Words and Reality

Language is the decisive difference between us and other chimpanzees with whom we share 98% of our genes.  We can articulate and review our thoughts.  We can listen to and reflect on what others say.  This enormously amplifies our ability to learn.

But we ought to be much more wary of words.  They only point to things.  Too often we confuse the name we give a thing with what it points toward.  I’ll get to that in a moment.

First, something an empathetic friend helped me see.  She responded to my post about recognizing that I don’t exist“What you have written about your life is intriguing […] and a little heartbreaking”.  What I saw is a new level of how blessed I’ve been.

My life has never, since I started work, anyway, felt “a little heartbreaking” to me.  I’ve encountered a mix of circumstances, some quite difficult, but I was blessed to accept them and take action, not suffer.

My aim in my no-self post was to show a series of paths I took that were misguided.  My experience along that route to nowhere was a sense of adventure, though.  It was like being on a long trek through different lands.

So I’ve been reflecting on why I was blessed to feel that way.  Two powerful forces were at work.  I’ve mentioned the one known as Florence, my mother who felt there was no challenge she could not surmount.  I’ll say a little more about her, then some about the force in my father, Leonard, that I had to oppose.

Florence grew up in a Catholic orphanage.  She loved children, trained as a nanny and worked first for a wealthy English couple then in Italy for a marquess.  She loved Italy and would have stayed longer but the marquess had to replace her when he was sent on a diplomatic posting to Hitler’s Berlin.

She never said much about that time but it was evidently happy.  She explored with enthusiasm and one of her very few possessions, a picture of a chalet in the mountains on my bedroom wall, likely sparked my own Himalayan treks.

Leonard’s mother died before he was a year old and his father, Whalley, was jailed for refusing to fight in WW1, so he was raised by his beloved grandmother until he was eight.  When Whalley remarried, the three of them joined one of his younger brothers in Akron, Ohio.  Whalley, who hated the cold, was happy when he was offered the chance to operate a citrus farm in extreme SW Texas.  He knew nothing about farming and not a single citrus tree was there but he loved it.  So did Leonard but his step-mother Edith hated the heat even more than Whalley hated the cold, so after a few years they returned to Ohio.

When Whalley was unable to get a job in the Great Depression, he and Edith returned to England.  Leonard stayed to graduate from High School and the friend with the farm offered to fund his college education but Whalley sent him a ticket back to England where, not knowing British history, he did not qualify for the Civil Service as Whalley hoped.  That was when he began giving film shows for the Peace Pledge Union.

The lesson Leonard drew from all these upheavals was, the best he could do was endure.  His happy memories of the farm in Texas and of High School predisposed me to be happy in America but they compounded his yearning for stability.  He was apprehensive about new upheavals anyone with power over him might create.

What my friend’s comment about “heartrending” showed me is, I always understood more than I recognized about acceptance and suffering.

Now a more dramatic example of the power of words.  The Zen master who was my first Buddhist teacher told us one morning:  “If you really want to end suffering, stop creating it”.

Hearing that in a receptive moment, I got a glimpse of what acceptance means and that I had been blessed to practice it much of the time even though I hadn’t understood the word before.  I’ve mostly done as my mother did and my father did not, recognized negative circumstances, not felt sorry for myself and taken action for change.

Here’s a second set of thoughts provoked by a response to my post.  Richard wrote:  “The intersection of physics and psychology gets pretty strange doesn’t it? I’ve done a lot of thinking about the implications of quantum physics, and our worldview. Mostly, it’s been a bunch of circular waffling. The only thing I’m fairly certain of is that our model of reality is flawed, probably because of some version of the “you can’t see the true reality from within the system” problem.”

I circled, too, until I saw that although I have no self, I do exist.  We can discern the structure of reality from within the system even though we can’t quite see how it operates.

We manifest from an ever changing force field, as does everything we perceive, so from that perspective, we don’t “really” exist.  But  our actions change the force field, so in fact we do exist.  How to think about that?

Nothing that is perceptible to us sentient beings can be found in the force field, yet every sentient being is a point of consciousness with the capacity to act.  That means we exist in more than one way, only one of which, the form that takes action, is a form in the way we imagine.

Consciousness is the great puzzle to brain scientists.  Is it a product of the brain, or somehow separate?  I sense it’s separate but what has made all the difference for me is recognizing that we exist in a form that, because it has no intrinsic nature and is utterly imperceptible to our senses, to our way of thinking does not exist.

