Archive for the ‘ThinkingOutLoud’ Category

Rapid Fire

I’ll be blunt: there’s a lot of news I’m not happy about over the past week, and I don’t want to dwell on it. So, today I’m doing a rapid-fire blog to get through it all. We can hash it out in the comments.

Healthcare. The Senate debate is already infuriating, as Sen. Ben Nelson is offering a Stupak-like amendment to their version of the health care bill.

Governor. It looks more and more likely that Bill White will enter the Texas Governor’s Race rather than waiting (probably until 2012) to run for KBH’s Senate seat. This was always a possibility, as White’s campaign was always known as “Bill White for Texas,” keeping it flexible. White will win whichever race he enters, in my opinion. I’m not upset about that, but I am upset about losing out on Hank Gilbert, a great candidate who I believe can also beat Perry (but probably not Bill White in the Primary). If Bill White enters, I wonder if Hank will stay in the Governor’s race or switch to another. My guess right now is that Hank would stay.

“Climategate.” It’s shameful and ridiculous at the same time. It’s shameful because professional scientists should know and act better than the bunch from East Anglia. Scientific activity must withstand peer review and (informed) public scrutiny to be any good. It’s ridiculous because (1) all of a sudden those on the right decide they want to pay attention to scientific evidence (now that they have some that suits their worldview) and (2) those on the right believe that a few bad scientists somehow eliminate the mountain of evidence already out there on global warming. Man’s adverse effect on our climate is both observable and measurable, regardless.

Afghanistan/Pakistan. I’m not happy with President Obama’s decision to send 30,000 more troops there. I think we need to get the hell out asap. His speech Tuesday night was eloquent, but could have been written by one of dubya’s speechwriters — the same talking points were sprinkled throughout.

Silver lining: would Hillary have announced a planned end to the war? Would McCain? No and hell no. So, at least we got a clearer strategy, an exit timeframe, and most likely the best result out of any of the three Presidential candidates of 2008.

In conclusion, this week is full of news that makes me grumpy, except for exciting local developments, which I will blog about later in the week.

Feel free to discuss these topics in the comments.

This and That

Life gets away from me sometimes, so it’s time to play catch-up on a number of topics.

First, the Lubbock County Democratic Party and Texas Democratic Women of the South Plains are hosting the Democratic Booth at the South Plains Fair! The fair runs through October 3rd, and the booth is up and running in the Merchants’ Building (near the South entrance on Broadway) whenever the Fair is open. I just got home from my volunteer shift there, and it was great. We have free bumper stickers, campaign literature, and balloons, as well as T-Shirts, Buttons, and freedom feet available for a donation. It was great to visit with everyone that stopped by. We even had a surprise visit from a candidate…

Next, Thursday’s DFA Movie Night was a great success! We showed “The Least of These,” (which can be seen for free online — thanks, Big Ronaldo et al for pointing out the link) and had a good discussion afterward. The other Sarah followed up with a great resource for all things Hutto, indicating that the last families have left the T. Don Hutto detention center. What a relief. But, the question of what to do with families of unresolved immigration status still lingers.

Tonight, I became aware of a video of LPD tasering someone at Tour de Tech Terrace, an annual cycling event. I don’t know the circumstances beyond what is described in the video information, but the video is troubling.

Lastly, I find myself reflecting on life in a wet Lubbock. Right now, I’m having a beer that was available at a reasonable price at a store near my house. When I bought the this beer the other day, I remember seeing the smiles of the other shoppers — even those not buying beer. The smiles seem to say, “What a wild and crazy ride it’s been, but we finally have cheap beer.” Prohibition finally ended in Lubbock.

Should be a busy and exciting week this week, with lots to talk about.

The Case for Regulation

It’s “thinking out loud” time here again at LL.

I want to step back a bit and consider the concept of regulation.

Our world is fast-paced and technologically advanced, and I believe we need regulation that keeps up with our capacity to destroy ourselves. Got nukes? Better restrict access to nuclear materials. Got supermarkets? Better make sure that mass-produced food is safe to eat. Got factories? Better make sure that their products are safe to use and that each factory doesn’t destroy the environment it’s in. Got automobiles? Better make sure that those who drive them are qualified to do so and that there is a system of rules to accommodate all drivers.

To me, this seems like basic stuff. Yet, everywhere I turn I hear pundits on the right calling for less regulation or no regulation at all. They see regulation in action and call it “nanny state government,” as though we the people are not allowed to protect ourselves from ourselves.

