Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Environment vs Economics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 15, 2017

DC shooting

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Russian Controversy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

America First

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

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

Why indeed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Zero Gravity and Living Forever

As usual, inspiration from this month's Smithsonian, June edition.

First article called "Up in the Air", about a zero-gravity future where thousands, if not millions of Earthlings live and work in space.  In the article, visionaries like Amazon founder Jeff Bezos are actively investing huge sums of money to make the science fiction of the Jetsons the reality of tomorrow.

What is truly inspiring is that there are many men and women, famous and unknown, who encompass a staggering range of interests, from manufacturing in space to providing shelter in space to researching new drugs in space, that are not content with just talking about these advances.  And, thank goodness for the rest of us that they do.  Of course, dreaming about these incredible advances and making them a reality takes not just imagination but real life resources, in other words, lots of money.  Reading about companies like Blue Origin, Made in Space, and SpaceX, makes me proud that such research and commitment still exist in our species.  That there are still so many individuals who seek a better life for themselves, their children, and humanity.

The second article "Life without End", discusses the belief that death can be delayed, perhaps hundreds of years.  It is an incredibly complex issue, fraught with economic, political and religious ramifications.  But it is not just someone's fantasy.  The science behind increasing our mortality is real, involving research into understanding why our cells degenerate over time.

A particularly interesting area of investigation centers around the senescent calls within our bodies. These cells activate during cell division, a time when cells can easily fall victim to mutations.  They act as very powerful tumor suppressant mechanisms which reduce the chance of mutation. Unfortunately, over time, they also contribute to inflammation which itself leads to disease.  From an evolutionary perspective, for the vast majority of history, mankind lived 30-40 years.  One might conclude then, that the senescent cells were only needed for that amount of time, sort of a planned obsolescence.  When we realize that living into one's 50's and 60's, not to mention, 80's and 90's, is a relatively new phenomenon, it makes sense that a mechanism to reduce mutations might evolve but that the mechanism might only be effective for a defined time.

As our ability to reduce the incidence of death from causes that claimed the lives of people from the dawn of history to as recently as the 19th century, mankind's lifespan has jumped astronomically, perhaps surpassing our own bodies ability to keep us healthy.  Understanding the senescent cell and how it works might lead to therapies that keep it active longer, thereby improving the body's chances to live longer, and healthier.

One thing that is clear when reading the article is that there is much debate about how longer life might effect mankind, whether a bridge between a longer life span and a longer health span can be realized, and whether immortality should even be a goal to attain.

That is the real beauty of the article; it asks as many questions as in answers.

In a time when we seem so focused on the perceived problems of our day, when the future is more feared than longed for, it behooves us not to read about people who embrace what is to come, but more than that, work with an open mind and heart to imagine a better world, and then work tirelessly to see it come to fruition.

I often say that if everyone read the Smithsonian, a wider perspective might emerge.  The June edition confirms my belief.  

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Employer vs Employee

I've specifically titled this post using the versus connector between employer and employee as it seems that this important relationship is stuck in this adversarial position, and that my belief is that America will never be "great" again, if that is truly a goal based in reality and not just rhetoric, until the dynamics of employment changes.

Obviously, there has always been friction between employers and employees.  Employers seek the most production possible while paying the least possible compensation, while employees invariably feel underpaid and underappreciated.  In addition, the unfortunate boom and bust cycles of our economy create times when one side has the upper hand over the other.  When the economy is in recession, employers can reduce benefits and/or eliminate wage increases with the veiled threat that an employee can be easily replaced by someone unemployed, someone willing to take almost anything rather than be without work.  Conversely, when the economy is booming, employees are more easily able to find better pay, working conditions and opportunity, putting pressure on the employer to pay, at times, more than the production might be worth.

In both situations, phrases such as disloyalty and profit over people emanate as readily as humidity in the tropics.

Of course, for much of recorded history, men and women worked to live, literally.  From the moment they awoke, to the moment they fell asleep, mankind spent their time searching for food for themselves and those of their group, seeking shelter or improving the condition of said shelter, and avoiding the multitude of dangers that existed, and from which there was scant protection.

