Happy Birthday in Every Moment

My body was already sixty years old when I began to see with some clarity that I don’t exist as I’d always imagined.  I’ll try to explain what I experienced.

What I noticed first is there had been at different times a different person in my body.  I’ve given them Nordic patronymics.  Leon Leonardsson came first.

Leon came to life in England during WW2 in an isolated farm-worker’s cottage with no utilities.  He was the only child of Leonard and Florence Sidwell, a happy kid fascinated by farm machinery.  Because his parents had no friends, Leon’s social skills were weak but he was highly intelligent.  Florence made him study every day and he got the best results of all students in the exam that determined which school he would go to when he was eleven.

Leonard’s work since WW2 driving an excavator to maintain waterways paid very little but Florence found him a better paying job at this time selling insurance door to door.  They were now able to buy a house with a tiny garden in the neighboring town.  But Leonard hated his new job and that he now had so little room to grow vegetables.  And Leon had nowhere to play and nobody to play with.  As Leonard’s passivity evolved into depression, Leon fell prey to the same disease.

Leon’s new school, a bus-ride away in the county town, was an undistinguished private establishment founded in 1608 that had been recast as a State school ten years before Leon arrived.  Life continued there almost as if the British Empire remained triumphant.  Leon studied and remained top of his class but he was disoriented in this new world.  Told after a couple of years to take the exam for a scholarship to Eton College, he passed but then read about life there and, horrified by the prospect of the even more foreign culture of the aristocracy, he failed the oral interview.

During that first year or two as Leon floundered in his new environment, a less passive new person, Sid Leonsson, began taking over.  He told himself he was justifiably alienated from an antiquated culture, started building the personality of an intellectual and began reading philosophy.  He labeled himself an existentialist.

The secondary school curriculum in England in those days channeled students into either the sciences or the arts but Sid insisted on continuing to study both Physics and English literature.  Then, impatient with a curriculum that still felt too narrow, he drifted ever further from both subjects, roaming far afield into theories about the human condition.

He was delivered a great shock by “Three Faces of Eve”, a psychologist’s account of a patient whose body hosted three entirely different people vying for control.  What if he was not the only one in his body?  His current identity felt inauthentic.  Maybe other personalities would spring forth, and none would be authentic?  A friend whose psychologist father specialized in schizophrenia introduced him to much unsettling literature on this topic.

Sid was also deeply moved by Wilfred Owen and other WW1 poets who expressed the horror and insanity of war.  His grandfather, Whalley Sidwell, had faced execution for treason by refusing to join that war and was jailed for two and a half years.  Whalley’s five younger brothers also refused .  One explained: “What if I kill a German boy then I meet his mother and she asks me why I did that?”

Whalley was a powerful presence.  His son, Leonard, drove a van with a film projector all over England during the 1930s for the Peace Pledge Movement.  Their idea was to make war impossible because everyone would have pledged not to participate.  When WW2 broke out, Leonard did refuse to participate and he was jailed.  On his release he was assigned to agricultural work.  Sid did not yet notice that Whalley was occupying his body, too.

Further study felt useless to Sid by the time college was due to start and he decided he must get a job. Having no other idea how to get one, he went to the government office where jobs are posted and was given one picking apples.  When all the apples were picked, someone told him jobs are also listed in newspapers and showed him one as an inventory clerk.  A couple of years later someone told him the computer department would be better so he went there as a computer operator.

A year later, married and living in London, Sid for the first time searched for a job.  He found one as a programmer at a Dickensian insurance company.  A year or two later someone encouraged him to apply to IBM where for three years he for the first time worked alongside thinking people.  He liked that but disliked the culture.  Asked “What is the purpose of business?” he realized he didn’t know.  The answer was: “To make a profit”.  That can’t be right, he thought.  It’s like saying the purpose of life is to breathe.

So, when Sid saw a small American company’s advertisement about opening for business in England, he joined them.  A couple of weeks later they decided not to enter England but gave him a job in America.  It was 1970, and that was when Martin Sidsson, the third person to do so, took the reins of what was by now a 26 year old body.

Sidsson made a determined effort to fit into the entrepreneurial technology startup and the local culture.  It was not hard because everyone he worked with was smart and interesting.  He also made a determined effort to take the initiative and he was soon assigned to manage development of a precursor to the Internet.  Over the next few years he eagerly took on additional responsibilities and made a determined effort to manage according to his belief that the chief purposes of business are to delight customers and provide opportunity for employees.

He eventually remedied his utter ignorance of business operations, established a management consultancy and learned how to market and sell.  That led him to study why businesses fail and how to set effective strategies.  His last decade of work was in leadership positions in a long established global business followed by an Internet-based startup.

