Big thinking

Making Sense

So much is ethically wrong and even economically nonsensical.  I fight every day to keep my thinking out of the weeds, hoping to see the bigger picture and very occasionally I succeed.  There are so many battles in this seemingly disappearing experiment in democracy and so many people are suffering with little relief in sight, even for the lofty ideals to which we say we aspire.  Here are some examples of that.

Nicholas Kristof has a compelling piece in the New York Times about health and health care and the decisions we make.  Economically, it makes little sense to pay over a half a million dollars to treat disease instead of just the few dollars that are required for routine screenings.  Ethically, it makes no sense to let our citizens suffer and die because of economically driven poor choices (no medical insurance) or because of a profound lack of resources that prohibits routine health care.  The system that makes that necessary is entirely about the greed of those whose hands are on the rudder

The second half of the 1960’s was an era of radical change and it was played out in part in drug experimentation.  That flamboyant display of anti-establishment nose-thumbing resulted in draconian laws and mandatory sentencing like the “three strikes” rule that sent our young to prison for having a joint.  The establishment surely showed its muscle by trashing the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans for their youthful dalliances.  It also cost billions of dollars to prosecute and incarcerate the offenders, forcing our legal establishment to divert limited resources away from nabbing the really bad guys.  What do you think about the ethics and economics of that?

On November 6 voters in Washington, Colorado and Oregon will vote on whether to legalize recreational marijuana.  That is far less odd, given the historical record, than that today’s establishment folks are in favor of legalization.  And even that is less odd than that the illegal suppliers of pot are against legalization because it will slash their profits.  Timothy Egan’s piece details this, and at root it’s all about simple human greed.

It is said that money is the root of all evil, but I don’t think that’s quite right.  It is simply the tool we use for our human instincts to focus first and foremost on ourselves, to do what we see as in our own best interests.  Frequently, human interpretations of that self-interest are quite short-sighted.  No, it’s actually nearly always short-sighted, and it leads us down a path of self-destruction.  Even the super-educated, self-protected wealthy 1% aren’t immune and they and we are sowing the seeds of our own demise because of our shortsightedness.  Chrystia Freeland has written a compelling article about this and Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson’s book Why Nations Fail gives even greater clarity.

Self-destruction is ethically absurd and economically nonsensical, yet our leaders – at least the people we so often promote and elect – seem welded to taking us down that path.  They lie to us by telling us that a voucher system isn’t a voucher system, that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, that (baby boomers will get this) we have to stop the scourge of Communism right there in Viet Nam so that we don’t have to fight them in Kansas, that we were winning that war, that Romney will cut taxes 20% but that his scheme won’t be a $5 trillion deficit, that the rich people are the job creators and the list goes on and on.  To understand why they say such things, obey Deep Throat’s dictum: “Follow the money.”  Yet so many of us believe the lies (or, at least, we don’t challenge them), largely because we are focused on our own concerns, just trying to make life work.  But that is short-sighted and ultimately does ethical and economic damage to ourselves.

We’re not going to change human nature; each of us will continue to do what we perceive to be in our own best interests.  What we can do is to look up now and then, get out of the weeds and recognized that tomorrow will come.  And when it does, we will live in the consequences of today’s decisions.

What are the ethics and economics you want?  Look up.  See that tomorrow is on its way and that we do not have to continue on a path of craziness.  Then speak up.  If you don’t make your voice heard, people who want a very different America from the America you want will be heard, because they will be the only ones talking.

Copyright 2018 by Jack Altschuler
Reproduction and sharing are encouraged, providing proper attribution is given.

Murray-isms

My friend Pat Murray is one of the clearest thinkers I know in the areas of group and individual behavior and I have learned some valuable lessons from him.  See if this pairing of one statement plus two questions from Pat’s work stimulates your motivation innards.

YOU GET WHAT YOU TOLERATE – Children teach us this every day.  A major part of their job is to push the envelope to find out where the edges of acceptability are.  Those edges are often defined by some sort of pain, like physical pain as a result of attempting to defy the laws of physics while riding a bicycle or from adult displeasure over an inappropriate childhood behavior.

