilized enough to recognize the truth?

Remember that even today, 2015 years since the demarcation of time from BC to AD, tens of thousands of years since the great civilizations of the Far East and the Americas, there are governments that still divide its citizens into those with rights and those without.  Understanding that only through the rule of law where the law protects the weak, the disadvantaged, those without resource and influence, and through the creation of governments which uphold those laws, can our rights as citizens of a society, and as individuals within that society, be granted, and more importantly, defended.


Thursday, April 23, 2015

Happy Earth Day

I know I am a day late with this post, but yesterday was one of those days where I worked my full time job (1:00-915 PM) then went straight to my part time job (10:00-3:00AM).  In fact, I apologize again in that I know I often comment on the state of the earth, especially in regards to those who choose to not see the damage we have wrought, but I did not see a label for any previous post that referred to Earth Day specifically, or even the environment, in general.  Hopefully this post will make up for that oversight.

Before I begin, I did a bit of research on Earth Day.  I was looking for the environmental factors present in the 1960's that inspired the first Earth Day in 1970.  Of course, as I have previously mentioned, Rachel Carson's 1962 release of Silent Spring which detailed the widespread damage that had been caused to multiple levels of the food chain and the environment from the use of the pesticide DDT could be argued as the starting point.  But a quick "google" of environmental disasters which occurred post World War 2, includes, but is in no way encompassing, such problems as the Centralia, PA mine fire (still burning today), mercury poisoning from industrial dumping which caused Minamata disease in Japan, dangerous smog levels in most large US cities, including one particularly dangerous episode in New York City in 1966 which killed about 80 people, and the spontaneous ignition of the Cuyahoga River in 1969 in Cleveland from unstable chemical effluents.

If the 1960's was a decade of environmental awareness coming to a head, the 1970's might be classified as the decade where activism began.  Environmental regulations passed in the late 60's were now being used to identify polluters and hold them accountable.  Groups such as the Sierra Club, Wilderness Society and Greenpeace saw their memberships skyrocket, as their visible confrontations with polluters became national headlines.  Also, the iconic picture entitled the Blue Marble, taken by the astronauts of the 1972 Apollo 17 mission, focused attention on the beauty of our planet, the concept that it is our only home, and the fragility of its existence.  

Of course, opposition to this movement was also galvanized, funded in large part by the polluters themselves.  One interesting item I read involved the Communist connection to the environmental movement that was touted by those against these defenders of the earth, as the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970 was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Vladimir Lenin.  It should come as no surprise then that even today, those advocating for the health of the Earth are sometimes portrayed as anti-American and anti-capitalism.  Nor should it come as any surprise that the "debate" over climate change is being waged with science and environmentalists on one side and the fossil fuel industry on the other.

Unfortunately, many of the gains of those early years, were softened during the Reagan Administration, and the uncertain economics of the time.  Jobs became the focus, and the mantra that the job creators (big business) needed less regulation, along with the belief that everyone would prosper if the large corporations prospered (trickle down economics), ruled the day.  (The fact that the  30 plus years since has demonstrated that allowing big business to prosper resulted in a shift in economic strength from the middle class to the rich, is a sad byproduct to all those years of ignoring our environmental responsibility).  The further efforts that continue to be made by our public servants in Congress today to weaken federal environmental laws, fueled by big monied interests and that insidious Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court, speak poorly of a generation whose parents recognized the havoc we were causing and erected barriers to reduce that damage. 

Still, all is not lost.  While the forces that would have us continue to rely on fossil fuels for our energy have an advantage, there has been a proliferation of both new environmental organizations, and membership in those groups.  Those under 25 years of age, when surveyed, demonstrate a strong concern for the Earth and a safer environment.  Even the financial industry, historically a bastion for the make-money-however-you-can crowd, has mutual funds for people who care about how their money is invested and are willing to sacrifice returns to support environmentally friendly businesses and innovators. 