We also need sensible regulation due to human nature. I’m not implying that humans are evil by nature, but I am saying there are measurable group behaviors that indicate our willingness to deceive ourselves or harm others under the right circumstances. Take the world of market capitalism. Empirical tests, inasmuch as they are possible with human test subjects, have shown that people are more willing to cheat with money “just a little” the further removed they are from (1) dealing with cash as opposed to credit, or (2) reminders to be honest. (I am referring to fascinating research done by Dan Ariely and others that is covered in his book Predictably Irrational.) This phenomenon is why it’s easier to spend more on credit or debit than it is with cash, and why financial advisers with a stake in the companies they recommend can act like they don’t have a conflict of interest. It also helps to explain how, in eight short years of deregulated markets, we can go from a world of booming, healthy investment to one of shady, over-leveraged debt.

Well-thought-out regulation can help us — again, as a group more than individually — to keep from engaging in the weaknesses of our human nature. Of course it’s possible to go too far in the regulatory direction when we stop regulating to protect ourselves and start regulating to proscribe this or that worldview on others. Too often, those on the right are all too eager to regulate behavior according to some narrow worldview while staunchly, ridiculously opposing regulation that actually benefits society as a whole. Wingnuts will talk about denying gay rights all day long while ignoring a broken health care system, for example.

It’s “thinking out loud” time here again at LL. What are your thoughts about regulation?

Market or Society: What’s Really Important?

I’ve been reading Dan Ariely lately. He’s the poster child for Behavioral Economics, and his book Predictably Irrational is fascinating (Amazon link).

In late 2008, when Alan Greenspan made the shocking statement that the free market did not behave as expected, I nearly fainted. Since that time, I’ve been interested in what proponents of behavioral economics have to say. So far, I’m finding their methods and conclusions fascinating, and I’ll have more to blog about behavioral economics now and then over the next few weeks.

For now though, I want to examine one of Dr. Ariely’s ideas through a partisan lens.

Try this thought experiment: Say you’re at thanksgiving dinner at your grandparents’ house. The whole family is there: aunts, uncles, cousins and all. You eat a delicious dinner with turkey, stuffing, casseroles — the works. At the end of the dinner, you stand up, take out your wallet/purse, and say, “Grandma and Grandpa, that dinner was delicious. It must have cost a lot to prepare. How much do I owe you? Three hundred? Four hundred?” What would the family’s reaction be? Almost certainly, jaws would drop and eyes would bulge at the highly inappropriate faux pas you just committed.

What is so embarrassing about trying to pay for a family thanksgiving dinner? Essentially, the embarrassment comes from trying to operate under market norms where it is more appropriate to operate under social norms. The important thing was to come together for a meal as a family and share in that fellowship. Bringing up money at a time like that would be like farting in church.

I am convinced that this market norms / social norms switcheroo happens all too often in the political world, and politicians and pundits (usually Republicans, but sometimes Democrats too) have been getting away with such transgressions unchallenged for too long. Without a winning moral argument, they substitute a market argument, even if it’s inappropriate (not to mention false most of the time even in market terms, but that’s a different post).

Health care is a perfect example. The social norms surrounding health care are pretty self-evident, I think. Public health is a public good. It’s good to live in a nation where, you and your fellow citizens will be healthy and have access to the health care they need. Desiring good health for your neighbor is a moral good. These ideas represent the framework in which our health care discussion should be taking place — the framework of social norms.

However, we see market norms setting the terms of the discussion on both sides of the health care issue. Health care is too expensive. Health care is too inefficient. Health care providers should compete to innovate. Cost, efficiency, and competition are important aspects of health care, to be sure — but they are secondary issues compared to having a working health care system nation-wide.

As I mentioned in the comments of my previous post, I think environment/pollution issues suffer from the same market norms vs social norms problem. The financial details are not as important as the big picture — we have to minimize pollution and maximize environmental protection for the good of everyone living on the planet because it’s the right thing to do.

Education is another arena in which we often get bogged down in a market values discussion when social values are more important. It’s more important for us to value education across the board as a nation than it is to send more or less money to this or that school or district. The social norm of valuing education for all is primary, and the market norms of cost and competition among schools are secondary. Yet, thanks to No Child Left Behind and similar legislation, our national dialogue about education has been stuck in a framework of competing students and schools instead of focusing on the public good of an education for all.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t ever talk about market values; someone needed to buy the ingredients for that thanksgiving dinner, after all. However, having the thanksgiving dinner with the whole family present is the key thing. I’m not saying that money isn’t an issue — it’s just not THE issue.