So it is with politics.  Our politicians will push the envelope and keep on pushing until we tell them they’ve gone too far by punishing them with our phone calls, letters and emails of displeasure and, eventually, with election defeat.  The key point is that if you tolerate their behavior, they will not only continue it but they will keep on pushing that envelope to an extreme until you actively refuse to tolerate what they are doing.   Passivity and apathy on your part will result in ever more outrageous behavior on their part.  You get what you tolerate.

WHAT DO YOU STAND FOR? – Are you clear about what you stand for, what you believe in down to your bedrock, the absolutely most-not-be-violated ideals you will never compromise?  Tagging on to that question, motivational speaker Les Brown likes to say that you have to know what you stand for or you’ll fall for anything.

There are people in all areas of our lives who want to sell us something, who want to bend us to their way in order to help them to create a world that serves them.  Some of these people are quite comfortable lying to us, misleading us with flagrant, fatuous falsehoods (my alliteration for today) and many of them have very loud megaphones.  They feed us a spoonful of verifiable fact to gain our trust and then go off into their stream of dishonesty.  Unless you know what you stand for, you can be manipulated easily by these people and become a pawn to serve them while they do harm to you and everyone else in the process.  What do you stand for?

KNOW YOUR INTOLERABLES – Yes, I know that “intolerables” isn’t a word you can find in the dictionary, but you understood its meaning immediately. What is on your list of things that you will not put up with?  What are the absolutely no-go items?  Lying, cheating, stealing, dishonoring the sacred, cruelty, abandoning the helpless, disloyalty?  When you make your list, be sure to do a gut check so that you don’t write hollow platitudes, because that doesn’t serve you.  Rather, write what is actually true for you.

For example, you may find abridging the rights of fellow citizens to be intolerable, but do you believe in it so strongly that you’ll fight anyone who tries to silence those with whom you passionately disagree?  Do you believe in the rights of citizenship with such passion that you’ll stand up publicly for those whose voting rights are being stolen right now?  Do you believe in civil rights so strongly that you’ll speak out against the anti-Muslim fever that is both marginalizing and killing some Americans?  Speaking of killing, it may be an intolerable for you, but do you make an exception for those who kill abortion doctors?  Know your intolerables.

It is true that those are under-the-skin questions likely to provoke.  Are you agitated enough to take action?  A good starting place is to make two lists: HERE IS WHAT I STAND FOR and THESE ARE MY INTOLERABLES.  Your lists probably won’t be very long, but they will have great power for you.  And when you’re done, you’ll stop falling for anything and instead will be prepared to stop tolerating all that envelope pushing that violates what you believe in.  You might even exercise your citizenship by speaking out to make things better.

Copyright 2018 by Jack Altschuler
Reproduction and sharing are encouraged, providing proper attribution is given.

Cacciato

In preparation for entering her freshman year in college, my daughter and her contemporaries were urged to read Going After Cacciato, by Tim O’Brien, and to arrive on campus prepared to explore the book in discussion groups just prior to the start of classes. Cacciato is an exploration of experiences of the Vietnam war, of both fear and the heroism of the human spirit. As I recall, she didn’t much care for the book, but I read it and found it enormously inspirational, perhaps even transformational. It is, in part, about coming of age, of fulfilling the destiny of our dreams. We as a nation sorely need a message of destiny fulfilling, of coming of age right now.  To that point, have a look at this excerpt from the book.

It is easy, of course, to fear happiness. There is often complacency in the acceptance of misery. We fear parting from our familiar roles. We fear the consequences of such a parting. We fear happiness because we fear failure. But we must overcome these fears. We must be brave. It is one thing to speculate about what might be. It is quite another to act in behalf of our dreams, to treat them as objectives that are achievable and worth achieving. It is one thing to run from unhappiness; it is another to take action to realize those qualities of dignity and well-being that are the true standards of the human spirit.

I am asking for a positive commitment. Live now the dreams you have dreamed. Be happy. It is possible. It is within reach of a single decision.

This is not a plea for placidness of mind or feebleness of spirit. It is a plea for the opposite.  For just as happiness is more than the absence of sadness, so is peace infinitely more than the absence of war. Even the refugee must do more than flee. He must arrive. He must return at last to a world as it is, however much in conflict with his hopes, and he must then do what he can to edge reality toward what he has dreamed, to change what he can change, to go beyond the wish or the fantasy. “We had fed the heart on fantasies,” said the poet, “the heart’s grown brutal from the fare.” I urge you to step boldly into it, to join your dream and to live it. Do not be deceived by false obligation. You are obliged, by all that is just and good, to pursue only the felicity that you yourself have imagined. Do not let fear stop you. Do not be frightened by ridicule or censure or embarrassment, do not fear name-calling, do not fear the scorn of others. For what is true obligation? Is it not the obligation to pursue a life at peace with itself?

