29 June 2022

An Argument Not Just to Bring Prayer Into School but to go further and Assign Each Teenager With the Task of Founding Their Own Religion

Lots of talk about the Supreme Court allowing prayer in school. I actually think that it is a great idea. Seriously.
William James was one of the my favorite Americans for so many reasons. He wrote the first textbook on psychology. He helped to develop an uniquely American and incredibly powerful philosophy of pragmatism. He probably was as responsible as anyone for the modernization of Harvard university and - given it has become the template for higher academics by extension he also - is responsible for so much of what defines modern education. Meanwhile, over in Britain, his brother Henry James was writing classic novels. (It would have been fascinating to talk to their parents about how to raise children.)
At one point in his life, James began to study religion. His religious friends were offended because they thought it irreverent to study something so holy and spiritual, subjecting it to the same scrutiny you might apply to annual rainfall or the property of metals at different temperatures. His agnostic and atheist friends laughed at him for thinking he could study something with so many supernatural, untestable claims. It would be difficult, for instance, to determine which denominations got more people into heaven and which lost more to hell. James pushed back on both groups. He said, I can study which religions - or more specifically which beliefs - make people happier and which make them more generous, more giving, more compassionate, more loving.
I love this notion that different beliefs lead to different outcomes. And no matter how scientific you want to be, you're left with no choice but faith on some items. Faith that it's worth getting out of bed on this morning when you still haven't any data to tell you whether it'll leave you feeling overwhelmed with grief, joy, appreciation or underwhelmed with just about anything. You don't know how - or if - your life will impact others. There are so many actions we take based on hope or dread rather than facts. That could get any number of names or labels but I would call it faith, a trust that an unknown future will evolve in a particular direction.
Children should know that there are options other than what their parents believe - whether those parents are nihilists or Catholic or Jehovah's Witnesses or secular humanists or .. well anything. I think that kids need more exposure to what people do for a living. (The Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks 800 broad categories of professions. Most 10th graders can list about 8. (Okay. I made up 8. It isn't many.)) I think that kids also need more exposure to what people believe about their life. Which beliefs make people self righteous and convinced they alone truly understand. Which beliefs leave people feeling despondent and overwhelmed? Which beliefs make people more generous, happier, more careful with other people, more shut off from new experiences ...?
We should bring prayer into schools as well as a variety of beliefs. If we do this right, not only will kids and young adults learn a great deal about how belief changes who they are and what they feel about themselves and others but they might even start their own religion. Mormons think you should follow the example of Joseph Smith. Scientologists think you should follow the example of L. Ron Hubbard. Muslims that you should follow the example of Muhammed. The Church of Christ that you should follow the example of Mary Baker Eddy. Christians that you should follow the example of Jesus. Jews that you should follow the example of Moses. Do you know what is common about all of those people? They created a new religion rather than accept what they'd inherited. What if kids from all the different faiths and religions and traditions in this fascinating experiment in diversity that we call America began to compare notes on various religions, began to take seriously what a great impact beliefs have on who we are and what we can do, and began to explore the possibility of a creative response rather than the binary responses of acceptance or rejection?
Bring prayer into schools. Bring religion and faith into schools. And then as a school project have teenagers found new religions and see how those new beliefs make them and the people they love (and suffer) better people.

26 June 2022

How American Catholics Are Turning Their Beliefs Into Our Laws

Last month San Francisco’s archbishop barred Nancy Pelosi from communion because she supports abortion rights. Put more clearly, a Catholic archbishop punished a Catholic who supports religious freedom. At 82, Pelosi is not going to have an abortion. This is not about the archbishop’s condemnation of Pelosi – a church member - for her actions. This is condemnation of her defending her constituents’ right to believe and practice something Catholics don’t. In isolation this wouldn’t be enough to suggest that Catholic leadership in the US supports ending religious freedom for Americans who aren’t Catholics but there is more.