The thing about market norms vs social norms is that once you get started with a discussion under one framework, it’s very difficult to switch out of it and into the other one. In other words, we will lose sight of our big-picture social goals if we let the discussion bog down in this or that economic aspect. We have national priorities that need to be taken care of, and I believe that looking at them primarily through a market worldview tends to put us in the wrong mindset to get them done.

So Close to True Democracy

…and yet kinda far away (we don’t wanna get up off the couch).

I’m doing a little thinking out loud here, so bear with me.

Live polling is a modern dream of every populist, and we’re now at the point — technologically speaking — where we can make it happen.

Here’s what I picture. Our current system of elections would stay the same, but elected officials at all levels of government would have access to instant polling tools that they would use to aid their decision-making. No more relying on pundits or lobbyists or even activist groups to claim ownership of public opinion — we have the capability to build a system where elected officials can just ask the voting public directly. It could be an opt-in system offered along with voter registration. It could be done online and over the phone (”Press one to nuke Iran, press two to try diplomacy…”). These instant polls would not be binding, but the results should be publicly available and taken into consideration by our elected leaders.

This is not pie-in-the-sky stuff. The business world is already catching on to the power of instant polling. Website advertisers certainly get it; easily half the ads I see online are invitations to participate in surveys. Fundraising groups use surveys to generate interest. Even the Nintendo Wii features a free “Everybody Votes” channel where Wii owners can vote in simple A-or-B opinion polls, predict the results, and see an analysis of the results (and it has more participation than many countries’ elections).

What is missing right now is a way to wed such technology to our system of voter registration, a way to prevent massive fraud in the system, and the political will to make it all happen.

The dawn of the internet age is opening up everything, including politics. I think that we will see politicians becoming more accessible, government becoming more transparent (we need it!), and the path between constituent and elected official becoming more direct.

Lubbock is a Suburb of Itself

I’ve been thinking about the idea of community lately, especially as it relates to Lubbock.

Community can mean lots of things. The sense of community I’m thinking about today is city-sized: the community of Plainview, the community of Lubbock, the community of Austin, the community of Dallas, and so forth. The sense of community I’m thinking of today can tell us how two complete strangers might interact when they meet each other for the first time, if the odds favor them meeting at all.

Lubbock is my hometown, and I enjoy living here. However, I have some concerns about how Lubbock has grown over its 100 years — obstacles that hinder us when it comes to growing as a community-at-large.

First, cars. Lubbock is a city designed from the ground up for the automobile age. We pass strangers all day long in our cars and never know who is sitting behind steel and glass a few feet from us. Because of this, we are missing out on the very basic community knowledge of who lives here. We tend to think Lubbock is populated only with the people we meet at our destinations, which are usually self-selected. Contrast this to a city like New York or Chicago, where one can see all sorts of people on the train, the bus, the street.

Second, space. Part of living in a city built for the automobile age is that our buildings are far apart to accommodate our wide streets. Even residential streets in Lubbock are bigger than business thoroughfares in many cities. Every extra yard between your house and the one across the street makes it less likely that you will ever meet your neighbors.

(There is a positive side to the wide open space, captured beautifully by Molly Ivins: “Once you have been to Lubbock, it feels like freedom and everywhere else feels like jail.”)

Third, residential construction. Lubbock has primarily single-family dwellings, spaced farther apart as you get farther from downtown. Most Lubbock residents will never meet their neighbors in the stairwell or common yard because we don’t tend to have those things.

My point is that these factors make it harder for us to find common cause with those geographically near us, and therefore it is more difficult for Lubbock citizens to organize.

(Lubbock is also a conservative’s paradise for the same reasons. Everyone knows that urban areas tend to be more liberal/progressive than rural areas, but I think it’s a little more complicated than that. I think that the places in which people encounter the most strangers are the most liberal, and the places where people never have to meet anyone new tend to be the most conservative.)

However, Lubbock is not totally adrift as a suburb of itself; some neighborhoods have figured out how to organize in spite of our area’s obstacles. For instance, Heart of Lubbock has a very organized neighborhood association. South Overton, Tech Terrace, and Guadalupe also come to mind as examples of well-organized neighborhoods.

Furthermore, I am hopeful that our isolated/insular community-at-large will improve because of the age we live in. With President Obama as an organizer-in-chief, maybe our detached, separated situation will change for the better. Also, now we can find each other on the internet, which can reconnect us face-to-face. Those of us concerned about our community detachment can find each other online and work together to do something about it offline.