You have come far. The journey has been dangerous. You have taken many risks. You have been brave beyond your wildest expectations. And now it is time for a final act of courage.  I urge you: March proudly into your own dream.

What is your dream for yourself and for America? What is your vision for the country you want to bequeath to your children, your grandchildren and all of our grandchildren? What is the dreamed-of soul of Cacciato as metaphor for America? It is within reach of a single decision right now and we can make it come of age.

Copyright 2018 by Jack Altschuler
Reproduction and sharing are encouraged, providing proper attribution is given.

It Isn’t Envy, Mitt

Mitt Romney says that the anger of the 99%-ers is based upon envy of the 1%-ers, but like so many other things he believes about “the rest of us,” he has it wrong.  We don’t hate rich people because they are rich and there is a critical differentiation that Romney and so many others simply refuse to see.

We want our kids to have it better than we did, so we believe in the American Dream and we applaud those who have lived it and prospered and earned their wealth and success.  These people are models for our kids who will inspire them to break through barriers to create the cures for diseases and the products that will make our all our lives better.  No, we don’t resent those who have followed that path and succeeded.  We admire them.

The people who are resented by the American 99% are those who have become wealthy and continue to get even wealthier by keeping others down.  And we resent the politicians who suck up and sell out to these people for their own interests at the expense of everyone else.

Be clear that these are people who have rigged the game, tilted the table against the poor, the middle class and even the upper-middle class.  They have spent every waking moment since the inauguration of Ronald Reagan incrementally inching America toward a new economic and military feudal state and have done so by impoverishing all but the top 1%.  They are creating an America of subsistence and poverty that is devoid of the American Dream for everyone but themselves.

Paul Ryan’s twice-proposed budget is designed specifically to throw more money to the 1% at the expense of our most needy people and tilt the game still further.  The Catholic Bishops weighed in against Ryan’s budget, saying that it hurts the very people – our most vulnerable – that the church seeks to protect.  They are right and he is not, regardless of the sweet face he puts on his proposal and the dismissive things he says about his detractors.

The way to reverse the upside-down world that Ryan and the 1% want to create and to stop the theft of the American Dream is to vote for candidates who will make that happen.  It is about electing people who will put a stop to the glut of influence money in politics that makes guys like Ryan propose such regressive budgets.  It is quite likely that your Democratic candidate answers that description.

So, the way to make a difference is to help the D candidate win, not because s/he’s a Democrat – that would be a dumb reason – but because s/he will vote in congress the way that makes sense to you.  So, volunteer in their campaign.  Hold an informational meeting for friends and neighbors at your house for your candidate.  Their election staff will tell you how to do that.  Volunteer at a phone bank.  Put out a lawn sign and slap a bumper sticker on your car.

The issue is to be active, because passivity will breed more of the same as we are seeing now and our children and grandchildren will inherit an America that you couldn’t possibly recognize.  I do not mean that as hyperbole; my own grandfather would not recognize America today, even as he was an ardent anti-New Deal guy and thought both the income tax and Franklin Roosevelt were the worst things on the planet.  

Actually, I take that back; he would recognize this, because the unregulated greed that hurts Americans and led to the meltdown in 2008 and the continuing decline of the middle class is exactly what he saw as a young father in the 1920’s.  He’d recognize the influence peddling in Washington, the dumb bubble economy, the spinelessness in congress and more.  He would be waving a red flag and yelling, “DANGER” because he would have seen what happens when we do dumb stuff like we’ve done and he would be asking whether there is anybody who remembers history, because Santayana was right – in our refusal to remember history we were doomed to repeat it and we have done just that.  The difference is that after Hoover, we learned our lesson and started to make things better.

Today the righties want to do things that will make things worse.  The real question is why they would want that.  The 1%-ers want that because it makes them richer and keeps them in control.  The politicians want that because that way the rich people continue to throw money to them that perpetuates their careers and their wealth building and keeps them in control, too.  As for why any Tea Partier would want that – more on that another time.

