29 November 2009

Central Europe's Disturbing Intolerance

It seems a truism that inland regions are less tolerant. People who live on coasts around ports have been continually exposed to a variety of skin colors, religious persuasions, cultures, and lifestyles. Fewer people come through Nebraska than New York or San Francisco; fewer people come through Serbia than England. Insularity seems to make people intolerant rather than curious.

Which brings us to Switzerland's stunning vote to ban "the construction of minarets, the towers that typically stand adjacent to mosques and serve to issue the Muslim call to prayer."

The Swiss speak four languages and would seem a model of diversity, but it is also worth remembering that it wasn't until 1971 that they granted women the right to vote. These are not progressives.

So I guess one ought not to be surprised that the Swiss felt threatened by the construction of Muslim edifices. Muslims, of course, make up nearly 4% of their population and are obviously a threat to the country's laws and mores.

It seems to me, though, that the Swiss have got it backwards. Rather than ban the construction of minarets, they should insist that every Muslim household build one atop their domicile, making it easy for anyone else to see where they are. And once they've done that, I see no reason why they couldn't require Muslims to wear tattoos on their forearms.

If they want to borrow from the playbook of religious intolerance, Central Europe has plenty of examples to draw from. If they are heading down that path, they should know better than to ban the symbols of religious difference that could, instead, be used to identify minorities.

24 November 2009

I'm Not Unemployed - I'm Running for President

Lou Dobbs has gone from an advocate for the laid-off American to role model.

I've always been a little ambivalent about Lou Dobbs. I can't say that I've followed him closely (although to be fair, I've paid far more attention to him than he has to me), but I admire that he's realized the real economic issue is stagnating wages for the average person. I don't like that he translates this into a protectionist, anti-immigrant platform. He might have the wrong solution but at least he has the right problem. With that said, my ambivalence has changed to admiration.

Two weeks ago, Dobbs was laid off from CNN. Many of his fans could likely relate. And now Dobbs has done something completely inspired: he's announced that he's running for president.

Think about this as a means to cope with the trauma of getting laid off. Imagine yourself at a job interview.

Interviewer: So, you have been laid off for, uh, three months now?
You: Not really. I'm actually in the early phase of announcing my candidacy for president. I'm discussing options with various people.
Interviewer: So you are not laid off?
You: No, not technically.
Interviewer shifts in his seat, scratches his head: Well, are you collecting unemployment?
You: Yes, but only to better understand the economy.

Think about it. No awkward gap in your resume. "Financial Analyst at GE, 2005-7, Project Manager at GE 2007-9, Presidential Candidate 2009-10." It is a bold move that would show that you are goal oriented and willing to think outside the box. And it makes being ignored by dozens of prospective employers seem paltry in comparison to being ignored by millions of prospective voters.

Lou Dobbs may have just gone from spokesperson for the working man to role model. I know that the next time I'm laid off, I'm running for president.

21 November 2009


Arrogance is just nature's way of telling you that you have stalled in the quest to realize your potential. If you've mastered something, it's time to integrate it into some larger goal. If you're not humbled by what you're trying to do, you're not stretching yourself very far.

And Healthcare for All ....

We're on the first step towards turning healthcare into a right rather than something one needs to earn. I should feel wildly enthused about this, but instead I feel a little queasy.

In the last decade, we've committed trillions to foreign occupation, stabilizing our banks, and now, healthcare. We fund doctors, bankers, and soldiers. The lesson is clear: go to college or join the army.

Legislation to provide universal healthcare is both wonderful and awful. Wonderful because we finally say that everyone deserves it. Awful because the bribes needed in order to pass this legislation are going to cost untold billions. As expensive and as uncertain as war is, at least everyone gets excited about it. Congress votes for war to prove their courage and because they are scared to death that they might lose their seat if they don't. By contrast, supporting healthcare has little going for it so the legislators hold out for a series of bribes, the most obvious being the fact that this bill does little to curtail healthcare costs (at the same time that it guarantees that the government will cover the cost) and the fact that even families making 400% of poverty level ($88,200 per family) are eligible for tax credits. (If you have to subsidize nearly everyone in order to afford the legislation, doesn't everyone have to pay for the subsidies?)