As the eons progressed and our ancestors moved from a nomadic to an agrarian lifestyle, a new relationship began to emerge.  Creating permanent settlements also meant protecting these settlements from those unwelcome, which also inspired the concept of owning the land.  While it was easy to claim new lands in the name of one's home country, as if the land didn't exist before being "discovered", especially since the native inhabitants had a completely different relationship with the land, it became much harder to dismiss inhabitants when they looked and sounded the same as oneself.  Fortunately, those with money and power were able to create concepts like birth rights, aristocracy, divine laws, and other such artificially created distinctions that, along with bigger swords and hired thugs, enabled land barons to own great swaths of territory.  Still, those who worked the land did so mostly for sustenance.

Over time, as settlements evolved into people living together as individuals as opposed to chattel, bartering among the tradesmen and businesses and customers became more formalized, and values were placed on goods, services, and ultimately, the labor needed to create or provide those goods and services.  Now, rather than hunting and scavenging for food, people could "buy" their food from someone who specialized in growing it, or perhaps from someone who purchased the goods from many different suppliers then brought it to the customers, in the form of carts, and then centralized the location of the products in stores located where the people lived.  

Those of you who know more history than I, might also know when the terms employee and employer first were coined.  I only spent a few minutes searching and found information suggesting they are from French words originating in the 1820's.  If reasonably accurate, that means that this dynamic relationship which is the basis of the vast majority of work in the "modern" world, is still in its infancy.

To be more specific, if we use 10,000 years as the approximate time when humans began to practice sedentary agriculture, the employee/employer relationship represents 2-5% of that time.  And, if we use 200,000 years as the beginning point of when homo sapiens emerged in Africa, the relationship has been around for .1-.25% of that time.  That is decimal (.1) percent folks.  Or, using an hour as the time since homo sapiens emerged, the relationship is about half a second old.

So, what is my point?

Perhaps that we are still trying figure out this relatively new concept.  We know that we do not want to return to the days when calling out sick might get you fired.  The days of forced child labor, 12, 16 even 18 hours shifts in poorly ventilated sweat shops.  But we also know that businesses can not function with an unreliable work force.  Rules and standards are required on both sides.  A power of balance needs to be established, which, while it might create temporary swings in favor of one or the other, leave room for a return to an even footing as quickly as possible.

I don't think it is an exaggeration to state that the balance of power from the recent recession has not returned to an even keel.  In fact, one might even suggest that the balance of power towards the employer side of the equation has been with us since the 1980's.  Certainly, stagnating middle class wages coupled by the flow of more wealth in the hands of a smaller percentage of people could be interpreted as a consequence of this imbalance.

But that is macroeconomics, the stuff of classroom debates and never ending partisan politics.

What about the everyday relationship that exists in the majority of businesses, big and small.  So often we hear complaints from the business community that there aren't enough qualified people to fill job openings, and that too many of those employed do not work hard enough while expecting more benefits, and more money.  I receive multiple job alerts everyday from Indeed, based on the many different profiles I have created.  Clearly, there are many open jobs out there, and not just $12 per hour and less, jobs.  One of my profiles sets a minimum salary of $50K per year; it produces new jobs everyday.

This seems to verify the employer complaints, while also signalling that our education system is not preparing our youth for today's more specialized job market.  Of course, employers who expect a perfect match for their job requirements, some of which feature so encompassing a list of attributes, that the "perfect" candidate may not exist, or would not consider the job based on the compensation package being offered, sometimes ask for more than they will ever get.  Obviously, all employers expect to engage in some training of a new employee, but perhaps, rather than paper rejecting an applicant because all the boxes aren't checked, employers might evaluate the person as much as the paper.  Is there room in the employee/employer dynamic to value a person's ability to analyze problems, evaluate situations, and prioritize actions?  Perhaps that is a part of the problem as well.  All kinds of jobs, all kinds of applicants, but never the twain shall meet as more and more employers turn to automated searches to sift through the candidates while more and more job seekers blast out resumes.

Also, do employers want YES men who do what they are told, or thinkers who can differentiate between guidelines and rules, and choose the correct course of action even when it differs from an established protocol?  Assuming employers want some from each category, are there conscious choices being made to nurture those who fall into the latter group, or are those people suppressed at every turn while still being counted on to find a new solution to an old problem?  Have we not all seen an employee who ingratiates themselves to their bosses in order to gain a promotion or salary increase while an employee who works to improve the daily processes, is passed over due to a lack of self promotion, or perhaps even a disregard for diplomacy?  When employees feel that merit is not the primary reason for advancement, it leaves personal pride as the drive to continue to do a better job.  When that begins to fade or is crushed, what is left?  Atlas Shrugged?