And the Earth itself, while certainly bloodied is not bowed.  She has recovered from the ignorance of the original Industrial Revolution when we spoiled air and water for the sake of our mass production businesses.  She took a shot to the chin with the detonation of WW2 nuclear bombs in Japan, and nuclear waste fires and a nuclear plant meltdown in Russia but has managed to recover much of her glory in Japan, and some in Russia.  And, even when she lashes out against us with dangerous storms and tectonic spasms, she always follows up with the promise of a new spring.

So, Happy Earth Day.  For those of you who acknowledged the celebration, thanks.  For those of you too busy to break from your hectic lives, take a look around the next time you are driving past a meadow, or visit a local park.  The grandeur is there to see, if you have eyes to look. 

And, for those who prefer to live in denial, stop cleaning your home, leave the garbage accumulate, dump toxins in your back yard.  Eventually, it may occur to you that, just as poisoning your home environment is not sustainable, neither is poisoning our global environment.  Perhaps then you might alter your view of Earth and see it as our only home, a big, beautiful, blue marble floating in space.


Monday, April 20, 2015

Unbiased News

I recently watched most of the movie "Good Night and Good Luck".  The title reflects the sign-off phrase used by Edward R Murrow at the end of his shows.  I know I have seen the movie before, in its entirety, but only caught the last half this time.  The main thrust of the movie details the shows which Murrow ran (along with his producer, Fred Friendly played by George Clooney who also directed the film) about Senator Joe McCarthy and his hearings to unearth and publicly out communists working in the United States government. 

In retrospect, we have the advantage on knowing that while McCarthy may have found a few communists hiding in our midst, his bullying tactics, his use of accusations without proof, and his apparent belief that only through denying Americans the freedom to choose their political affiliations could America be free, did more harm than good, ruined countless innocent lives, and even led to the suicide of people who were either not guilty of being traitors or were guilty of making foolish choices in their youth.  In the end, McCarthy did become famous, or perhaps infamous, but not because he saved America from an internal nest of communists, but through the term McCarthyism defined in Wikipedia as "the practice of making accusations of subversion or treason without proper regard for evidence. It also means "the practice of making unfair allegations or using unfair investigative techniques, especially in order to restrict dissent or political criticism". 

While many still argue that the Communist Party in America in the 1940's was controlled by Moscow, and that there were indeed Communist spies in our country, it may be said that McCarthy's use of guilt by association to detect those individuals, did far more damage to America by diluting the Constitution and Bill of Rights.  And, while comments such as that made by then president George  W. Bush in regards to the fight against terrorism - "you are either with us or against us", make a good sound bite, and are great fodder for rallying around the flag, I believe that most Americans realize now that the strength of our country is our ability to recognize our differences, to accept that true freedom means acknowledging the rights for others' to express opinions contrary to one's own, and that the more repressive we become to shut out constructive criticism of our country and our policies, the less free we all become.

Which brings me to the point of this post, unbiased news.  First, one may argue that there never has been such an animal, that all news is biased, first through the actual choice of what is reported upon, and second through the presentation, i.e length of time, tone of reporter, background of the story, etc.  That being said, one might counter that the heyday of responsible journalism may have begun during the time of Murrow, and perhaps peaked in the 60's and 70's when the abuses of government and business were revealed through the Watergate scandal, the Pentagon papers, and the release of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. 

Are there more news sources than ever?  Yes, certainly.  But are the breaking stories fact based, important, incisive, or more gossip than news?  And, are the sources legitimate journalists or a one issue fanatic typing away in his basement?  In a previous post, I mentioned Edward Snowden, and a story perhaps just as important to American freedom than those mentioned above, yet coverage of Snowden and the abuses of our individual privacy as legalized through the Patriot Act seem at best ignored, at worst presented as one man's traitorous act against the United States. 