The clear majority of Americans believe the question of abortion should be left to individual women but a majority of the Supreme Court do not. 7 of 9 of our current Supreme Court justices are Catholic and 6 seem more aligned with San Francisco’s archbishop than Nancy Pelosi. (In the spirit of full disclosure, there is some question as to whether Gorsuch identifies as Catholic or Anglican so it is possible that only 6 supreme court justices are Catholic. In any case, a significant majority.)

Overturning Roe v Wade is a clear example of an elite group overturning the will of a majority. This is the very definition of undemocratic. 

The pope teaches that life begins at conception and 6 Catholics on the Supreme Court have overturned Roe v Wade to make their Catholic convictions our national law. Or more to the point, they have decided that national law should no longer guarantee any woman the right to follow her own conscience or religious beliefs and are leaving that ruling to the states.

This isn’t the only victory for the Catholic Church now so richly represented on the Supreme Court. Last week the Supreme Court also ruled that taxpayer money should help to fund private religious schools, which will be a great aid for Catholic churches that are already tax exempt and will now also be getting government subsidies.

John Kennedy was essentially forced by the press to assure a country that had been under the rule of WASPs for centuries that if elected president he would put the American constitution and people before the pope in deciding policy. It struck me as silly that the press would ask him that. Now it seems like a simple question that should be asked of any candidate: Do you believe that God’s will as has been revealed to you should do more to shape policy than your constituents’ will?

There is indication that the Catholics are not yet done changing American laws to conform to their religious convictions. In an opinion by Catholic justice Alito, the Supreme Court has already indicated they will be reconsidering allowing same-sex marriage and access to contraceptives, two more Catholic beliefs that these justices want made into American law.

It is a curious turn of history that a country founded by Protestants for whom religious freedom – and freedom from religion – were foundational is now having the opinions of a majority of Americans overturned by a court dominated by robed justices who dress and think like Catholic clergy. It isn’t clear how far these good Catholics will go to conform American law to Catholic convictions. It is easy to believe, for instance, that they would put up obstacles to research in genetics that echo the Catholic Church’s stopping Galileo’s research into the earth’s orbit by putting him under house arrest.

It is true that no religious group in the US is larger than Catholics. It is not true that they are a majority – making up less than a quarter of us. And even if they were 51% of our population, the first amendment still suggests that they have no license to turn their religious convictions into our laws. Catholics need to understand that they are no different than Mormons, Baptists, Hindus, and atheists in this simple regard: they are welcome to live by their beliefs but not allowed to impose those beliefs on others. As Americans, our only law about religion is that we don’t have any laws about religion. And for this, even America’s most popular religion is no exception. Unless, of course, the Supreme Court rules that it is.

21 June 2022

Texan Republicans Propose Undoing the Work of the Country's Greatest Presidents - an attempt to undo centuries of progress in return for an imagined past

A fascinating thing has happened over the last 200+ years of progress, ever since Jefferson changed John Locke's "life, liberty and property" into "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Since Jefferson life expectancy has doubled and per capita GDP has gone up 25X, the average American now making as much in two weeks as the average American in the late 18th century made in a year.

But the pursuit of happiness doesn't always take individuals into greater prosperity or longer lives.

Some people prefer less stressful, lower-paying jobs or no job at all, choosing less prosperity. Others love hobbies like base jumping or binge drinking, pursuing happiness in a way that also lowers life expectancy. So, while this pursuit of happiness has given most of us more income and longevity, it doesn't have to.

Which brings me to Texas Republicans.

Last week, the Texas GOP voted on their 2022 platform. Quite simply, they refute every advance that has made us more prosperous and longer living than the first Americans.

Jefferson was one of the big reasons we have religious freedom and freedom from religion. His -and all the founding fathers' - Enlightenment philosophy replaced belief in the supernatural with evidence found in the natural. This made science and tinkering rather than personal revelation the stuff of community. It also made things like votes you could count rather than the divine rights of kings the source of power.