There are countless millions of Americans who work hard each and every day yet still feel that they exist one mistake at work, one health crisis, one unexpected accident away from financial ruin. Clearly, this angst was one of the forces behind the unexpected result of last November's election.
Only time will tell if a continued transfer of wealth to the top and a reduction in the safety nets will increase the concern of the working class American, or add to his/her dilemma.    

In the meantime, loyalty is a two way street.  Employees who expect job security must work every day to earn their salary.  Employers who expect daily hard work, must treat their employees as people, not just labor costs that can be slashed without considering all other options.

As I said earlier, the employer/employee relationship is relative new.  Yet, at the same time, it is undergoing tremendous change!  We can work remotely from home.  Soon we make even work from space!  If this dynamic is going to work, there must be a trust created from each side.  That is the challenge I see moving forward.  And, frankly, it is a challenge that neither side seems to recognize or value.  Trust that a job is a privilege, not an entitlement.  And trust that without the employee, there is no good or service to be provided.          

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Accumulative Power of Useless Information

I am about half way through the Spring edition of Lapham's Quarterly, called Discovery.  I have left myself a number of bookmarks so I can review and comment on some of the works that have made an impression on me.  This morning however, I read an excerpt from "The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge" by Abraham Flexner.  As is true of the Lapham's magazines in general, I am amazed that I have not encountered Flexner before; how I can have lived upwards of 75% of my life, have read so many hundreds of books, and not been familiar with Flexner's brilliant perspective.

Flexner was a prominent education reformer who, after conducting a study of American medical schools for the Carnegie Foundation in 1910, crafted a report which proposed new regulations which helped to revamp all American (and Canadian) medical colleges, addressing problems in curriculum, structure, admission standards, and overall quality of the education being received, and the doctor's being graduated.

In 1929, when asked by a group of philanthropists to help them decide which medical schools to fund, Flexner convinced them instead to support an Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, which opened the following year under his leadership.

For those of you who might research Flexner, be advised that held a number of opinions that are not admirable.  He believed that blacks and women were inferior, and advocated that black doctors only treat black patients.  His prejudiced opinions, while certainly a reflection of the time, are still inexcusable to me, considering the philosophy which he so eloquently describes and should, by its universal nature, apply to the work and efforts of all people, with no differentiation for gender or race.

Anyway, the point of the essay was that great discoveries are often the result, not of an eureka moment, but through the incremental work by many unknown researchers and those more curious than most.  That, at times, the accumulation of what might be useless knowledge at the time, useless being defined as not producing information that leads directly to solving a current problem, or producing a useful tool or product, often leads to a future use that effectively provides a solution, or leads to a new tool to fix an enduring problem.  In other words, he believed in research for its own sake, and in the value of being curious, and allowing the curious the time and resources to discover answers.

It is summed up best by this quote.

"..over a period of one of two hundred years, the contribution of professional schools to respective activities will probably be found to lie not so much in the training of men who may tomorrow become practical engineers, or practical lawyers, or practical doctors, but rather in the fact that even in the pursuit of strictly practical aims, an enormous amount of apparently useless activity goes on. Out of this useless activity there comes discoveries that may well prove of infinitely more importance to the human mind and to the human spirit than the accomplishments of the useful ends for which the schools were founded."

When applied to other areas of education, especially how we educate our young people, his viewpoint makes me stop and think if we are encouraging curiosity or stifling it.  Encouraging the freedom to pursue an idea as far as possible, or encouraging the pursuit only of ideas that lead to conformity.  Or, even more simply, elevating the idea that knowledge should not be judged by how it agrees with our religious beliefs or economic fortunes, but should be encouraged, and that the pursuit of knowledge should be nurtured at every level, useful and useless.

And, when applied to other areas of life, especially when we debate how to allocate the resources of America, we might want to rethink our decisions to invest in war and walls rather than compassion and inclusion.  And ultimately, find that the conclusion that those with less deserve their fate, and those with more deserve even more, might lead to the suppression of the accumulation of useless information, and therefore the reduction of innovation and positive discovery.  

  

       

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Nostalgia

"When people are unhappy with the present and fear the future, they embrace the past".

In a spirited conversation my wife and I had recently, (which is really an ongoing series of discussions we have, and for which I am very grateful; thanks Nora), I said the above words, or something to that effect.  We both stopped talking for an instant, a bit surprised at what sounded pretty profound.