So where can one go for news, that is, the reporting of events without opinion.  I have mentioned more than once that, in my opinion, most shows presented on the Fox channel as news belie the term.  Even the business news which one might think would present facts such as low unemployment, record stock market, strong US dollar, one of the strongest economies in the world, instead presents guest after guest and one statement after the other by Lou Dobbs about how horribly President Obama has run the country.  And, on the other side of the coin, most shows on MSNBC, while not presenting themselves quite as news programs, still lean heavily left and present opinions and stories that reflect well on the president and the Democrats a large percentage of the time.

In the past, major network news anchored by the likes of Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley, and respected  newspapers like the NY Times and Washington Post were trusted sources of news for the general public.  Again, biases existed via the topics chosen to be broadcast and printed, but the news was less colored by opinion, more dependent on fact.  With the pressures of the 24-hour news cycle and the desire to be first with a story, facts seems less important than the presentation and the salaciousness of the story.  Also, and again, I am sure it has always been true, there is a real effort being made by some pseudo-news organizations to present lies as truth, using repetition as a way to increase the likelihood that the lie will be believed.  How many people still believe that President Obama is a Muslim, born in Kenya?

Of course, as I have always said, much of the blame lies in us, the public.  If we are dissatisfied with the news we are getting, we must remember that networks, newspapers, radio stations, magazines, etc distribute such news to make money.  If no one watched, listened or purchased the products, they would not exist.  We get the news we deserve, I guess, and if the news is full of half truths, opinion based "facts", slander, and fluff, then I guess that is what we want.  Add to that the fact that so many of our media sources are owned and operated by corporations and individuals who are wealthy and have an agenda of their own that may or may not coincide with the truth of the news of the day, and it is very easy to understand why so many people do not know Edward Snowden, do not know the vast amount of money being spent on corporate welfare, do not know just how close we are to the tipping point for our environment to change dramatically, do not know how many people our government has killed and continues to kill in the guise of the war on terror, do not know that a scary percentage of our laws are written by lobbyists, and do not know just how insidious our financial system is in regards to providing advantages to those with, and locking out those without. 

Or perhaps, we prefer not to know.  They say that knowledge is power but with power comes responsibility.  Perhaps our problem is that by not knowing we can more easily look to blame.  And, since those controlling our news are very eager to tell us who to blame (and deflect the blame from those truly responsible), then, I guess, the circle is complete.  We prefer to know who the next American Idol will be, and who hates America, and who thinks the cat is going up the stairs rather than down the stairs, but avoid news about serious subjects or subjects that require reflection and thought.  And, as for the most critical problems of the day for which there are no simple answers, well, there is no money in trying to address those issues through a series of programs, and besides, who has the attention span for that anyway?

At the end of "Good Night and Good Luck", parts of Murrow's speech at a news organization function are recreated.  He admonishes the crowd to encourage those in TV to use it as a way to educate, enlighten and entertain Americans, not merely to pander to their most base instincts.  He sees it as a tool, and like all tools, it eventually will be defined as being used for good or bad, and, ultimately, as a way to define the society itself which used it thusly.  I wonder what Murrow would think, specifically of TV now, and in general, the news media as a whole.  I sometimes fear he would say "good luck" but with a sad shake of his head and downcast eyes.  



Thursday, April 9, 2015

Secrecy and Trust

I don't believe I have mentioned this before, but my wife and I enjoy the weekly HBO show hosted by John Oliver called "Last Week Tonight".  In addition to touching on the news of the previous week, his discussion topics are almost always relevant and interesting, especially considering his style; irreverence mixed with humor.  (I believe he cut his teeth on Jon Stewart's Daily Show).