Coverage has been expanded but taxpayers aren't paying more and the the healthcare industry is not accepting less revenue. That only means one thing: we're subsidizing the medical market AND the bond market.

Universal healthcare is a wonderful thing - or would be, if only our democratic process weren't so sick. This is the same country that during our invasion of Iraq, for the first time in our history gave a tax cut while going to war. Now, the quiet and seemingly thoughtful Obama may prove himself as reckless as Bush by passing legislation for a tax cut and universal health care in the same year. This kind of fiscal recklessness just seems unhealthy.

15 November 2009

Time for a New Ritual

For all our understanding and tendency to pity "more primitive" civilizations, we don't do particularly well at ritual. And the modern world has seemingly created the necessity for a new one.

Someone told me that that as life expectancies increase, we're going to encounter more cases of dementia. My aunt has just gone through the trauma of being verbally threatened by her husband of 50+ years, a man who has such severe Alzheimer's that he no longer recognizes her and, for her safety, he has just been institutionalized. She says that the man she loved is no longer there. I think she's right. We need a new way to acknowledge the "death" of a person that precedes the time when their heart stops.

I'm not sure what this ritual would look like, but it would probably be somewhat like a funeral. Perhaps a ceremony in which loved ones mourn the lost, shared memories and praise the "dead" personality they once so loved.

Whatever the actual ritual, I do feel strongly that we need a new designation for those who have "passed over" into a mental confusion and fog so thick that they've lost themselves and everyone they know. Their loved ones need a ritual to deal with the fact that they're "gone."

Without such a ritual, the poor family members have no real way to deal with their loss, or are left to process this without any closure. Perhaps a simple ritual could help.

13 November 2009

Better than Gold

The price of gold has soared as every other market has behaved more erratically. Apparently the thinking is that gold is a safer investment in bad times, even good for a spectacularly post-crash, or even post-apocalyptic world.

I still don't understand the allure of gold. It has value in dentistry, say, and jewelry, but that would probably account for about .1% of the demand for it. Of all the magnets for capital, it seems to me one of the most useless.

If you really do think that markets are going to collapse and society is breaking down and want a hedge against this, don't buy gold. Buy canned goods, bottled water, and toilet paper.

11 November 2009

Freedom's Just Another Word ... Happy Veteran's Day!

Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.
- Soren Kierkegaard

“The true end of Man … is the highest and most harmonious development of his powers to a complete and consistent whole. Freedom is the first and indispensable condition which the possibility of such a development presupposes; but there is besides another essential – intimately connected with freedom, it is true – a variety of situations. Even the most free and self-reliant of men is hindered in his development, when set in a monotonous situation.”
- Wilhelm von Humboldt

“Why should freedom of speech and freedom of the press be allowed? Why should a government which is doing what it believes to be right allow itself to be criticized? It would not allow opposition by lethal weapons. Ideas are much more fatal things than guns. Why should any man be allowed to buy a printing press and disseminate pernicious opinions calculated to embarrass the government?”
- Vladimir Lenin

“If I were to give liberty to the press, my power could not last three days.”
- Napoleon Bonaparte

“How can knowledgeable, reasonable, pragmatic men work for their own servitude, thinking they're struggling for their freedom? That … is what is called ideology.”
- Bernard-Henri Levy

“The idea that men are created free and equal is both true and misleading: men are created different; they lose their social freedom and their individual autonomy in seeking to become like each other”
- David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd (1950)

“The moral is to not set yourself goals which don’t leave you any freedom to maneuver.”
- Sidney Ross

“If there is anything in the world a person should fight for, it is freedom to pursue his ideal, because in that is his great opportunity for self-expression, for the unfoldment of the greatest thing possible to him.”
- Orison S. Marden

“Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you’re a man, you take it.”
- Malcolm X

Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility.
- Sigmund Freud

I believe we are on an irreversible trend toward more freedom and democracy - but that could change.
- Dan Quayle

“Much of our business culture is infatuated with power – amassing it, holding on to it, using it to vanquish competitors and dominate markets. In contrast, much of Dr. Beyster’s leadership philosophy is about spreading freedom. And freedom, it turns out, packs a bigger wallop than power. Power is about what you can control; freedom is about what you can unleash.”
- William C. Taylor

09 November 2009

Transcending Parenting

Of course the thing that no one admits is that the life of the child transcends our feeble attempts at parenting. Fortunately, the child is not any more limited by our parenting than is our brain by our understanding of it.