The reality of sentient beings takes threefold or twofold form in Buddhist metaphysics.  The form that acts is the nirmanakaya, the conscious form is the sambhogakaya, and the imperceptible one is the dharmakaya.  The first two are also thought of as one, the rupakaya, to highlight that the form with no properties is the ultimate level of reality.

There’s a vast mass of logic about why and how reality is multi-fold but it remains in the end a mystery to our intellect.

What we can be certain about is that matter manifests from energy.  We can start by thinking of matter as congealed energy and energy as liberated matter, but when we use quantum physics to examine what’s going on we see that you and I, for example, exist in both forms simultaneously.

Or perhaps we exist in three forms, the three kayas, which we could rename Tom, Dick and Harry if that feels less foreign, or Romeo and Juliet if we’re thinking about the two forms.  It’s only what the words point toward that matters.

I’ve noticed some changes since I began getting glimpses of what all these words are pointing toward, that what seem to be separate beings are not separate, that we are all manifestations from one ocean whose currents flow without boundaries, that we are all eddies in a maelstrom of pure energy.

The less separate I feel, the less indifferent I become.  My impulses are more kind, I’m more prone to compassion than anger, and I’m less grasping.

The energy flows that manifest as Martin are changing because I’m watching them, and the longer I watch, the more sensitive I become to the eddies that manifest as other beings.

Yes, the way this multi-fold reality works is a mystery but now I know how to proceed, acting that way is deeply happy-making.

Civic Duty in the World of Social Media

My parents didn’t but most men went to the pub every evening and most women went to the Women’s Institute everye day seventy years ago in the farming village in England where I was a kid.

They went to talk about the news.  Much of it was local gossip but there was also a lot of national and international news on the radio that provoked debate.

Most people just enjoyed the entertainment but some of them very much wanted their neighbors to see sense.  The same sense they saw, of course…

That was how opinions about current events were formed.

Then came TV and the start of a new culture where men and women no longer so rigidly segregated themselves socially.

And then came social media.  Now we can have neighbors we never see but with whom we can chat or just listen to every day.

One way I’m different from my parents is I can’t stop myself from trying to get everyone, myself included, to see sense.  Social media gives me that opportunity and it also offers a fascinating challenge.

We all learn, with varying success, how to persuade others face to face and how to recognize when we’re the one who is mistaken.  But how to do that when we’re not face to face?

This is my first post in many months.  While renovating the house and surroundings of our new home outside Gettysburg, PA over the past year and moving our stuff from Maine I had no time for carefully researched posts.  Instead, I began posting links to the work of others on Facebook.

Now, I’ve dealt with the huge backlog of comments here (10,188 of them spam from bots) and I’m working on a piece about my current understanding of reality.

I have more building and yard work still to do but it’s less urgent so I’m starting to aim now for a new balance between that work along with my ongoing attempt to make sense of events, creating original content here about domestic and foreign policy here, and curating the work of others on Facebook.

But because I have to think about things before I speak, I won’t be on Twitter.

Maslow Misapplied to Nations

I was excited 35 years ago to see the rewards for structuring data into quadrant charts.  That was for me!  And management consulting with those charts was fun, but I saw how misleading they can be and at last returned to product and business development.

The chart tool began as a guide for business and product strategy, the idea being that you’re in trouble in the bottom left where your competitive advantages are few and small.  You must develop more and stronger advantages to soar to the profitable heavens on the top right.

BCG Advantage Matrix

Learning how to use and not abuse that tool has continued to be useful.  What provoked this post is research from 1981 to 2014 that is well illustrated by this animation but misleadingly presented in chart in the Findings & Insights summary linked to on this page.

The religion-based labeling is accurate but, in the two-dimensional chart context where the goal is to move from bottom left to top right, it is misleading.

And in this article by a different researcher the data is naively misinterpreted to suggest that capitalism transforms national values toward the political left.

So this is an example of tool abuse.  The data points are real, the research is valuable and the animation of changes over time is meaningful.  But the complex underlying reality is distorted by a static chart labeled in this way.

Nations' Survival vs Self-espression

The World Values Survey (WVS) researchers describe the two dimensions as follows:

  • Traditional values emphasize religion, parent-child ties, deference to authority, traditional family values and national pride
  • Secular-rational values place less emphasis on religion, traditional family values and authority
  • Survival values emphasize economic and physical security, are relatively ethnocentric and feature low levels of trust and tolerance
  • Self-expression values emphasize environmental protection, tolerance, and participation in economic and political decisions

The researchers say the data show that as a country moves from poor to rich, it also tends to move from traditional to secular-rational.  The move is a tendency not inevitable because values are also highly correlated with long-established cultures.