This past week Oliver spent the majority of his show discussing the upcoming renewal of some of the more insidious sections of the Patriot Act, specifically, those sections dealing with the incredible power to collect personal information which was granted to organizations like the NSA.  Amazingly, Oliver punctuated his show with an interview in Moscow with Edward Snowden.  For those of you who don't know Snowden (and according to Oliver's random questioning of people in New York City, that is most of you), Snowden, while working as a consultant for the NSA, discovered then leaked large amounts of information pertaining to how the NSA can, and does, collect personal information from United States Citizens without their consent or knowledge.  In what I thought was some very pointed and specific questioning by Oliver, Snowden discussed his motives, the price he is paying for his revelations (he has been charged with violations of the Espionage Act so will be arrested upon entering the United States), how some of the information he leaked did harm to United States interests, and detailed how (using Oliver's sarcastic dic-pic scenario), the NSA can attain and retain pictures of a man's genitalia through any number of legal means without requiring any specific hint that said man's Johnson is a threat to national security.  While seemingly a silly example, the point is that any and all correspondence generated by US citizens are subject to retention under the various auspices of the Patriot Act.  (I assume that since my blog is viewed overseas, many of my posts may have been netted at some time in the past).

Notwithstanding the sheer scope of this intrusion, I find it interesting how, in the name of protecting freedom and liberty, we allow such violations of both our freedom and liberties.  Of course, it is fear that pushes us to these kind of seemingly contradictory decisions.  Clearly, the events of 911, sent shockwaves through the American psyche which, like a never ending scab, can be picked at and reanimated with the perception of a new threat to our way of life.  How far we will go to protect ourselves from our enemies, how much freedom we will sacrifice to be free, is still to be determined. 

Which brings us to the reauthorization date of June 1st.  Fortunately, through Snowden, organizations like the ACLU, and even comedians like John Oliver, there has been some public discussion on this issue.  Unfortunately, I am convinced that with news reporting that emphasizes the negative events in the world (especially Fox network which then blames the president for all those negative events), many Americans are convinced that this kind of spying is necessary.  I expect to hear any number of people saying "I have nothing to hide so I don't mind".  What many people don't realize is that the government uses companies like Google and Facebook as their deputies, and that while the average American might not have anything to fear when it comes to international espionage, we all have little secrets and indiscretions that we might not want to be made public should the info be dispersed in an unexpected way. 

To me, the bigger issue is who do we trust?  Currently, distrust of the United States government, fueled by the Fox Network's hate the president campaign, has resulted in an unprecedented rise in gun purchasing and ownership, as well as new laws, some proposed, some passed, which allow guns in our schools, public parks, and public rallies.  Some people seem to trust no one, yet somehow believe that if everyone had a gun thereby honoring the 2nd amendment, we would all be safer.  In some circles, we still trust business to do the right thing (through reduced regulations), yet there has also been a meteoric rise in background checks by perspective employers which includes credit checks and review of social media content.  We guard our financial info and identity by (rightly refusing to give out SS numbers over the phone) but routinely purchase products online despite the rash of big time hacking that has compromised many data bases of some large retail companies.   

To me, the interesting thing will be how our elected public servants choose to vote when reauthorization is addressed.  Republicans love national security issues but will be voting for extended powers to a government run by a president they do not trust.  Democrats know in their hearts that these privacy violations are serious but do not like to disagree with the leader of their party.

Curiously, with all this talk about security, a number of Republican lawmakers signed a letter sent to the leaders of Iran advising them that President Obama could not be trusted to comply with any kind of deal which limits Iran's capacity to create a nuclear bomb.  One would think that any treaty, even one with a party that we are reluctant to trust, which would limit the growth of nuclear weapon capability would be universally accepted as a positive step. 

Perhaps, in their constant fear state, some people think it best to allow the proliferation of nuclear weapons while reducing the privacy of American freedoms.  Or they just want to "nuke the bastards", thereby proving to Iran that we couldn't be trusted after all. 


Monday, March 30, 2015

Senate Budget Votes

Last week the US Senate voted on S Con Res 11, the Republican drafted budget for fiscal years
2016-2025, plus a number of amendments to that bill.  Of course, this is not the final budget for those years, as it would need House review and Presidential agreement, but it certainly reflects the current thinking of those elected to this Senate, specifically the Republicans who drafted the bill.