Today I typed this phrase into a Google search to see if I had heard or read it before and had just repeated it, not actually made it up in the course of our discussion.   The Google returns I received were chock full of phrases and advice for seeking and finding happiness, but I did not find a phrase similar to the above.  However, I did find an amazing article written by James Feifer on November 30, 2016 for Slate.  A link to it is below.

http://www.slate.com/blogs/lexicon_valley/2016/11/30/nostalgia_narratives_and_the_history_of_the_good_ol_days_we_ve_lamented.html

Feifer's article, written a few weeks after Trump's historic presidential victory, attempts to dissect the popularity of Trump's "Make America Great Again" slogan, by asking Trump supporters when they think America was last great, then scanning the news reports and social commentaries of that time to see if those who lived during this perceived time of greatness actually believed in the greatness of the time.

To start, Feifer looked to the 1950's which accounted for about half of the responses to the question, when was America last great.  Unfortunately, Feifer found as much anxiety and unhappiness during that time as today.  And, when theses post WW2 war people were queried about their last perceived time of American greatness, the 1920's were often cited.  But again, evidence taken from comments made during the 20's painted a much more anxious mindset of the people living then than what was believed 30 years later.  In a nutshell, what Feifer found was that "I went looking for the good ole' days.  It took me back 5,000 years".

My belief is that there is a clear connection between a person's age and their fondest memories.  It should be no surprise to any adult who, while perhaps mostly happy with their lives, deals with the multitude of stresses and anxieties that we encounter, and so, in the majority of cases, remembers their childhood and/or young adulthood as a time with little or no stress.  Call it an unconscious realization that with each passing year we are one step closer to our mortal end, call it a longing for the energy and pure joyfulness of youth, or call it the little bit of jealousy that makes each aging generation look down their collective noses as the generation which follows, but it seems obvious, even natural, that advancing age might make one engage in "nostalgic narratives", as Feifer calls them.

A detailed analysis of which demographics led President Trump's advantage over the two previous GOP candidates, and ultimately, his victory over his democratic rival, and it is easy to conclude that white males, especially those with less education, contributed mightily to his victory, and indeed might find a call to past times an attractive narrative.  Certainly, those who cited the 1950's as America's last great time might only remember the clear superiority of the white male in terms of accomplishments, power and wealth.  The fact that this dominance was as much a result of prejudice, both racial and gender, social norms, and actual legal obstacles to those not white or male, is of no concern to those who recall a time when they were the only game in town.

What is more revealing to me, and more concerning, is that one might also conclude that America as a whole is adopting a mindset similar to one who is aging, who faces their imminent death, and so is nostalgic for a time when they were young, energetic and, perhaps, without understanding it fully, oblivious to the stresses of the times around them.  Because, isn't that really the crux of it.  We endeavor to shield our children from the problems of life, if only for a little while.  So, while one's early memories are filled with good times and pleasantness, it is not because there was no bad times and unpleasantness.

America is aging.  Since 1970, the average age of an American has increased a couple of years every ten.  In another few decades, as the baby boomers continue to reach retirement age, our country will be as "old" as it has ever been.  And that includes the influx of immigrants, which tend to be younger.
Are we experiencing, on a national level, the same inclinations that lead to reminiscences around the coffee table by those among us of maturing age?  Does it explain some of our anxiety about the changing demographics of our country, and the call for a return to a past that exists mostly in the memories of those who were shielded by the adults of the time from the problems of the day?

There is no way that life will ever be like it was in 1950, or 1920, or 1880, or in the Garden of Eden, or whatever time you might wistfully long for.  First, because time moves forward, and with it, mankind's understanding of life.  Certainly, it might be exciting to be catapulted back to 1776 when America gained our independence from England, but not if you are a women or a person of color because you were, for the most part, not a part of the excitement of that time.
 
But more important, the future is the only time frame that we can control.  The past is defined, the present only a fleeting moment, then it is a part of the past.  It is only in the future that we can create the best possible outcomes of our decisions, provide the best possible situations for our children, and enable those who live in those years, adults as well as children to, perhaps, actually believe that they lived in a remarkable time.

 

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Science vs Religion

"...it is agreed that Scripture, in order to be understood by the multitude, says many things which are apparently and in the literal sense of the words at variance with the absolute truth."