The Texas GOP would like to "return Christianity to schools and government," making religion the basis for education and government, a reversal of what Jefferson did centuries ago. They also want to undo the progress of Lincoln.

Lincoln not only fought the Confederacy but instituted income tax. Income tax was a brilliant innovation that gave the Union money to fight Confederates while at the same time investing in the largest infrastructure project in history (the transcontinental railroad) and new universities like the University of California, Purdue, LSU, Texas A&M and dozens of other universities. The A&M designation was for agricultural and machinery, these institutions making American farms the most productive in the world and helping to create a new generation of factory workers. Almost as importantly, the income tax paid interest on the bonds that financed all of these investments, and this turned a generation of ordinary people - shopkeepers, farmers, and housewives - into capitalists whose first foray into investments came through the purchase of these bonds. The growth in capital markets after this helped fund a proliferation of new products, jobs and the most remarkable change in prosperity ever witnessed.

Texas Republicans want to eradicate income tax, a tool for so much including public investments and research that has furthered progress. While tearing down income tax, though, they do want to preserve monuments to the Confederate soldiers who violently resisted Lincoln’s efforts to liberate and improve the lives of all Americans.
Texas Republicans also want to return us to the economic policies of the Great Depression.

FDR became president in the midst of a brutal economic downturn. The Great Depression destroyed half of GDP and a quarter of American jobs. The global depression drove a similar downturn in Germany, which brought Hitler to power. FDR used the insights of Keynes to begin a recovery but it wasn’t until war with Hitler that government policies drove enough spending to end the Depression. The Federal Reserve pre-dated FDR but he helped to transform it into a vehicle for Keynesian policies. From 1900 to 1933, the American economy was in recession 47% of the time. Since 1933, it has been in recession only 13% of the time, largely changed by a Fed enabled by Keynesian philosophy.

The Texas GOP wants to end the Fed, to return us to the time of unregulated banking. We know how deregulation works and the problems are not limited to the early 1900s. Starting in 2007, Texan George Bush's deregulation of the mortgage market triggered a sharp downturn, a global recession. Had it not been for that recession triggered by deregulation, the American economy would have been in recession only 4% of the time this century, about one tenth as often as it was in the first decades of the last century. The Fed and regulation makes a difference.

In the 1960s, women, minorities and homosexuals gained more rights, access to universities and workplaces. Women could open checking accounts without their husband's signature and won control over their own bodies. The Texas GOP wants homosexuality treated as an abnormal lifestyle choice and wants to end abortion rights.

The pursuit of happiness has neatly coincided with growing prosperity. For Texan Republicans it is not enough to return to a time 250 years earlier before the great advances of Jefferson, Lincoln and FDR. They want to bring along the rest of the state – even the nation - ending hard fought for rights and policies of America’s most defining leaders.

The Texan GOP wants to reverse the great progress that Jefferson, Lincoln, and FDR gave us, policies that gave us longer, more prosperous lives. We are now in a time in history when a growing portion of conservatives so yearn for the imagined past that they are no longer interested in progress but instead imagine their happiness in the past. That would seem almost quaint if their choice was to retreat to off-the-grid communes rather than insist on dragging their neighbors and the rest of the country with them.

17 June 2022

Bitcoin's Wild Inflation and the Crypto Promise That is Getting Harder and Harder to Believe

People are (rightfully) nervous about the dollar getting hit with inflation. Over the last year, the dollar has dropped in value by 8.5% . Which is to say, inflation has been 8.5% in the last YEAR.

By contrast, inflation in bitcoin in the last WEEK has been 30.4%.

Over the last year, bitcoin has moved in one week nearly as much as the dollar has moved in the last year - an average of 2.7% a day and 7.4% a week. (Keep in mind that targeted inflation for the dollar is 2% and for years annual inflation for the dollar has been about that, less than bitcoin moves in a day.)