The main bill which passed 52-46 (I guess no need for 60 votes for this kind of bill), included the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, increased military spending, decreased spending on entitlements and domestic programs, a prohibition on tax increases, converting Medicaid and food stamps to state-run block-grant programs, and required an unspecified reform of the tax code.   Not sure why they think the American public still supports spending more money on overseas conflicts and less on our crumbling infrastructure, poverty among working class Americans, and the stagnation of the income and buying power of the middle class, but perhaps the Fox media propaganda machine's ability to inflate the threat of whatever foreign evil they pick for that week actually works in Washington.

One interesting amendment would have enabled the 30-40 million students with interest rates in the 6-7% range to refinance to a more reasonable rate.  While I am sure that most Senators would have liked to pass that amendment, it was to be paid for by a tax on those with at least $1 million in income from salaries and/or investments.  I imagine that the 53 Senators who voted against this, felt that the newest generation of college graduates earning $20-100K per year didn't need the break as much as those earning $20-100K per week.

Another interesting vote adopted an amendment ensuring that all legally married same sex spouses would have access to spousal social security and VA benefits, even if their state of residence did not recognize same sex unions.  Not sure why the 43 Senators who voted against thought that the most loved people of the elderly and men and women who risked their lives for our country didn't deserve such consideration, but I assume their religious beliefs had something to do with it, although I imagine those beliefs do not include the lessons involving "do unto others..".

No surprise that the Senate voted to give the Republican approved budget the authority to prohibit federal taxation of carbon emissions.  I imagine the 58 Senators who voted for that believe that it is OK for the coal and fossil fuel industries to pollute our environment as long as they provide jobs that eventually kill the employees, and contribute large quantities of funds for said Senators election campaigns.

One slightly surprising vote concerned road repairs.  A Democratic amendment sought to allocate $478 billion over the 10 years to road and bridge repairs.  Frankly, I haven't heard anyone, Democratic or Republican, that hasn't admitted that our infrastructure needs major league attention, and fast.  Ah, but how to pay for it?  The defeated amendment, 52-45, would have offset the increased spending by eliminating certain corporate taxes.  Perhaps, since so many of those big corporations have headquarters and offices overseas, they managed to convince those 52 public servants who voted against the plan that they don't use the roads and bridges of America so they don't need to participate in the repair and maintenance. 

In essence, it appears that the current edition of the US Senate, continues to absolve the fossil fuel industry from its involvement in the changing climate and its responsibility to participate in the solution to this problem, values the profits of corporations over the standard if living of the middle class, thinks there religion grants them an excuse for discrimination, and prefers spending obscene amounts of money fighting the devil du jour rather than improving the financial and physical states of the everyday Americans they were elected to serve.

Sadly, the good news is that the Senate budget and votes seem sane compared to the lunacy passed in the House where a 10-year plan that seeks a balanced budget that not only rules out tax increases, but offers additional tax decreases along with massive spending cuts, details of which will be decided in the various House committees and involve literally trillions of dollars.  Yea, like that is a good, solid, specifics laden plan.  The really maddening, craziness of this "plan" is that the House Republicans probably applauded themselves after passing it, as if they actually did something useful.  


Sunday, March 29, 2015

More on Swindle and Fraud

A few more thoughts as I read the spring edition of Laphams.

An essay from PT Barnum's Humbugs of the World, addressed the topic of the wide variety and seemingly endless supply of humbugs, Barnum's word for all those schemes and deceits that have been perpetuated on men by their fellow men.  From religion to medicine, business to literature, he cites example after example of ways in which men gain power, money and fame through trickery.  But, at the end, his final example, the biggest humbug of all, he saves for the "man who believes - or pretends to believe - that everything and everybody are humbugs." 

It is his opinion that while certainly there are schemers, plotters, and tricksters among us, and that some of the more successful of humans are those who have schemed, plotted and tricked better than most, it is the utmost fool who sees and expects the worst in everyone, sees wolves behind every tree, and casts doubt upon every plan and invention put forth by his fellow man. 