Sidsson’s career was not entirely a smooth progression, however.  In the same way that Whalley and Leonard Sidwell had played an important role in Leonardsson’s life, Leonardsson resurfaced a few years into Sidsson’s.  Sidsson always started out ignorant about new responsibilities he took on and he enjoyed the necessarily fast learning, but because his responsibilities grew rapidly, it was stressful.  Also, everything took extra effort because of the depression he had inherited from Leon, Sid, Leonard and Whalley.

As Sidsson’s stress built up, Leonardsson saw an opportunity to regain control.  Believing farming to be the only truly satisfying occupation and unhampered by understanding the unending work required or why small scale farming was no longer viable where Sidsson lived, he got Sidsson to establish a sheep farm.

Some years later, Sidsson recognized another presence in “himself”.  His mother, Florence Sidwell,  had believed there was no problem she could not fix and no challenge she could not overcome.  Without her presence Sidsson could never even have attempted what he had achieved.

By the time he retired, Sidsson was aware not only of his immediate predecessors, Leon and Sid, who were still vying for control of his body, he also saw his parents, Leonard and Florence, taking action with his body.  He no longer had a strong sense of self and was not surprised when a new person, Martin Martinsson, emerged and took control.

Martinsson went trekking in the Himalayas and experienced there a culture that attracted him greatly.  People were cheerful, as if that was their policy, and they were respectful of each other.  What was the cause?  It seemed to be their Buddhist practice.  A few years later, after many more long treks, much reading, and closer study of the reality, he realized the truth is much more complicated.  The people he thought were Buddhist were mostly animist, Nepal’s traditions come to a great extent from its Hindu aristocracy, and it is a caste society with much domestic violence.

But by the time Martinsson saw that more complex picture, he was acting on what he had first sensed.  He was practicing Tibetan Buddhism.  He had received teachings from Anam Thubten whose book, “No Self, No Problem”, makes clear that we do not have an intrinsic self and whose magnetizing presence shows that one really can he happy in all circumstances and can always be spontaneously kind.

He then met a second teacher, Phakchok Rinpoche, who insists his students follow a disciplined program to reach the state Anam Thubten and others exemplify.  We can’t think our way to that state, he insists, we must slowly, slowly retrain our mind by observing how it works, studying teachings, and reflecting.  Now Martinsson had something to work at, which felt good because it exercised the discipline his first incarnation, Leonardsson, had inherited from his parents, Leonard and Florence.

“What is Buddhism?” Rinpoche asked.  The answer: “Selflessness!”  When you experience not having a self that is intrinsically separate from others, your behavior naturally is selfless.  But gaining and sustaining that experience takes practice.  Having “no self” is not how we ordinarily feel.  Instead, we feel we are in a body that actually is separate from others.

Struggling to understand this, Martinsson returned to physics.  The butterfly effect and more in James Gleick’s “Chaos” got him reflecting on the weather, which manifests in different ways in different places, calm, windy, hot, cold, clear, foggy, sunny, raining, snowing, and always changing.  He came to see that what we call weather is the product of a giant energy field of swirling currents which constantly interact with and change each other, that have no fixed boundaries, and that are always different from moment to moment but which recur in broad form from season to season.

Martinsson recognized that just as weather manifests in the Earth’s environment, what we think of as selves manifest in the environment of bodies.

He continued deeper into quantum physics.  Einstein recognized decades before even Leonardsson was born that matter and energy are different manifestations of the same thing.  Sid had not felt that truth in High School physics classes but Martinsson now began to feel the reality that atoms are not solid things, and nor are solar systems.  Studying Lee Smolin’s explanations of theoretical physics in “The Trouble with Physics”, he began to see that what we experience as things like the Earth, our own body, atoms and everything else do not in fact have fixed boundaries or any intrinsic nature.

Matter is congealed energy; energy is liberated matter.  It only appears to us sentient beings that matter and space are different.  The boundary between them is simply a product of our mind.

The configuration of energy that manifests as a human body is sentient, but with limitations.  Every human body is uniquely configured — the high intelligence of Leon, Sid, and the Martins results from the configuration of the body they share, for example – and every body is constantly changing.

Martinsson began to see not just that everything is in flux, but everything is a manifestation of an energy field whose flows constantly interact producing results that propagate endlessly.

There is no real beginning or end of anything, only of appearances in our minds that manifest from flowing energy.

Catching up on quantum physics made the Tibetan Buddhist teachings real.  Martinsson could now to a growing extent feel the two levels of reality, an underlying energy field and what manifests from that energy to our senses and concept generators as, for example, things and personalities.  Leon Leonardsson, Sid Leonsson, Martin Sidsson and Martin Martinsson all exist on both levels, manifestations of an ever-changing energy field that has also manifested Leonard Sidwell, Florence Sidwell, Anam Thubten, Phakchok Rinpoche and so many more who we think of as “others”.