And there is movement in both directions over time.  The USA, for example, is in 1989 a little toward the traditional end and quite far toward self-expression, then it grows more traditional over the next decade, less so in the next, then steadily less traditional and less concerned with self-expression.

The writer claiming that capitalism transforms national values so nations labeled Islamic will, if they embrace capitalism, naturally move toward Protestant heaven, confuses correlation with causation.

His explicit blunder is conceptualizing nations as people to which Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” apply.

Maslow's_hierarchy_of_needs

Maslow illustrates how, if we have no food, all we care about is getting our next meal, but once we have that, we start caring about how to get the next meal and the one after that, and if we secure a reasonably dependable supply of basic needs we put effort into friendships, then start working for the respect of others, and finally devote effort to self-actualization.

Here’s a simpler way to see what Maslow was driving at (hat tip to Lexy):

Lexys-Version-of-Maslow

What Maslow’s hierarchy does not show is how circumstances impact the motivation of nations.  It can’t because nations are not people.  They are made up of people whose situations can be very diverse.

This comment on the naive article (click on the link and wait for it to scroll down) summarizes what the research actually illuminates:  “Economic and political systems, and culture/psychology interact with each other in both directions … autonomous individuals create capitalism, safety creates capitalism, peace creates capitalism.”

The top left is not unalloyed heaven because “increasing empathy and mutual respect [and] the breakdown in social capital go hand in hand with secularization and the domination of the market.”

And good governance is a prerequisite: “the state monopoly of coercion helped create the safety required for the large social networks of trust, and individual autonomy.”

According to the US Census Bureau, 15%, i.e., 47 million Americans are living in poverty meaning “a lack of those goods and services commonly taken for granted by members of mainstream society.”  That includes more than one in five of all chil­dren under age 18.

The WVS research, excellent as it is, can tell us nothing about the value those 47 million Americans place on traditional vs secular-rational values.

And we would be utterly mistaken to imagine they over-value self-expression relative to survival.

The Pathetic Fallacy – Nations

I wrote in Pathetic Fallacy – Corporations that a pathetic fallacy — personifying what is not a person — masks reality with an idea and triggers false emotion from false perception.

Thinking of a nation as an entity with a will is as misleading as thinking that a corporation decides what to do.  Nations and corporations are not beings with a mind of their own.  They are artificial entities that enable real people, their leaders, to command resources and project power.

To see that a nation is a concept just like a corporation, consider nations to be a form of business.  For example:

  • The business known as England, where I grew up, was owned and operated as the Tudor family business from 1485 until 1603 when it was taken over by the business operated by the Stuart family since 1371 that was known as Scotland
  • The USA business, where I have lived all my adult (hah!) life, resulted from the hostile takeover of what we term the “Indian nations.”

Indian Nations Map

But what actually is a nation?  There are many forms of nation, just as corporations are only one form of business, so there are many definitions :

  1. “A large group of people who share a common language, culture, ethnicity, descent, or history
  2. “A large body of people, associated with a particular territory, that is sufficiently conscious of its unity to seek or to possess a government peculiarly its own
  3. “A large area of land that is controlled by its own government

The USA is not a nation of the first kind since we do not have a common language — there are 45 million Spanish-speaking Americans — or a common culture, ethnicity or descent.  It is also not a nation of the second kind, not unified in a deep way, as this election season makes so clear.

As Colin Woodard’s excellent historical analysis shows, the USA is better understood as eleven nations, each with a different culture.

Eleven American Nations Map

So the USA is a nation of the third kind, one with the same system of government for more than two centuries whose territory kept expanding until it spanned its ocean borders.

What about other nations, those in the Middle East, for example?

A map of their territories suggests that:

  • Large ones on the periphery — Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt — are likely to fight over those in the center — Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Israel and Lebanon
  • Iraq is likely to want to control Kuwait to get ocean access
  • Saudi Arabia is likely to want to control Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAR, Oman and Yemen

Middle East Map

But we are misled by our delusion that nations are natural entities, especially Saudi Arabia, whose eastern and western coastal borders make it seem to be a nation of the third kind like the USA.