For now, just be clear that things will get worse unless we make them get better.  It is up to those with a ballot in November to stop the theft of America.  If we fail to show up, if we fail to man the barricades against this assault on the America we believe in, then the American Dream, that future we want for our children and grandchildren will be lost for generations.  Tag, you’re IT.

Copyright 2018 by Jack Altschuler
Reproduction and sharing are encouraged, providing proper attribution is given.

Getting Elected

I’ve have a problem with any belief that professes to be the One True Way because it always polarizes people, as well as marginalizing most of us. Be clear that a belief is just that: what one believes. It is not necessarily universal reality or The Truth. That’s “The Truth” as differentiated from the total spectrum of truth, most of which cannot be observed by just one individual. None of us has universal insight nor even line of sight to everything. That makes knowing The Truth impossible. We are humbly limited to what we can observe and learn from others and then we profess our beliefs from that.

That’s a tough sell. We humans dearly love simple, binary choices. Up-down. Left-right.  Good-bad. That avoids having those messy “yeah, but’s” to deal with and is always a clean cut. Decision made. Next.

But our national challenges aren’t so simple that they allow us simple answers. If they were, many would have been solved by now. Instead, they are complex and interlaced with one another. It takes intelligence and a fierce desire to learn, to read and to listen to others with special insight in order to make thoughtful, best decisions for America. One of the difficulties of this complexity is that it doesn’t lend itself neatly to slick bumper sticker slogans that win elections. Come to think of it, that could be massaged into a pretty good bummer sticker slogan for thoughtful people.

Ronald Reagan was exceptionally good at making complex challenges appear to have pleasingly simple solutions. All that “tax and spend” sloganeering and his supply side economics got him elected twice, then Bush 41 once. The problem for Bush, of course, was that we read his lips about no new taxes, but then he had to raise taxes because Reagan’s supply side nonsense was starting to unravel.

But Reagan’s best was his question: “Ask yourself: Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” That was such a neatly constructed attack on the unfolding of a complex set of problems, including debt left over from the Viet Nam war, that it fooled a nation. Do we want to be fooled by election year sloganeering again?

We just might want to be. After all, those slogans appeal to our love of simplicity and the bloody fangs of political attack excite us with primal adrenalin. How much more exciting and motivating could any appeal be?

Sarah Palin, with her brainless clarity of The Truth, has offered us her red fanged attack with no substance and a pack of lies, this from a woman whom the Republicans want to place one melanoma from the Oval Office. Let’s see, The Truth, all attack and no substance – that sounds vaguely familiar. It connects with the misinformation and blatant lies of the last 8 years that have delivered over 4,000 caskets to Arlington National Cemetery. It has doubled our national debt to 9 trillion dollars. To put that into a visual, that is enough to make a string of dollar bills go around the world at the equator 36,000 bills deep. And still, the Republicans have the best slogans, however misleading they might be, while the shades of gray Democrats put voters to sleep. That makes Republicans better at getting elected. Unfortunately, that doesn’t necessarily deliver what’s best for America. So, I propose a different plan.

Let’s use Republican slogans to help elect Democrats.  Let’s ask Americans if they’re better off now than they were eight years ago. The 160,000 workers who lost their jobs in September will probably say no. So will the nearly three-quarters of a million other workers who were laid off just this year.

The Republicans are fond of tarring Democrats with the “Tax and Spend” label. Okay, let’s switch that just a little to “Spend and Debt” Republicans. Our great-grandchildren who will still be paying for Bush’s follies will thank us for that gesture.

Somehow thinking-enabled Americans have to tap into the emotions of voters. That’s how elections are won, especially in the instant gratification, sound bite world of today. So how about “Let’s Make America Safer For a Change,” or “Obama for America, Because Failure Is Not An Option” or, since the neo-con Republicans haven’t conserved any of our American fundamentals, not even the Constitution, try “Democrats, Because Conserving America For Your Kids Is Good.” Make up your own bumper sticker, because that’s what wins elections. And forget about thoughtful nuance. Just go for the jugular.

Copyright 2018 by Jack Altschuler
Reproduction and sharing are encouraged, providing proper attribution is given.

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