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.  

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Seeking Hope

Just finished reading the April issue of National Geographic.  Amazing edition, cover to cover!!

Four articles in particular blew me away.

Two articles referenced climate change, one from the perspective of a rational explanation of the science behind the assertions that climate change is real, and the activities of the human race is behind the shift, and the second from the viewpoint of real life people who live in Alaska and are experiencing the change in climate first hand.

The initial article details the evidence.  Three consecutive years of a new record for the highest average global temperature since records have been kept.  Last year's average was 1.69 degrees warmer than the 20th century average.  No natural cause explains the change.  Human emitted greenhouse gases form a steadily thickening blanket that traps hear at the Earth’s surface.  More than 9 out of 10 climate scientists agree that carbon emissions cause global warming.  Its real, and it is dangerous.

From dwindling acrtic ice to more intense weather to the reduction of wildlife species with even more (one is six) in danger of extinction in the next 80 years, the negative consequences of climate change will not go away despite the efforts of the fossil fuel industry to cast doubt, and the current administration’s head in the sand attitude.

With reference to the Alaskans already experiencing the effects, it only takes a trip to the lower half of this huge state to spend time with those who see the change first hand to know it is real.  In “Racing the Thaw”, the reduction of the permafrost is creating a frantic rush to save the artifacts now being revealed, artifacts that had been frozen in the ground for hundreds, even thousands of years.   As only Nat Geo can, we read about the Yupik people and their struggle to adapt to changes which are slowly, inexorably, preventing them from continuing the tradition of their ancestors.

But, as is the thinking at Nat Geo, there are many ways to address the issue.  The advances in wind and solar power technologies have resulted in clean energy becoming cheaper than fossil fuel sources.  It is now just the will to begin the switch to cleaner energy that stand in the way of an eventual changeover from oil, natural gas and coal.  Of course, it is a process, a process than can take years, even decades, but the longer we delay making that concerted effort to change, the more damage we do to our environment.  Damage that may not be reversible if we wait too long.

The third article is called Beyond Human.  It describes man’s efforts to take evolution into our own hands, through enhancement of our bodies.  It is a fascinating depiction of how various subsets of our species have evolved in specific ways to adapt to an environmental challenge.  A trait that allows for high altitude breathing, and one that enables living in deserts by modulating the excess energy produced when body temperature rises, demonstrate that our species is always adapting.  Now, medical advances have provided over 20,000 people with implants that have enabled them to not only hear or see as if they had the working organs that we take for granted, but at times, provide a hearing or seeing function that is an improvement over the standard abilities.  Cyborgs among us!

Reading this article after the lead article about climate change, expands one’s viewpoint to think that, in addition to the everyday changes that we can make to counter the effects of climate change, perhaps there will be evolutionary tweaks that the coming generations of humans will also use to survive, and even thrive, on a planet that we have altered.

Finally, there was “Life After ISIS”, which detailed the horrific crimes against humanity and the environment that have been perpetrated in Iran and Syria.  The sadness of lives lost and families blown apart, in addition to the won ton disregard for culture, and for the environment, is depicted in all too stark reality.  Last week’s revelation of civilian deaths via chemical weapons in Syria demonstrates that it is not just extreme fundamentalism but governmental thirst for power that can lead to man’s cruelty against man.  But again, within the destruction and inhumanity, examples of hope are still to be found.  Men and women striving to create some sense of normalcy for their children within such carnage.  

If you get a chance, and have the resources, pick up the April edition of National Geographic.  While it may disturb you, it may also help you focus your understanding of what is truly important.  Not who wins the next sports championship, or the next reality show contest, or any of the dozens of distractions that are being used to keep us from thinking about and discussing the real issues which will shape the future for the Earth as well as mankind.                 

Thursday, April 6, 2017


I finished the Winter Edition of the Lapham's Quarterly, called Home, last week.  As I was reading it, I bookmarked a few entries with the intention of commenting upon them after I was finished the entire edition.  So, here goes.