In fact, the territory now known as Saudi Arabia only came into existence in 1932.  It is, to continue the business analogy, an Ibn Saud family-owned oil production business.  Their administration happens to require the people in that territory to conform to an ultra-conservative form of Sunni Islam.

The territory now known as Iran, however, part of whose borders are also coastal, is a nation of the first kind.  It has a distinct ethno-linguistic population and a common culture formed by operating from 530 BC to 1979 as the Persian Empire.  Its secular dynastic rule was then overthrown by Ayatollah Khomeini who established a fundamentalist Shia Islam theocracy.

The territory now known as Iraq, with no natural borders, has an even longer history as Mesopotamia.  It is where the world’s first cities formed around 5300 BC.  Unlike Iran, the majority of Iraq’s people are Arabs although there are also Kurds where it borders Turkey and Iran.  Mesopotamia was conquered by Muslim Arabs in the 7th century, later absorbed into the Ottoman Empire, briefly stable under Saddam Hussein after 1979 but its territory is now battled over by an elected government and unrecognized new nations, Kurdistan and Islamic State.

The territory now known as Turkey was the center of the Ottoman Empire from 1299 to 1922 when it was re-established by Kemal Ataturk as a secular democracy whose natural borders are coastal.

And the territory known as Egypt, with desert and coastal borders, was managed as a kingdom for three thousand years, then by the Arab Muslim Empire for six centuries and as part of the Ottoman Empire from 1517 until that empire fell.  Its monarchy was overthrown in 1952 by Gamal Nasser.

So Iran, Egypt and Turkey each has a long history during which an ethno-linguistic majority established a culture in a territory defined largely by coastal borders.  Iraq also has a long history but lacks natural borders and has a divided population.  Saudi Arabia lacks agricultural potential and has only been a nation since oil was discovered.  The government of all five nations is in fact quite new.

The future of territories is determined to a great extent by geography.  The behavior of people is influenced by cultures that diverge over time.  But the behavior of what we imagine to be nations is decided not be those conceptual entities but by individuals such as Ibn Saud, Ayatollah Khomeini, Saddam Hussein, Kemal Ataturk and Gamal Nasser.

That’s a critical distinction because a territory and its people can, when characterized as a nation, inspire fear, hatred and violence, replacing what is real — people like us — with fantasy, an alien mass against which appalling violence seems necessary and right.

Terrible things happen when we condemn entire populations whose existence in the form of a nation is the product of our imagination.

We teach children who crush their thumb with a hammer not to fly into a rage at the hammer.  We must see for ourselves that it is not corporations and nations that take action but their leaders.

 

The Pathetic Fallacy – Corporations

The term “pathetic fallacy” comes from Ruskin’s 19th century campaign against false emotion in poetry.   Pathetic then meant emotional, fallacy falseness.

A pathetic fallacy is based on personifying what is not a person.  If we say clouds are sullen or leaves dance, we mask their reality with an idea.  We do not see them as they are and we respond in ways that do not result from their reality.  Pathetic fallacies trigger false emotions from false perceptions.

We make this mistake today when we think of corporations as people.  We admire Apple, vilify Monsanto, and so on.

We also think of nations as if they have an existence separate from their people.  And politicians speak of Islam as if it was an entity.  I will explore those pathetic fallacies in future posts.

This post is about corporations viewed as people, a delusion that got a powerful boost in 2010 from the US Supreme Court.

In Citizens United v Federal Election Commission, which relied on an earlier decision that associations of individuals have First Amendment free speech rights, the Court ruled that corporations are associations of individuals and therefore also have those rights.

Justice Stevens pointed out the failure of logic.  Since legal entities are not “We the People” for whom the Constitution was established, they have no Constitutional rights of any kind.

It is the members of a corporation or any other association who have Constitutional rights, said Justice Stevens.  Corporations do not have an additional set.

Because Justice Stevens was in the minority, corporations, which are not individuals with a vote, now significantly influence voting.

We the People can try individually to persuade others to vote like us and if we are wealthy enough, we can buy media advertisements to amplify our voice.   To balance that power, associations of individuals who are less wealthy can pool their resources.

But spending from corporate treasuries is now amplifying spending by wealthy individuals.

And our delusion that personifies corporations leads us to imagine they decide what politicians to promote.  But corporations do not make decisions — their executives do.

Let me personalize that.  The core business of Dun & Bradstreet where I was a Senior Vice President assumes that payment history is the best indicator of credit worthiness.  That was true in 1841 when almost every US business was a sole proprietorship — but note the fallacy.