We have this conceit that we have to get parenting right or the child will turn out poorly. I don't intend to be glib about the danger of scarring a child, but I do know that the life of any person is more complex, more nuanced, more able than the parenting effort that went into it.

And whether you're a parent or a child, you can take comfort in this thought.

08 November 2009

Partisan Politics

Healthcare made it through the House with only 1 (that is one) Republican vote. This discomfits some and is fuel for pundits who can now criticize the president who promised to be non-partisan.

It escapes me, though, how Obama could ever arrive at a non-partisan approach to legislation that Republicans just don't want. If you are going to war, you aren't going to work out a solution with the pacifists. For them, it is not how you approach the war, it is the very fact of war they oppose. In the same vein, if you are going to offer universal healthcare, you aren't going to work out a solution with Republicans. For them, it is not how you approach universal healthcare, it is the very fact of universal healthcare they oppose. How anyone can reach consensus with someone who simply opposes your goal escapes me.

06 November 2009

My GRE Scores

At first blush, it would seem as though my daughter did considerably better than me in her GRE scores. But then I realized that, given about 20-some years have passed, my inflation-adjusted scores are much higher than hers. My verbal score alone would be worth about 1,700 by now. And that doesn't even take into account compound interest. I'm probably in the 144th percentile by now, and would probably be even higher if they had a special category for self delusion.

05 November 2009

Transformational Education

Wouldn't it be fascinating if education actually gave students practice at transformation?

Imagine that the first two years of high school and last two years of university are roughly what they are now, but the four years in between actually lead students through transformation. Along with - or even more than - the knowledge they gain they'll learn how to change themselves. Let me explain.

Year three of high school - year one of their transformation - students would go through something the equivalent of boot camp - or Navy SEAL training. The emphasis would be on physical transformation, on taking orders, on becoming part of a well oiled machine. Students would be run through grueling routines of rote learning, high-stress problem solving, intense physical conditioning, and experience a radical change in their fitness levels and levels of discipline.

Year four of high school - year two of their transformation - students would go through something equivalent to that of an initiate in a monastery. They'd go through long periods of silence, intense meditation, empty days and days full of manual labor or service, a giving of themselves to something higher, something more ethereal and experience a change in their spiritual and psychological awareness.

Year one of university - year three of their transformational series - students would go through something akin to a reality show make over. They'd be taught the latest in styles, how to negotiate and present themselves, be exposed to motivational speakers, given access to plastic surgeons, and taught how to make a profit, developing their economic and business selves.

Finally, in year two of university - year four of the big transformation - students would be taught musical instruments or art and be seeped in philosophy, taught to be skeptics, smoke unfiltered cigarettes, and have long discussions about the meaning (or lack of meaning) of life and question the system. They'd be made into mad bohemians who know jazz music and abstract art and realize that everything is made up - be in on the secret that the modern world is just a social construct.

Then, in years three and four of university, when they choose a major they will realize that this is way of being they are adopting AND they will be practiced at transformation. Even more importantly, having experienced these very different ways of being, they will actually make a choice about who they will be based on having experienced different ways of being. They will have practice at change and will know how it is done. Some may revert to the bohemian philosopher role or the good soldier role. Some may just create a brand new way of being.

Too much emphasis is put on the information we put into the container of a life and not enough is put on the transformation of the container. New wine into old bottles does little to change the world.

And for those of you who think I am joking, you obviously have not been paying close attention to what I write here. Think about it: rather than prattle on about transforming education, what if we instead emphasized transformational education?

Inerrant Religion

To provide a sense of certainty, the Catholics argued that the Church - most simply represented in the office of the pope - was inerrant and the ultimate source of authority. The Protestants scoffed at this obviously ludicrous claim and pointed instead to the Bible as the source of inerrant truth.