Thoughts?

To Nationalize?

Behond, the funniest-but-truest political cartoon I’ve seen all week:

Like most Americans, I find myself thinking about the bailout a great deal these days. We are pumping money into the very companies that are responsible for this mess just to keep the whole system afloat long enough to fix it. It seems to be a delicate dance between rewarding the crooks and keeping the working man from losing his retirement.

In 1933, one of the most helpful and immediate things that FDR did after becoming President was to nationalize the banks. He then either re-opened them as re-privatized banks when they were solvent or shut them down gracefully if they were beyond hope. Regarding today’s complicated mix of banks, i-banks, and sophisticated-financial-instrument-clearinghouses (i.e. crooks), I wonder if a similar move is (1) already slowly happening, (2) an option to exercise later, or (3) not gonna happen.

I suspect that outright, wholesale nationalization of banks will probably not happen. So many things are different now — a globalized economy, an order of magnitude more banks, an opportunity to take action years ahead of when FDR could act (think 1929->1933 versus 2008->2009), and the fact that many of the safety net programs from the New Deal are still with us.

However, here’s a bit of depressing commentary about our national dialogue on this issue:

That’s right: we see a 20 point swing in opinion because people do not know what the word “nationalize” means, but BOY IS IT SURE SCARY.

(Limbaugh and the Dittoheads shoulder most of the blame for phenomena like that, I say. His overused tactic of slogan-rinse-repeat has been cratering our national political discourse for nearly two decades.)

Whatever next step is taken to stabilize our economy, I hope it works.

Stronger Together

If you missed the President’s Tuesday tonight speech, here’s the gist of it:

Now is the time to act boldly and wisely – to not only revive this economy, but to build a new foundation for lasting prosperity. Now is the time to jumpstart job creation, re-start lending, and invest in areas like energy, health care, and education that will grow our economy, even as we make hard choices to bring our deficit down.

(video and transcription are available at Whitehouse.gov)

Obama’s approval rating should go up over the next few days as Americans watch and discuss the speech. He was clear, hopeful, and reached out to the Left and the Right. I’m proud that President Obama is keeping his campaign promise to change the tone in Washington.

And that brings me to what I find myself thinking about tonight.

As an entrepreneur, I find myself reading a lot of business books, many of which can safely be called “business motivation” books. Normally they’re corny as hell, and I have to put them down pretty quickly. Occasionally, though, one sticks with me for a while. Right now How Full Is Your Bucket? by Tom Rath and the brilliant Don Clifton is sticking with me due to its harrowing summary of Korean POW camps.

According to Rath/Clifton, the POW camps in the Korean war were not cruel in a physical sense. There was no physical torture, and the soldiers had food, clothing, and shelter. However, the North Korean camps had the highest fatality rate among U.S. POWs of any war, due to a cruel sort of reverse psychotherapy practiced by the North Korean captors. Soldiers were brought together in groups of a dozen or so and forced to reveal good things they didn’t do (but could have done), negative things about their fellow soldiers, and their own perceived failings. At the same time, good news in the mail from home was withheld, but bad news, bill collection notices, and so forth were delivered promptly to the POWs. These soldiers would often end up feeling totally disconnected from their fellow soldiers and countrymen — sometimes quietly dying in their huts, sometimes not even bothering to contact loved ones after surviving the war.

I find myself considering the story of Korean War POWs alongside the documentary I saw tonight, “Pete Seeger: The Power of Song.” The movie, as with Pete Seeger’s life (he is still alive and even performed at the Lincoln Memorial pre-inauguration concert) is all about bringing people together through song for common cause. His constant touring, education, and performance of folk music helped to expose the hypocrisy of the House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC), grow the civil rights movement, and force the cleanup of the Hudson River just to name a few. His banjo is famous for having these words written around it: “This machine surrounds hate / and forces it to surrender.” Pete Seeger is a living, singing embodiment of finding the good things we have in common and encouraging their growth based on a shared positive activity.

As we go through these turbulent times, watch to see who is positive and uniting, and who is negative and dividing. It’s not all one-side-or-the-other. However, right now Obama and the Democrats are leading in a big way when it comes to being positive, united, and forward-looking. Meanwhile, those on the far right will continue to attempt to shift the focus of our public discourse to those wedge issues that divide us.

We have more in common than we have in opposition. We are stronger together than we are individually. We live longer, happier, and more productive lives when we build each other up rather than tear each other down.