It is the proprietor who decides when a sole proprietorship pays its suppliers and that is true for every business enterprise, which means the best indicator of the credit worthiness of a business is the honesty of its executives.

There were no personal credit reports in 1841 but there are now, so the trustworthiness of any business can be judged by the presence or absence of negative financial behavior by its executives.

That must be the case because it is not businesses but the people who manage them that decide when and whether to pay bills.

Although the fallacy of imagining that corporations behave as entities separate from their executives is not significant for the future of D&B’s business, it is very important for the future of our democracy.

The newly authorized corporate spending to promote political candidates on top of the existing spending on lobbying to influence legislation now impacts who gets elected in the first place.

That matters because legislation by politicians whose campaigns are largely funded by wealthy individuals and the corporate treasuries they control inevitably favors those wealthy individuals.

That was not what the framers of our Constitution intended.  Their goal was for legislation to “promote the general Welfare.”

 

Beyond Media Hype: Why Write about it?

Fear whipped up by the media stimulates our emotions, shuts down our reason, and excites “fight or flight.”   That makes us selfish and violent.

We must understand what is being done to us.  Selfishness and violence are not intrinsic to our nature.   My original inflammatory “Fear and Loathing” title for these posts is because we’re on fire!

I didn’t share Hunter S. Thompson’s hatred of Nixon, who he said represented “that dark, venal, and incurably violent side of the American character” and I don’t hate Obama or others now.  But Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72” is a great title.

We are being brainwashed to feel fear and loathing.  It’s time to be alarmed about that.

What fears?  Immigrants stealing into our “homeland” taking our jobs and living on “welfare,”  a disease from Africa sweeping through our land, Islamic terrorists slipping in from Mexico to do terrible things, fundamentalist Muslims overwhelming our Christian values, Iran nuking us, and on and on…

I began to explore these fears in Ebola and Homo Politicus.  I showed how our expectation about the performance of government agencies is based not on facts but political bias.  Now I’m exploring the implications.

In Fear and Loathing of Immigrants I surveyed history.  Immigrants are often blamed for society’s troubles, but illegal immigration only became a big issue in the 1990s.  Then, after 9/11 , we expanded our border forces enormously.  That was when fear and loathing were very deliberately cranked up.

I followed the logic of militarizing our border to its conclusion, that we should also deport every “alien” already here, and, observing that Christian Church leaders condemned the 2012 GPO budget for failing to help our “poor, hungry, homeless, jobless,” I pointed out it’s not just that we no longer want other nations’ “tired, poor, huddled masses.

We are also being brainwashed to reject all those like them, even our fellow citizens.  We’ve been told the poor are bleeding us dry ever since Reagan’s 1976 campaign anecdotes about a “welfare queen” who defrauded the government of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The woman Reagan spoke of appears to have been a murderer and kidnapper as well as a thief, but the stereotype of the “welfare queen” is an idle black woman.  The label plays on racial fear.

Racial fear?  Imagine how the media would have responded if Ebola appeared not in black Africa but Israel.  Where would we have been told Ebola came from and how to respond?  From Palestinian terrorists so it’s time to support an Israeli final solution?  From Iran so it’s time for our nukes to finish what we helped Saddam Hussein attempt?

In Defying Hitler about the German equivalent of 9/11, the burning of the Reichstag, Sebastian Haffner writes:  “I do not see that one can blame the majority of Germans who, in 1933, believed that the Reichstag fire was the work of the Communists.  What one can blame them for, and what shows their terrible collective weakness of character … is that this settled the matter.  With sheepish submissiveness, the German people accepted that, as a result of the fire, each one of them lost what little personal freedom and dignity was guaranteed by the constitution, as though it followed as a necessary consequence.  If the Communists had burned down the Reichstag, it was perfectly in order that the government took ‘decisive measures.’ … from now on, one’s telephone would be tapped, one’s letters opened, and one’s desk might be broken into.”

We are living through, as Yogi Berra said: “Déjà vu all over again.”  Substitute Americans for Germans, terrorists for Communists, September 11, 2001, for 1933.

We must learn from history.  We must do better.

Ignorance, Fear and Imaginary Facts

We imagine facts to support what we believe.  That’s a problem because politicians tend to focus on what we believe, not the actual data.

It’s the same in every country.  This global survey by Ipsos MORI, key findings of which are summarized here, highlights how wrong we are in 14 countries about the make-up of our population.