Floor Plans, from The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo begins with the question, do you greet your house?  It reflects her belief that in the process of her job as a "decluttering consultant" she feels it important to establish a connection with the house itself, along the lines of acknowledging that by showing respect for the house, the process of making the house more of a home for its inhabitants will be revealed naturally.  Kondo also comments positively on the act of tidying up, as a way of not only making one's shelter cleaner and more organized, but as a sort of worship towards the house, and consequently the inhabitants.  Her words struck me as I have more than once told people that sweeping the floor is good for the soul.  To me, it provides a break from the thinking part of one's day, yet still produces a positive effect.

Collectibles, from Travels in Hyperreality by Umberto Eco, discusses the need for people in general, but Americans in specific, to fill every space in their home with an object, especially an object that of itself represents something, usually glorious or revered, from the past.  Eco demonstrates his disdain for this practice in very clear terms, especially when the collections contain mostly fake or faux objects of antiquity.  He understands why someone might want to visit a house with objects d'art from various points in history but considers the homes themselves as unlivable, garish and pathetic.

Betty Friedan Reads the Labels from The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan is a remarkable reflection by Friedan concerning women as housewives.  Friedan, who cofounded the National Organization for Women, kept house and raised her children while taking freelance writing jobs on the side.  As the result of a questionnaire from her alma mater, Smith College, Friedan found that many of her college educated classmates were similarly dissatisfied by the lack of opportunity for women with brains, as well as the societal assumptions that women were still defined by the upkeep and appearance of their homes and children.

What is especially interesting about this essay is Friedan''s research into the marketing methods of the business world which had determined that women purchased a majority of their products.  Her investigation into how these companies perceived women, how they manipulated advertisements to present women with products and services that would provide the satisfaction that their lives lacked was fascinating.  Ultimately, women were separated into three groups; the True Housewife, the Career Woman, and the Balanced Homemaker, each targeted with a different marketing plan to produce more sales.  I have never read the Feminine Mystique, but if this is the type of information contained, perhaps I should.

At Grandmother's House, from Home Comforts by Cheryl Mendelson would interest anyone who spent any time visiting or living with their grandmother.  It touches on the the differing cultural attitudes towards housework, (in Mendelson's case, one Italian, one English/Scottish/Irish), as well as the "feel" that a home should or shouldn't have, depending on one's tradition and experience.  She also makes a wonderful point about how some consider housework a never ending chore while others find a gratification in daily housework in that routine tasks can be determined and completed.  A closed circle as opposed to the tasks of the business world that can last for weeks and months.

The Old Neighborhood, from Pseudo-Lot, or Concerning Patriotism, by Karel Capek is an interesting take on the bible story of Sodom.  Capek's version features Lot as unhappy that God is going to destroy his home, to the point where he attempts to convince the angel tasked with warning Lot that there is good in Sodom and that perhaps God might reconsider his decision.  Capek's Lot indicates that his love of the Lord is connected with his love of Sodom and its people.  In light of the extreme partisanship of our politics today, where it seems that party is more important than country, I found it interesting that Capek seems to value patriotism over religion.  The fact that Capek died soon after the Munich Agreement granted part of the original Czechoslovak Republic to Nazi Germany, and that Capek was number three on the Gestapo's arrest list demonstrates that he put his money where his mouth was, so to speak.

Lastly, Whistling in the Dark, an essay by Renata Adler discusses the flow of refugees and immigrants into Germany from the viewpoint of a woman whose parents fled Nazi Germany in 1933, who was born in Italy, then moved with her family as a child to New York in 1939.  The essay touches on many aspects of the decision by Angela Merkel to accommodate tens of thousands of people from the Middle East.  It recalls Adler's trip to Germany to visit one small town that had been assigned a consignment of migrants, detailing the wide reaction of the townspeople, the preconceptions and disappointments of the migrants, and, Adler's own opinions as to whether such a plan could work.  It is a compelling essay in that Adler does not sugarcoat the problems, does not demonstrate prejudice against the migrants, does not convey the all or nothing reporting that seems so common in the media today.  Unfortunately, there is not a happy ending, in that those consigned to the small town she visits are determined not to qualify as refugees, and must leave Germany. Additionally, there is an air of doom about Adler's final paragraph which reflects the opinion of some of those asked to take in people from a completely different culture, a doom aptly reflected in the title of her essay.