The way to beat this current economic crisis is to join together and move forward on those core public issues where we have both a strong consensus and a strong need to improve. Energy, health care, and education — as indicated by President Obama — comprise an excellent focus for our efforts. Investment in these areas will help our economy to recover, and, once we have weathered this storm, we will be a better nation for it.

American Exceptionalism

What a provocative term.

I couldn’t help but notice it touted at that other political blog hosted at LubbockOnline.com.

It’s also a term with a long history — as usual, Wikipedia is a good place to start. We’ve come a long way from de Tocqueville.

In its current meaning, American Exceptionalism is the cornerstone of neoconservative foreign policy, which basically goes like this: “We are the only superpower in the world. We have God on our side. We can do whatever we want.”

I’ve also heard American Exceptionalism referred to as the unipolar worldview (as opposed to the multipolar worldview), which is a term that makes more sense to me because it suggests the history of where we got this crazy notion that we can go it alone in the world. The Cold War worldview was that of two superpowers facing off across the Atlantic and in smaller, hotter proxy conflicts around the world. When the other superpower collapsed, what else could the world be except a unipolar world where the USA is the sole surviving superpower?

So neat, so simple, so wrongheaded.

Firstly, with so many nations in the nuclear club with us, I don’t think our military strength is a guarantee that we will come out on top in a conflict with another first-world nation. And even if we are dominant militarily, how long before someone catches up, and do we have the moral authority to act unilaterally in the meantime?

Secondly, it makes us arrogant, which makes us foolish. I am convinced that the neoconservative think tanks that brought us such wisdom as “we can wrap up Iraq within a year,” and, “we will be greeted as liberators,” were operating from the comfortable overconfidence of American Exceptionalism, or the unipolar model.

Thirdly, it makes us blind to innovation elsewhere in the world. The Bush years will be remembered for falling behind the world in every kind of good statistic, in policy based on science, and in providing a high quality of life. We are all too eager to export some aspects of our culture and commerce, but we need to remember that it is our melting pot of cultures and ideas from around the world that makes America great.

I hope that the Obama administration helps us become a nation that is a partner in the world, not a bully in the world. Signs are already positive: Obama’s first interview as President is with a middle east TV network, and his special envoy George Mitchell is on his way to the middle east as well. Peace in that region will be difficult, but at least the Obama Administration is off to an energetic and meaningful start.

Words of Hope and Inspiration: Social Justice

I’ve spent some time lately thinking about the idea of social justice, a notoriously difficult idea to pin down. I believe it is something that liberals and progressives spend a great deal of their lives pondering, while conservatives and others on the political right tend to dismiss it or diminish its importance. For example, someone on the political right might say something like, “the free market is social justice,” which I believe to be demonstrably false.

Rev. Joseph Lowery’s benediction at last week’s Inauguration had some great lines that urge us in the direction of social justice:

For we know that, Lord, you are able and you’re willing to work through faithful leadership to restore stability, mend our brokenness, heal our wounds and deliver us from the exploitation of the poor, of the least of these, and from favoritism toward the rich, the elite of these.

I believe that the idea of social justice allows for rich people and poor people to exist simultaneously in society. To suggest otherwise (i.e. “we should all be rich,” or “we should all be poor,” or “we should all be neither rich nor poor,”) is contrary to reality. However, a key concept of social justice is that the poor are not exploited and the rich are not shown favoritism. All one has to do is read about another crooked or incompetent CEO with a so-called golden parachute, visit a jail for white-collar criminals, or speak to someone who works 40+ hours a week and still does not receive a living wage to see that we have a long way to go before we achieve this aspect of social justice.

More Lowery:

And now, Lord, in the complex arena of human relations, help us to make choices on the side of love, not hate; on the side of inclusion, not exclusion; tolerance, not intolerance.

Another cornerstone of social justice is respect for one’s fellow human beings. We have a long way to go in this area as well, as America has shown a tendency to sort itself into demographically homogeneous communities in the last few years. We need institutions that will bring together diverse peoples from across the nation.

At one time, the American military fulfilled this need to a certain extent. I believe that some sort of non-military civil service — a promise of the Obama campaign — will contribute to our capacity to tolerate, understand, and love one another.

By the way, a full transcript and youtube video of Rev. Lowery’s benetiction are available online. I thought it was a beautiful meditation from a man who’s seen a lot of serious stuff in his lifetime.

I’ve only scratched the surface of this important topic with the above two quotes. What are your thoughts about social justice?


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