Emotional innumeracy is the root of the problem, a term from a research paper by Daniel Herda (UC Davis) who studied immigration innumeracy, the inability to reason about immigration.

Herda found that emotional factors create innumeracy:  “Among the emotional predictors, perceived threat has a strong positive association with innumeracy.  It does so net of social distance and political conservatism, which have their own significant positive and negative associations, respectively.”

So, if we believe immigrants pose a threat, we overestimate the immigrant population.  Fear drives our overestimate; the overestimate increases our fear.

Immigrants

US respondents imagine that immigrants make up almost a third (32%) of our population, two and a half times the actual number, 13%.

Immigrants are perceived to be a threat in all nations surveyed, and the smaller the actual percentage of immigrants, the greater the overestimate.  The miniscule 0.4% of Poland’s population who are immigrants are overestimated at 35 times that number, Hungary’s 8 times, Japan’s 4 times and so on.  Australians with by far the highest percentage of immigrants (28%) overestimate by only a quarter.

The percentage of Muslims is also universally overestimated.

Muslims

The overestimate of our Muslim population by US respondents is 15 times the 1% small reality.  That is consistent with the overestimation in other countries with small (2% or less) Muslim populations  – Hungary 18 times, South Korea and Poland 13 times, Canada and Japan 10 times, Australia 9 times, Spain 8 times.  But even in countries with a more noticeable 4% – 8% Muslim population the overestimates are at least 3 times reality.

The percentage of Christians is correspondingly underestimated in most countries.  Four of every five (78%) Americans report themselves to be Christian while we estimate it is less than three in five (56%).  Even in Italy where 83% of the population is Christian, the estimate is only 69%.  These underestimates result from perceived threat to that heritage.

The percentage of Christians in South Korea and Japan is hugely overestimated.  These overestimates also result from perceived threat to their traditional culture.

Overestimates of immigrants and Muslims and underestimates of Christians all stem from the perception that traditional values, culture and identity are under threat.

We might question the “actual” count of Christians in the following chart because many who do not go to church consider themselves Christian, but the feeling of threat is to whatever respondents consider themselves to be.

Christians

Herda’s research result: “perceived threat has a strong positive association with innumeracy” suggests that the overall inaccuracy of a people’s knowledge of their society’s makeup is a measure of how threatened they feel.  Ipsis Mori presents that metric as an “index of ignorance.”

Index of IgnoranceSadly, we in the US are almost the most ignorant and/or fearful of all nations.  Only in Italy is there greater ignorance and/or fear of change.

Eighty years ago in his first inaugural address, our President spoke of his “firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”  That, too, was a time to get real.  “Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment,” he went on.

But we can’t get real if we keep imagining the facts and getting confirmation of our fears from media whose interests are so different from ours.

So let’s stop deluding ourselves.  Let’s question what we imagine to be facts.

The Mental Illness of Homo Politicus

Our cranial roommate, Homo Politicus, identified by Aristotle long before the birth of Christ, is a trouble maker.

The following observation is true enough, but Homo Politicus latches onto one word and says “There you go again!”

All forms of conservatism are symptoms of mental illness.  The fact that they are collective and rooted in ancient fragments of wisdom does not change the fact, just makes them more dangerous, difficult to acknowledge as pathological, and hard to treat.

Because Homo Politicus sees everything as political and “conservative” is a political label, (s)he distracts us from what’s important, the root of the mental illness that manifests as conservatism.

What is that root?  Fear of change.

That’s important because so may of us fear change.  It’s not just Republicans, Christian and Muslim fundamentalists or others who profess conservative values.

And conservatism is not our only mental illness that manifests in politics.  Progressivism is also a delusion because we cannot in real life manage societal change.

Although our every behavior causes change, we cannot control the result.  The network of causes in which we exist encompasses everything that ever happened.  We cannot be in control because we are embedded in that network of causes.

Over-excitable Homo Politicus distracts us from the fact that knowing we cannot be certain about all its results does not mean our behavior doesn’t matter.

In fact, it is only our behavior that matters!  Because they so often guide our behavior, we must be very wary of our mental roommate’s beliefs.

It is foolish, for example, to think that those with a different political bias are mentally ill while we are sane.  That leads us to ignore important truths they point out.

And Homo Politicus blinds us to our own contradictory beliefs.  Conservatives who oppose government activism at home, for example, passionately advocate the use of force to change other nations.

There are such contradictory beliefs all across our political spectrum.