For much of our early history, men did not establish homes. as much as shelters.  It has only been the last 10,000 years or so that we began the slow cycle away from hunter-gatherers to a rural, agrarian society to, just in the last few hundred years, more urban in our settings.  During such a journey, home has meant a myriad of things to humans.  Today, with the prevalence of instant communication, the sense of home is both less important and more critical to our self perception.  We change homes multiple times in our lives, sometimes even changing citizenship.  We are so much more global, yet at the same time, a nationalism has taken hold of the world.

If home is still, "where the heart is", let's hope that are perception of home continues to expand so that one day we will all consider Earth our common home, and treat it, as well as each other, with the love and respect that coincides with the sharing of the place where our heart resides.                      

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Bottom up Economics

Before starting this post, I spent some time researching information found when I Googled "bottom up economics"; specifically I looked for articles that advocated for it using logic and examples showing successful applications, and articles that disagreed with the concept, preferring a supply side, or trickle down economic approach as is generally associated with President Reagan.

As is the case in almost any topic one might want to discuss, there are cogent assertions for both theories, as well as specific examples cited proving each is more correct than the other.  Additionally, there was some comments about a mixed approach, the theory being that neither can work all the time, neither will fail all the time, and, that both can work some of the time.  In other words, there are circumstances where each one can be applied, successfully, to produce positive results.  Which also means that when you see an expert citing the advantage of one over the other by using past examples, that expert MUST detail how the conditions of the time mirror the conditions of today.  Merely citing an example when something once worked, certainly does not guarantee it will work now.

The real trick then, is deciding when to apply one over the other.  I say trick because, with macroeconomics, it is very difficult to easily assess the current conditions while still involved in those conditions.  It is generally only afterwards that a true assessment can be made as to how a change in economic theory and application worked, and even then, it is still only guesswork.

For instance, did the economic bail out of the banking system in 2008 work?  I could argue that based on the fact that since 2008, unemployment has dropped significantly, the stock market is at an all time high, and the dollar is as strong as ever, it was a successful strategy.  Unfortunately, it is impossible to know what would have happened if the Bush/Obama Administrations had not provided monetary relief.  Same with the auto industry.  Would it have recovered on its own, or would it still be recovering, which means those thousands of jobs, both direct and indirect, may not be there today.

If we decide that, all in all, our economy today is better off than it was in 2008, then, despite some assertions that it MAY be better had nothing been done, it seems reasonable to conclude that top down economics in this situation worked.  Large employers were saved from bankruptcy, which meant that thousands of jobs were saved, which meant that more money was spent for goods and services, which ultimately produced an environment where more jobs could be created to respond to that increase in demand.

One might argue, that the depression of the 1930's may have occurred, or one could say been made worse, by the approach at the time to allow the market to operate without government intervention. Now, I know that is only a theory because, again, one does not know if an approach similar to what was done in 2008 would have worked in 1929.  Again, only theory, but certainly some logic to it.

But government provided handouts is not really what top down or bottom up economics is about, even though I found it cited in most of the arguments against bottom up economics.  In those discussions, handouts to the poor in the form of welfare and anti-poverty programs was often cited as the essence of bottom up economics, along with the proof that since the United States has spent billions of dollars in this manner and there are still poor people, then bottom up economics is a failure.