Stocks give you a share of the company's earnings.
Bonds give you interest payments.
Rental property gives you rental income.

All of those assets come with risk and their value will rise and fall but they do promise profit, interest and income. Crypto makes no promise of any income or return. Its only promise is that it will become a preferred currency because it is more stable than the dollar or euro. Demand will rise for it over time because of its superiority to the dollar. That superiority is largely based on the promise of its relative stability compared to the dollar.

That promise is harder and harder to believe.

08 June 2022

The Geography of the Imagination - How Marco Polo Inspired Christopher Columbus

Here are a few paragraphs from my book The Fourth Economy about Kublai Khan and Marco Polo, a meeting of east and west.

Marco Polo’s trips to the Orient overlapped with the final crusades (he returned to Italy from his final trip in 1295) and opened up trade routes with Cathay (a kingdom roughly coincident with China) and Cathay’s “Emperor of the Universe,” Kublai Khan. He traveled widely through Asia, India, and the Middle East and then, while sitting in jail back home in Italy, dictated his stories to a cellmate who wrote romance novels.

The book seduced Europeans, who were fascinated to learn of distant lands with exotic customs. They read of Pem, a place where a woman was legally entitled to take a new husband when ever hers was gone on a trip of twenty or more days. They learned of the funeral procession of the Mongol’s Great Khans in which “anyone unfortunate enough to encounter the funeral cortege was put to death to serve their lord in the next world." Mangu Khan’s funeral procession collected twenty thousand victims en route to the grave. Yet it might have been the reports of great wealth that most captivated their imagination. Marco Polo inspired generations of explorers.

Christopher Columbus (1451 – 1506), for one, carried a copy of Marco Polo’s account with him on his journeys across the Atlantic. Marco Polo changed the geography of the imagination of younger explorers, changing what they thought was possible and desirable, and this transformation of the possible changed what was real.

What if We Treated Gun Deaths as a Serious Rather Than an Ideological Problem to Solve

What if gun deaths were not ideological?

Every day more than 300 Americans are shot. 123 are killed.

In 2020, 45,000 people were killed by guns in the US. If we define a generation as 30 years, 45,000 a year over the next generation means 1.4 million killed by guns.

If we were to stop treating this as an ideological issue and instead treated it like we do issues like death in childbirth or deaths from auto accidents and simply, methodically, systematically found ways to reduce gun deaths by 5% a year, every year, this could make a dramatic difference as the next generation comes of age.

If there is no change in annual gun deaths over the next 30 years, this will mean 1.4 million dead. If gun deaths rise by 5% a year for 30 years, it will mean 3.4 million dead during that time. If deaths drop by 5% a year, it will mean 700,000 dead.

The difference it would make over the next generation if gun deaths rise by 5% a year vs. fall by 5% a year?
2.7 million lives. That is greater than the population of 14 states.

(If you think a steady rise of 5% is high, consider this. Between 2019 and 2020, gun deaths rose 14%. The difference over a generation of a rise or fall of 14% a year in gun deaths is a difference of 20 million.)

07 June 2022

From Lincoln to Trump - the Birth and Obsolescence of the Republican Party

As we learn more about how clearly Trump and his supporters were intent on overthrowing democracy on 6 January 2021, it will be really fascinating to see how many Republicans side with Trump (as senators like Cruz and Rubio have done) and how many side with democracy (like Romney and Cheney have done).

Lincoln was the first Republican president and so incredibly visionary and progressive. Trump could easily be the GOP's last president and was even more focused on the past than Lincoln was the future. The telegraph was incredibly revolutionary technology at the time of Lincoln. It no longer is. Politics and policy is no different from technology. What defines state of the art in one generation is quaint in the next.

Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born on the same day. A pity that the GOP wasn't also influenced by Darwin. Failure to evolve might be the simplest explanation of why Lincoln will go down in history of one of our greatest presidents and Trump as one of our worst.