The result is we live with great social and economic inequality, inadequate access to health care, persecution based on beliefs or identity – all these ills and more – and we don’t know what to do.

We might imagine too much government got us into the mess, or stronger government could fix the problem.  But corrupt and incompetent as our government may be, it is not our primary problem.

That’s good because government’s flaws are very hard to correct but our individual problems are more tractable.  Of course we must correct our government’s flaws but we will get results faster by correcting our own.

What can we do about our insanity?  We can:

  • Reject “us-versus-them”, start building bridges across perceived divides.
  • Focus more on broader long-term consequences of our actions, less on short-term self-interest.
  • Resist appeals to fear and anger that cloud our judgment, use more analysis.
  • Assume misunderstandings result not from malice but miscommunication, practice empathy.

That we have an insane cranial roommate whose friends and enemies are also deranged doesn’t mean we must remain deluded.  We can pay less attention to their chatter and act more wisely.  We will be happier if we do.

A Good Education For All

We like the words of conservatives — they focus on what’s good.  Progressives make us angry because when advocating change, they tell us what’s bad.  Many compound the problem with their tone — they feel, deep down, that what’s wrong never will be fully righted.  Robert Reich is an exception:

“This Saturday, May 17, marks the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling overcoming “separate but equal” school segregation that the Court had approved in 1896.  The Brown decision helped fuel the civil rights movement, but it failed to have a lasting effect on school segregation.  America’s schools today are almost as segregated as were southern schools before Brown.  That’s because the neighborhoods where most black and Latino children now live and attend school are nearly all black and Latino.

We’re segregating geographically by income and race, more dramatically than at any time in the nation’s history.  Entire cities are now mostly poor and black or Latino, even though bordered by cities or counties that are largely middle class and white (consider Detroit and its neighbor, Oakland County, Michigan).  But as was the case in the 1950s, separate is not equal.  In order to integrate our schools we need to integrate our cities and communities.  Housing policy is critical to education.”

In fact, it’s hard to see how the problem Reich describes can be overcome under our Constitution, and the problem is broader than he describes.  His solution falls short but it is a good basis for discussion because his principal focus always is on a better future.

Our schools are indeed segregated by race but the deeper segregation in our society is by wealth.  Schools in poor and affluent white communities look similar because both sets of kids are white.  The quality of education, however, is very different.  That means so also are the outcomes.

Because almost half the funding for US public schools depends on local taxes, there are inevitable large differences in education between wealthy and impoverished communities.  The difference compounds over time because better educated children become higher income adults who choose to live where high property taxes fund good schools for their own children.

Looked at the other way, communities where student poverty is rare have well-funded schools, those where student poverty is rampant get much less funding.

Ours is the only first world nation that funds education based on local wealth.  Other nations equalize funding or provide more for students in need.  Dutch schools, for example, are funded based on the number of pupils and get almost twice as much funding per minority child and 1.25 times as much per low-income child as per middle-class child.  In the US, we do the opposite.  Schools for our lower-income and minority students typically receive less funds than those for middle-class white kids.

When our government structure was established by Constitution in the 18th century, most schools were financed by voluntary contributions.  By the end of the 19th century most schools were funded with local property taxes.  That was OK because people in most communities then had similar standards of living.  But urbanization in the 20th century created ever-growing differences between affluent suburbs and poor inner cities.  Parents in affluent communities could pay for better schools.

Does that differential funding make a difference?  US schools with high funding and few impoverished students got achievement scores comparable to those of Hong Kong, Japan, and other top-scoring countries in a 2001 study by the International Association for the Advancement of Educational Achievement.  US schools with the lowest funding and many poor students got achievement scores similar to the worst-scoring nations, Turkey, Jordan, and Iran.

This severe inequality is not likely to change soon.  Most parents in affluent communities do not want to pay higher taxes to improve education in poorer communities.  They certainly do not want funding to be taken away from their local schools.  And in its 1973 San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez ruling, the US Supreme Court found that our Constitution does not require equal funding among school districts.  Today’s Court would rule the same way.  That decision foreclosed federal remedies for inequitable school funding.

Nevertheless, as pragmatist philosopher and educator John Dewey’s wrote more than a century ago: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must be what the community wants for all its children.”

Most people believe better education leads to a better future.  An America where every child and teacher goes to a good school would be better.

I have a dream that we will overcome the obstacles to a better education for all our children.  We will get there faster by ranting less about what’s wrong with our institutions, leaders and neighbors and focusing instead on achieving what is better.