"If I were allowed to give my opinion, I would say that it might be more appropriate, and more befitting the dignity of Holy Writ, to stop every lightweight popular writer from trying to lend authority to their writings, often based on empty fancies, by quoting verses from Scripture, which they interpret or rather force into saying things that are as far from the true meaning of the Scripture as they are near to making complete fools of themselves when they parade their biblical knowledge in this way."

Both these quote are from a letter sent to the Grand Duchess Christina in March 1610 from Galileo whose scientific research supported Copernican heliocentrism but which were attacked in sermons and at society parties, which one might call the internet chat centers of the day.

Unfortunately, as time passed, Galileo was tried by the Church, forced to recant his "errors' and died in 1642, blind and under house arrest.

I found this quote in the Spring Edition of Lapham's Quarterly, titled Discovery, which I just began reading this past week.  It struck me as incredibly relevant today, and incredibly sad that over 400 years after such a brilliant man was pilloried for his intellect, and ability to advance man's understanding of the world, we still find ourselves at the mercy of those who insist that the Bible is a science book, those who justify their beliefs under the guise of "alternative facts", and those who question climate science research in order to justify a status quo that maintains economic power in the fossil fuel industry which just coincidentally heaps huge campaign donations on our elected officials.

And, of course, the equally insidious practice of manipulating the masses with anti-elitist rhetoric, and a rose colored nostalgia for the perfect past, all the while further empowering the 21st century's version of the papacy of Galileo's time.

I expect it naive of me to imagine that the battle between science and religion might one day end in a mutual acceptance of each other's importance.  Perhaps it is human nature to resist change when that change contradicts the interpreted foundations of one's holy book or sacred beliefs.  While Galileo may be the most famous, perhaps even most talented person to ever be persecuted for his challenges to the status quo of his time, his tragic end is certainly not unique.

What is both amazing and irritating is that some might rate Jesus of Nazareth as the person most harmed by his attempt to educate his contemporaries, as I would expect that were his teachings being followed today by those who lead us politically, economically, and socially, our debates concerning income inequality, immigration, religious intolerance, gender identification, and equating money to free speech, might have a completely different tone, or might even be unnecessary.

Science vs Religion, logic vs spirituality, believing in what you can see and quantify vs belief in what is beyond your ability to understand.  Perhaps the problem is that, while there are surely battles that must be waged, the war is not needed.

We need people who have been blessed with an insatiable desire to understand the phenomena of our existence, just as we need people who are blessed with the ability to make sense of the randomness of disaster and death.  Both help the rest of us stay focused on living our lives with less fear of the uncertainty of life, and death, and more joy in the time we have to experience life as we move towards the inevitable end.

Science gives us a method to uncover the dangers and the wonders of the natural world.  To fashion a better world for our children and grand children.  Religion gives us a method to accept the things we have not yet uncovered as part of humanity's travels down the path of life.  Denying that some things have yet to be divined can be just as limiting as denying that some things have been figured out through the use of the tools given to us by the creator.    

I hope that as I continue to read Discovery, I might stay open minded to perspectives that I may not have encountered to date, or that I have dismissed in the past.  In is certainly not an easy philosophy to maintain, and I expect to fall short more often than I succeed.  But isn't that what discovery is about; recognizing and exceeding ones limitations whether personal or as a community?



 

Monday, April 17, 2017

The First 100 Days

As we close in on the first 100 days of the Trump Presidency, I imagine there will be much commentary. pro and con, as to how President Trump has performed.  Of course, the tone of those opinions will vary widely, depending on the news source one is inclined to follow.  I have been attempting, lately, to watch such a variety of news channels, from BBC America to MSNBC to Fox News, and have found it an interesting experiment in how the various news/opinion outlets choose their news topics, report on said topics, gather "experts" to convey certain spins on these topics, and even what news "crawls" accompany the reporting of these topics.  I would imagine that if, as it is believed, our TV and radio signals are circulating throughout the solar system, and beyond, there may be some rather confused aliens trying to figure the happenings on the third rock from our sun.

For me, it has been not as bad as I imagined, and far worse than I expected.

On the positive side, the sun continues to rise in the east, and set in the west, although I think it safe to predict that Sean Spicer may disagree with that "fact" at some future point in his tortured reign as White House press secretary.  Other positives include Trump's choice of retired General James Mattis as Defense Secretary, H.R. McMaster as National Security Advisor, John Kelley as Homeland Security Secretary, Elaine Chao as Transportation Secretary, and Linda McMahon (despite my belief that wrestling is an entertainment sport, not a competitive one) to head the Small Business Administration.