As it turns out, they were wrong. There is nothing inerrant. Typos, errors of judgment, muddled ideas and flat out mistakes and contradictions populate the mouths of popes and the pages of the Bible. The point is not certainty but wonder - not ultimate authority but what inspires - not the absence of mistakes but the courage to make them. Respect for the other would seem to include respect for the other interpretation, the other viewpoint, the other's convictions.

Maybe the humility and caution that comes from an awareness that I might be wrong is what allows anything approximating love for others - particularly if love includes showing something more than token respect for, and listening to, the other.

04 November 2009

What if Free Markets Really Were Free?

“The factory of the future will have only two employees, a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment.”
- Warren Bennis

Increasingly, the digitized world is making products free: movies, music, articles, books ... even the software that lets "customers" get these products for free.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that as the portion of free goods we consume rises so does unemployment.

Maybe in the future there will be good news and bad news. The good news will be that everything is free. The bad news is that no one will have jobs.

In such a world, conspicuous consumption will take on a new urgency. Economically, there will be little else to distinguish us.

03 November 2009

The Right's Sudden Interest in Deficits

The Obama administration gets the honor of presiding over the biggest deficit in history. This year's deficit is an outrageous amount - $1.4 trillion, or about 10% of GDP. The right pretends to be sincerely outraged at this. They are not. The right could care less about deficits - as their re-election of dubya proves.

Obama inherited a deficit of $1 trillion and added to that another $400 billion to offset what looked to be the worst downturn since 29. Just a few years in, Bush had turned Clinton's last year surplus of $128 billion into a deficit of $377 billion - a reversal of about $500 billion. $400 billion in 2009 vs. $500 billion in 2003? If critics are outraged at Obama today, where were they in 2003?

If Bush had continued with Clinton's fiscally conservative budgets, continuing to run a surplus rather than chronic deficits, two things would have happened. One, the bubble would have been less pronounced. Might not have even happened. George Bush stimulated an already growing economy. It is no surprise that prices of equities and homes ballooned given his one-two punch of tax cuts and spending increases. Two, the government would have had much greater ability to stimulate the economy a year ago when GDP did drop. Imagine deficit spending from a position of surplus rather than huge deficit. How many more options would we have had? And the stimulus would not have been done with the constant worry of currency devaluation, or spending backfiring as government borrowing crowds out private borrowing.

So, next time someone you know starts in about how awful it is that Obama is running up such a huge deficit, just inquire, "Have you flip flopped on deficits? Wasn't a vote to re-elect Bush and Cheney affirmation of Dick's little quip that deficits don't matter? Now they do?"

01 November 2009


It's no so bad to impulsively ask someone on a date but it seems insufficient as a basis for marriage. Dick Cheney has criticized Obama for "dithering" on his decision about what to do in Afghanistan. Assuming that Cheney's disdain is not proof enough that dithering is worth doing, here's something to consider.

Think about the implications of Obama's decision.

If he pulls out, we risk alienating any ally dependent on our commitment to their cause, risk destabilizing Afghanistan AND Pakistan, lose our ability to encourage the humane treatment of girls and women, lose a potential base in a region of the world that could explode into conflict, and provide the Taliban with a safe haven for plotting and launching the kind of attack that turned the date 9-11 into a tragic event.

If we stay, we continue to pump billions into a cause that has little chance of success, we lose more troops and alienate Muslims by continuing to kill both soldiers and civilians in the area, we are distracted from relationships that will do more to define our future (e.g., our relationship with Pakistan or India, for instance), pay an opportunity cost in terms of less money to spend on things like AIDs in Africa, pandemics, health care in the US, and every other single issue or problem or possibility to which the money and attention could be applied.

It is not just that the first order consequences are important and potentially counter intuitive; the second and third order consequences are worth spending time thinking through. I am going to assume that Obama is doing just that and think it is perfectly fine that he takes his time.

Time will tell, but I'd like to think that Obama is playing chess on the same checker board where Cheney was playing bumper cars.