And this from a man who made his fame by rounding up all manner of the odd shaped, then embellished those unusual characteristics to create a circus of the macabre, all the while collecting money from those who preferred to believe the exaggerations.  It is as if he looked in the mirror, recognized the fake for who he was, but also believed that without the goodness of men, those like him would have no platform upon which to succeed.

What also strikes me about this essay, is that Barnum calls himself out, but also separates himself from those who pretend to believe in the evil of men, and those who actually believe.  I fear the former more than the latter, as the former know the truth but use the continuation of the lie to further his agenda, while latter may some day learn the truth and perhaps alter his perceptions.  Sorry to point a finger here, but it reminds me of the so successful Fox propaganda machine that is controlled by people who are certainly smarter than the fiction disguised as news that they propagate, but purposefully hire those who do actually believe some of the nonsense, mixed with those that know the power of the lies and choose to perpetuate them for their own benefit. 

Another interesting thought came to me from an excerpt from The Secrets of the Great City, by James Dabney McCabe in which is described (2) methods of robbery employed by street walkers and an associate.  In the first, a girl brings a john to an apartment which has a fake wall with a sliding panel.  The pigeon's clothes are placed on a chair near the wall, and while the man is otherwise occupied, the associate slides open the panel and rifles his clothes for valuables.  The second method involves the street walker asking for the money up front, but before the act can be begun, her "husband" arrives home unexpectedly.  The poor girl begs the john to leave by a side exit promising to fulfill her side of the transaction the next night.  Of course, that meeting never happens. 

Each has their advantages.  The second scheme saves the girl some energy, but she must now avoid that victim in the future so it limits her opportunity for standard business going forward.  The first plan allows for future transactions, but probably not a future robbery.

Expanding that analogy, I imagine that the real experts at fooling mankind, have multiple level plans to address the various level of fools that they must victimize.  Those that can be fooled only once, must be approached differently than those who can be fooled over and over again.  When I see the same phrase used by various pundits to describe the same false perception, I wonder if they are addressing the first type or second.  Is it enough to repeat a lie over and over again to make it be true, or do you need a willing ear to believe it as well?  And, can you prime that ear enough, give it just enough small truths so that when the big lie is stated, it is unrecognized by that trained (or untrained) ear?

Ah, yes, indoctrination.

The process by which we are all trained to accept myths and half truths as facts.  Trained by our parents, our religion, our country.  Trained for our own good, trained to protect us, trained to keep us on the path that will lead to our happiness.

But this excerpt from "Secrets.." also inspired this thought.  While reporting on violence, mayhem and wrongdoing seem the basis for so much of our news, the reality is that crime has decreased in America.  Especially violent crime.  Of course, this could be a blip, and could be attributed statistically to any number of causes, but (as I have said before) I believe it is due to the continuing evolution of mankind's spiritual nature.   But what if crime is down because people who historically had to turn to crime, the poor, the homeless, the shunned, now have a modicum of security through the various social nets that have been created in the last 60 years?

Social security, medicare, welfare, unemployment, disability income, etc, are frequently portrayed as examples of the nanny state where people are no longer required to fend for themselves.  Cradle to grave security which suppresses creativity, persistence, self reliance.  Is that the yin and yang of those programs?  Less crime, less violence, less desperate acts, to the detriment of strength of character, self motivation, independence?

Survival of the fittest sounds good, makes a great sound bite, but what about those that are less fit?  And do we all not experience states of less fit multiple times throughout our lives?  Infancy?  Sickness?  Accident?  Old Age?  It is easy to scoff at death when one is 24 with perfect abs and a clean colon, but that time is fleeting.      

When I first saw the title Swindle and Fraud, on this edition of Laphams' Quarterly, I thought it was a strange choice.  Now that I am reading it, I find it one on the most interesting and thought provoking topics yet chosen.     