 

 

An Unskillful Conversation

Here in Maine the daffodils are up.  There must be more flowers further south where I sat in the spring sun in 1971 designing how a global network of computers would communicate.  The design was good, it worked well for many years, but it was a long job fixing bugs in the engineering.

Communication media are noisy.  We’re used to it with cell phones and in restaurants and such.  We know we won’t always hear what each other says or get their meaning.  Message-sent is not necessarily equal to message-received.  Computer communications work despite that because of error detection and correction protocols.   Human communication uses quizzical expressions, tones of voice, “I’m not sure I understand” and so on.

Difficult as it is to perfect computer communication, human communication is far harder because what we say and hear is distorted by our emotions.

Here’s a conversation I recently had that was prompted by Piketty’s book, Capital, which shows that capital grows faster than the economy in which it is invested.  The book is the subject of much debate at this time because the wealth of those who are already very wealthy is increasing rapidly while the income of everyone else is shrinking.

The implication of Piketty’s research is that owners of capital inevitably get an ever increasing portion of a capitalist economy’s wealth.  In theory, all wealth would end up owned by one individual but in the real world wealth is always redistributed, sometimes as a result of violent revolution, more often in a managed way via a progressive tax system.

A friend asked on Facebook about restoring balance with a wealth tax.  Someone I don’t know responded: “Wealth has always been concentrated in the relatively few wealthy.  But you just can’t take it and redistribute it like pirates taking a ship and dividing the booty.  Some pirates kill the others to get more than their fair share and it starts all over again.”   He went on at length about wasteful Big Government and appeared to be opposed not just to income redistribution, but to taxes in general.

I replied:  “We need some things governments alone can provide.  Governments need revenue.  That means taxes, so one set of questions is about the best tax system.  One element of a better one than we have now is an inheritance tax because those who inherit a lot of money did nothing to earn it — better to tax inheritances and use that to offset some personal income tax.”

His response was:  “One thing many don’t think about when it comes to inheritance tax is all that money was taxed when it was originally made during the deceased individual’s lifetime.  You are taxing it all again.”   He added:  “There’s something else about taxing the rich more than we do presently; they can remove themselves from taxes by moving their wealth or their corporations out of the country.”

I asked:  Why does it matter if inherited money has already been taxed?  Those who inherit the money did nothing to earn it — that’s the big point.” 

And in response to “something else” I wrote:  It’s important to think separately about taxing corporations and individuals.  Corporations are increasingly global entities that can easily relocate aspects of themselves.  They can choose which legal systems the side-effects of their operations will be regulated by, and by which their IP and etc will be protected.  Human people, however, can only be citizens of one nation.  It’s a big step for a wealthy American to give up US citizenship, the only legal way of avoiding US taxes.”

The tone of my reply took the conversation off track.  The response was:  “The real big point is this: Who are YOU to say how anyone else’s money is yours to give away?  There’s no one so generous as someone who is earnestly and self righteously advocating the gifting of someone ELSES money.”

We could have hit “reset” in a face-to-face conversation and gone on to discover what exactly we disagree about but I couldn’t see how to do it on Facebook or any such medium.  I ended up answering the question as phrased, knowing it really wasn’t an answer:  “I’m a citizen of a democracy, which means it is my responsibility to think through and say what policies I believe are best for our society.”

The apology that came for “misusing a figure of speech” gave me the sense that a face-to-face conversation might have led us both to more insight, but I let the conversation fizzle out.

I’ve written and re-written, over and over again, my lessons from this conversation.  First, I convinced myself the problem was the restricted kind of communication inherent in online media.  Eventually, I acknowledged that I was more interested in telling the other fellow what to think than having him show me flaws in what I think.

At last, I recognized the root of the problem.  I let myself feel angry when in his first comment he dismissed Piketty’s research by calling him a fashionable intellectual.  “He’s one of those whose beliefs are impervious to facts,” I said to myself.  That set the tone of my reply. I imagined it to be factual and helpful but that was not the only message I sent.

We can see our logic errors, flaws in our perceptions and what we don’t know by articulating what we think and listening carefully to our words.  That’s what I’ve been working on as I kept rewriting this post.

But it’s quicker if others tell us our errors.  They must listen carefully to be right, of course.  What I just relearned is they only do that if we communicate skilfully, which means not just being clear but also putting ourselves in their shoes.  That’s especially necessary if we imagine their shoes won’t fit.