A better explanation of bottom up economics was provided by an author who compared, in generalities, Wal-Mart and Google.  Wal-Mart is notorious for its poor record in the area of providing health benefits and a livable wage, while Google goes out of their way to pamper their employees.
Of course, it is not strictly fair to compare the necessary work skills required by employees of these two companies.  One could easily say that Wal-Mart treats their employees similarly than all other retail employees while Google must offer more incentives to get the best people as do all tech companies.

Still, whether we isolate Wal-Mart and Google or just generalize by referring to retail, fast food, and other service industries when compared to industries that require more educated, and/or more specifically trained employees, the facts remain that a larger percentage of the employees of those Wal-Mart like companies require government assistance for health care, shelter and food, than for those companies more like Google.  Which means the American taxpayer foots the bill so that industries that do not provide basic wage and benefits can maintain their profit margin, and their low prices.  Which also means that those employed in those industries along with other lower wage earners, have little choice but to patronize those establishments, thus creating a perfect circle of low pay, cheap goods, trapped consumers.

While employers who provide better wages and benefits, create citizens who have their own money to spend on goods and services, not government provided money.

For me, bottom up economics has little to do with government handouts, and everything to do with employers who understand that employees work the hardest when paid a livable wage with decent benefits, just like supply side economics is not usually associated with government bailouts but is more about creating an environment where innovators and job creators are encouraged, not stifled.

Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase & Co, was in the news recently after lamenting that there was something wrong with the United States.  He cited a number of issues, all legitimate, but listed tax overhaul, regulation reduction and infrastructure spending as solutions.  But what he didn't say, to me, was the problem.

Income inequality, especially when we examine the wages of those in the top 5% as compared to those in the bottom 50%, must be addressed.  The median AGI (Adjusted Gross Income) as detailed from the 2015 tax returns of all American households was approximately $35,000.  The bottom 50% of all 2015 returns paid less than 5% of the taxes collected.  As long as we continue to tolerate
non-livable wages, especially as paid by the largest of our employers, our economy will continue to be dependent on artificial stimuli, government provided or otherwise.

Perhaps if Dimon lead by example and took a pay cut, let's say from his current $35 million salary to only $25 million, and then encouraged other CEO's to do the same, and then perhaps if those making only $25 million could get by with $20 million, and those making $20 million might struggle through with only $15 million, and so on, perhaps there would be room to give raises to the everyday people who perform the everyday functions of those companies.  And this goes for entertainers, sports stars, etc, because that same IRA data shows that the top 5% earned one out of every 3 dollars, the top 10% almost one out of every two.  Put another way, the bottom 50% of households earned only one in nine dollars.

Shifting compensation will provide more money for those who earn the least, with little effect on the standards of living of those at the top.  Shifting compensation to those who earn the least will remove some from welfare and other government subsidy programs.  Shifting money to those who earn the least will provide that little extra that may result in a new purchase.

That is what I think of as bottom up economics, and it doesn't require a price in increase on products or services, just a more equitable distribution of salaries.

Bottom up economics, as I see it, has very little to do with government spending and virtually everything to do with private business compensation and benefits packages.  It has everything to do with the belief that the rich, the really super rich, do very little for improving the economy via purchases, as they buy products only meant to convey status or improve an already luxurious lifestyle, when they aren't guarding their wealth, while the everyday workers spend their money in their local economies which improve their communities, and create the need for more employees.  No big corporation or company hires new workers unless in response to the need to increase production, yet it is only when more money is in the hands of the everyday people that more goods and services need to be provided.

Somewhere down the line, I have faith that the American voter will realize that electing rich people will not result in a more equitable income distribution.  Somewhere down the line, business men and women with vision will realize that unless the bottom 50% of wage earners have money to spend, their businesses will see limited growth.  Somewhere down the line, government and business cooperation, not in the form of rigged tax laws and special interest influences, will emerge to create an economic environment that encourages innovation over monopoly, equitable income over greed, and the proper balance that rejects short term solutions that sacrifice our natural environment.

I only hope that somewhere down the line occurs before we have traveled too far in the opposite direction.