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Fraud, Swindle and Truth

Last week I found myself out of reading material.  I had finished the March editions of National Geographic and Smithsonian, and mentioned in a previous post that I had completed the Winter 2014 Laphams quarterly.  And, of course, I had finally published An Atheist for Christ, which was the project I had hoped to complete via my built up vacation days from work.  Fortunately, the Lapham spring 2015 edition arrived in the mail.  Good timing, good topic; Swindle and Fraud.

About 30 pages in, I encountered The Importance of Being Deceptive, taken from The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli.  I would imagine that most people have heard of Machiavelli although he is probably also one of those writers that many people think they "know", but have not actually read.  I include myself in that statement, as I do not recall ever reading The Prince, but have described various people and/or policies as Machiavellian.  So, spent a few minutes on Wikipedia reading about the man; for those also curious, here is a link.

I imagine that most people, were they to be asked if Machiavelli was a good person or bad person, might assume the worst based on their understandings of, and the connotations associated with, the term based on his last name.  It may surprise many people then, when they read that he was an historian, politician, diplomat, philosopher and humanist.  That he is considered one of the founders of modern political science, more specifically political ethics.  And, that he also wrote comedies, carnival songs and poetry.  In short, he was an accomplished, erudite thinker, and exerted much influence in early 16th century Florentine, which means therefore, he was an important figure during the Renaissance.  

That his greatest work, which includes his views on the importance of a strong ruler who is not afraid to be harsh with his subjects and enemies and less truthful than wise, may be more a result of his living during the time of strong but warring Italian city-states which were vulnerable to the other unified nation states, particularly France.

In other words, his philosophy was as much influenced by his place in time as his personal beliefs.

So far, I have only read about a quarter of Laphams Swindle and Fraud edition but I am beginning to see a pattern.  Regardless of the time, 1200 BC Troy or Rome, 16th century Florentine or London, or 20th century Nuremburg or New York, there have always been those who use fraud and deception to gain power, fame and riches, for, as it was so notably quoted, "there has never been a shortage of sheep to be fleeced".

(Note here.  If indeed, there have always been a subset of men who spend their days looking for pigeons, always finding them with ease, doesn't that mean that most men therefore are honest?  And isn't that a good thing?)

Today as I was walking the dog, I wondered what Machiavelli might think of the United States of America today.  Would he nod approvingly? 

Is not our entire advertisement industry based on deceit?   What product or service is not touted as the best?  And the pharmaceutical industry has created a whole new category of advertisement deceit in which they invent a disease, create a pill, then, via small print or an overdubbed voice tell you that their product might kill you.  All the while showing happy people who have been cured.

Politics?  Just today I saw a 2016 presidential candidate announce that he will be shopping for his health care insurance via the exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act, the day after he proclaimed that if elected president he would repeal every single aspect of said act.  He is not above taking part when it suits him, nor is he troubled by castigating it when talking to his base.

Perception is the most important thing, substance a distant second, if that.  Obama is a socialist whose policies will wreck the American economy.  You can hear someone saying it on Fox and in many American homes every day.  Yet, since the peak of the recession, say around 2010, the US economy has not only rebounded, but it may be argued is as strong as any, in the world.  Unemployment is under 6%.  The stock market flirts at record highs every other week.  Corporation war chests are bursting with cash.  And, even better (or most likely even worse), the 1% have continued to realize a bigger portion of the pie than ever. 

The rich people club of America could not have written a better script; paint the president as anti-business, label equal pay for equal work, and higher minimum wage proposals as socialist, weaken unions, and allow jobs and assets to be sent offshore where lower wages, and taxes can double and triple profits.  And, oh yes, encourage the GOP to continue tossing out losing presidential tickets and far right candidates with limited agendas and intelligence, so that the rich can continue to feed the lie that big government is the enemy. 