I am especially happy, and hopeful, that Mattis and McMaster will provide the adult viewpoint in the room when truly serious and consequential discussions take place about the use of military and nuclear force to resolve our problems.

As an investor in Wall Street to fund my retirement, it has been a nice run up since the election, as most of our portfolios should demonstrate.  Of course, Wall Street generally favors a GOP president under the guise that the GOP is more business friendly than the Dems, but history shows that the stock market does not perform better with a republican in the White House.  In this case, however, it is clear that Trump's campaign rhetoric excoriating job killing regulation, and his cabinet choices which represent a slice of the richest men and women in America, makes Wall Street more inclined to expect a more business friendly administration, hence the 15% improvement since the November election.  While I hope that stocks might, if not continue their incredible rebound since the low of 6626 on March 9, 2009, at least mostly maintain their value, it is hard to imagine that an over 300% increase in 8 years is not bound to hit a speed bump sometime soon.

Lastly, it appears that President Trump's foreign affairs inexperience, and overall reactionary modus operandi may be serving him well.  As opposed to Obama's more thoughtful and calculated approach to handling crisis situations, Trump seems to have generated more attention from our enemies with his willingness to use military force to send a message.  Perhaps it is merely because the victims of his decisions had grown used to getting away with atrocities, perhaps because the only way to fight fire is with fire, but Trump has gained some credibility, domestically as well as internationally, with his latest decisions.  Hopefully, those who were on the receiving end of our big stick will not choose to continue to test his resolve, and up the ante, banking on our reluctance to use the ultimate weapons of mass destruction at his fingertips.  

On the negative side is virtually every other cabinet pick.  From climate change denier Scott Pruitt heading the EPA to school choice advocate Betsy DeVos as head of the Department of Education to Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price who has publicly decried the Affordable Care Act but was not able to present a replacement that his own party could pass to foreclosure king Steven Mnuchin as Treasury Secretary, the Trump cabinet is loaded with people whose perspective of the direction America must take is virtually the exact opposite of my own.

And, to top it off, Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State.  Zero diplomatic experience, serious business ties with Russia, whom in case you forgot, is the money behind Bashar Al-Assad, Syria's president and competition (in Spicer's world) for worst man in history.  At this point, no one really knows if there was any quid pro quo between some of Trump's campaign officers and the Russian government, but it is certainly not in question that there is some lots of circumstantial evidence as well as a serious of suspicious coincidences.

But worse, if we accept the fact that foreign forces attempt to influence elections in America, just as we have influenced as well as created regime change in multiple countries around the world, it is the White House budget proposal that cause the most concern.  Massive cuts in programs that help real Americans will be tossed aside like an old shoe, should anything resembling the proposed budget get passed.  The list is gargantuan, too large to even begin to detail here.  It it clear that in the name of making America Great Again, President Trump's vision is more weapons, a bigger stick to wave at our enemies, and less federal support for those not born with his silver spoon.  Fortunately, we know the budget won't pass in its current form, but we also know that many important programs will be axed, many safety nets will be cut, and many more decisions that place short term economic growth over the long term health of American citizens and our environment will be proposed and passed.

So often in life, we are unable to understand when pivotal moments occur.  Later, with the advantage of hindsight we may shake our heads in understanding, but usually the moments pass without our recognition of their importance.

Electing Donald Trump as President, along with granting him a GOP majority in Congress may well be one of those moments marked by history as a watershed.  But, and this is the critical understanding, it does not have to be interpreted as a negative moment.

Our sun, a star, will eventually experience an explosive death, a supernova.  Generally, just before this event, the star obtains the brightness of 100 suns, for a short time.  Perhaps this election, and the years which are to come, will be marked by history as the last great burst of activity which is characterized by greed, selfishness, and short sighted decisions.  Perhaps future historians will note with pride that this election galvanized the movement which shattered the belief that electing the rich will uplift the citizenry, that destroying the environment to justify job creation is myopic, that dehumanizing our enemies to justify their killing is still murder, that material wealth is only as good as the ways it is used to end poverty, hunger, and need, and that cooperation is the foundation upon which humanity's spiritual evolution was built.