At this point, one has to wonder if truth is even possible.  Would we buy a product that advertises that it is as good as the rest?  Or that it is cheaper because it is not quite as good?  Would we vote for a candidate that tells us that we can't be the world's policeman, without expecting blowback from those that we kill and displace?  Or a candidate that tells us that we can't pay for the benefits we expect without paying our fair share of taxes? 

Is the truth, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder?

If so, then Machiavelli it is!!




Sunday, March 1, 2015


Past readers of my blog know that I began the Winter edition of Lapham's Quarterly, entitled Foreigners, about a month ago.  Today I finished reading it.  In light of the fuss over funding for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), I thought it relevant to post about immigration and our current perception of "foreigners".

First, as I have said so often, the Lapham's quarterlies offer a wonderful collection of essays and perspective on a given topic.  In this edition, comments about foreigners from the vantage point of encounters, customs and hostilities were presented.  Additionally, as history is so often written by the victors, Lapham's attempts to bring light to those whose side did not win the day.  An essay from the perspective of an Indian during the century of their losing their birthright, thoughts from a woman on trial for daring to vote, or the point of view of any of the countless (and usually nameless) victims of the various land, resource, and power grabs that occurred over the centuries by those who conquered  "new" lands to the detriment of those who already lived there. 

Second, compilations like Laphams reminds us that we are all descended from immigrants, and that the majority of those outraged by the influx of immigrants today, are the progeny of immigrants similarly degraded and spat upon yesterday, who themselves were considered as foreigners by those who resided in the land when they first arrived.  Unfortunately, rather than treating those that migrate today as we would have liked to be treated, we tend to view them with suspicion and fear.

And, as understanding promotes tolerance and acceptance, fear promotes intolerance and rejection.

So it appears that despite the great strides mankind has made in our perception of those different from us, we experience situations like that which transpired in the United States Congress this past week.
On one side is a party who feeds the fear and biases of its base who have been told over and over again about the evils of those from a different country, or who believe in a different religion.  A party which is supported by a media outlet that blithely declares we are involved in a religious war.  A mindset that labels everything they disagree with as unpatriotic or anti-American, even when an opinion contrary to theirs is presented by other Americans, especially when that American is a president that they despise. 

"How can we face those who voted for us in November", began a current US Senator, "those who voted for us to fight the recent executive decisions on immigration by the president, when we have failed to overturn those decisions".  Perhaps the honorable Senator from Pennsylvania should have explained to his constituents, those whose fears he chose to inflame rather than calm, that actually removing the 10 million or more illegal immigrants from our country is not only not possible but will require huge sums of money to even attempt.  That the president's decision to act unilaterally was necessary precisely because Congress prefers to ignore the facts of the situation, preferring instead to get elected by pandering to an electorate that loves to rail against an overreaching government but fails to see that it would take an even more intrusive government to root out and find the 3% of our population that is here without documentation.  That the best way to make Americans out of those without validity, is to include them in the benefits of America, not exclude them simply because they were born on the wrong side of an arbitrary national border.

But I digress.

What is truly funny (in a sad way) is that in the battle for funding for DHS, the fear of ISIS was stronger that the fear of illegal immigrants, so republicans were forced to backtrack from their plan to allow funding to expire unless Obama's executive decisions were overturned.  It makes one wonder if those at Fox who have elevated ISIS to the level of a global threat to our very existence, realize how that hype contributed to the failure of the republicans to overturn the president's executive orders.  It also makes one wonder when the next "most evil" group will be presented to us by Fox so that ISIS can be dropped down a notch or two.

Who knows, maybe Fox will turn its spotlight of righteousness onto the employers who hire all the illegals, thereby giving them a reason to cross the border, and, just coincidentally, allowing those employers to save on labor expenses and avoid paying certain taxes.

In the end, let us hope that intelligent compilations like that which I have just read, attempts to bring sanity to the topic of foreigners, immigrants, and those different from us, will lead us to realize that being a native or a foreigner is all a matter of geography.  And that if we would want to be treated with respect when we find ourselves out of country or out of our element, perhaps we should do the same for those who enter our own domain.