Well now, am I saying that Leonardsson, Leonsson and Sidsson were real people?  Yes and no.  The more I told you about them, the more real they would seem, but that’s also true of Martinsson.  All of them manifested as real in a situation which made that possible.  They were real in the same way as a rainbow when sunlight is separated by raindrops into colors that we usually perceive as one.   We think of a person as having an intrinsic nature in the same way we think of a rainbow as a thing.

Is a rainbow made of matter?  Is it energy in the form of light?  We don’t ordinarily ask such questions.  We do speculate about people and their nature, but with the wrong perspective.  We think of behaviors that manifest as a person as something with an intrinsic nature although those behaviors are in fact manifestations of an ever changing interaction of energy flows with no fixed boundaries and which, although ever changing, never end.

What does all this imply?  The body labelled Martin Sidwell was conceived at a specific time, was born at a specific later one, and will die at a specific future moment, but the sentient being who manifests in that body had no fixed beginning, it has no fixed nature, and it will have no definite end.

Our every act takes place within and is part of an unimaginably complex energy field.  Our every act changes that flowing energy, just as the tiny force of the butterfly’s flapping wing interacts with the results of other acts and eventually manifests a tornado.

Buddhists refer to how the system operates as karma.  To a great extent our actions are shaped by our concepts and emotional habits.  We rarely respond directly to what we see because what appears in our mind is something that fits an existing pattern there.  We see what we expect to see.  We don’t experience each new moment as unique.  We don’t experience it as it really is.   Karma means we keep reacting as we always do until we shed our fixed ideas and emotional habits.

So everything we do matters, and everything we do out of habit instead of what is actually present is flawed.

Pattern recognition and autopilot enable us to navigate what appears — we must, after all, stop automatically for red lights.  Feeling the energy behind what appears — that results in compassion and brings happiness.

Depression: Addiction

Many who have felt the utter desolation of depressive episodes are compelled to help their fellow-sufferers.  Mike and Michael’s stories in Depression: The Willpower Delusion and other stories in previous posts illustrate the compassion that arises from what they learned.

Those who have experienced depression know that willpower alone is not a cure, and they know what makes treatment even more elusive.

As Katie wrote in Depression: Help for Young People:  “Our culture teaches us that mental illness is something we must keep to ourselves … something we should feel ashamed of.”

By stigmatizing it, our culture amplifies the pain that comes directly from depression.  And there’s something even darker.

A friend who lost a family member to drug addiction, which stems from and is a form of mental illness, points out that addiction is far worse stigmatized.

I said little in Out of the Closet about my self-medication with alcohol, not because I want to keep it secret any more but because I did not become addicted.  Enormous numbers of us are not so lucky.

Overcoming addiction takes both enormous courage and the right kind of support.

My friend wrote: “Drug addiction is condemned by our society and abused by the insurance industry.  This person was sent home after 5 days of detox to an outpatient program that met three times a week for 3 hours.  The insurer said they would pay for an inpatient program if the person failed the outpatient treatment.

“He failed.  The insurer did not have to pay.”

That’s heart-rending…

Systems that result from our culture can be bewilderingly cruel.   We don’t usually reflect much on culture.  When we examine its results, it can be startling sometimes to see how very far things have gotten from being OK.

We don’t choose to become depressed, or become addicted, or get cancer.  We might act in ways that put us at higher risk, or it might just happen.  What is best for society in either case is that we get cured.

But recovery, or at least mitigation of the symptoms, is something we must choose.  That can be an agonizing truth when a loved one is addicted.

Addiction can only be overcome by someone who has arrived where every other alternative, even suicide, feels worse.  We may be able to help them arrive, but feeling cannot be commanded.

And there is a second agonizing truth.  They may reach that feeling but be unable to get treatment.

We must end addiction’s stigma.  That will make it less difficult to seek treatment, and it will make it no longer “acceptable” for insurers to deny coverage.

Depression: The Willpower Delusion

Nancy’s story in Depression: Parents and Children shows how she came to accept joy in what at first she did not want, and tells about her work to help suffering children.

Many of those who suffer depressive episodes help fellow-sufferers.  It is a natural response and we know better than anyone that willpower alone is not a cure.

Mike wrote: I see so many struggling as I do, but support is not available.  We are often left to cope on our own or get support for a very limited period.  Suicide rates are increasing in young men in the UK.  

“Society still doesn’t understand and I often find that people just don’t know how to respond when you are open.  I once stood up in a meeting at work and explained why I was doing reduced hours because I was struggling with my mental health.  Everyone looked very uncomfortable.  

“Afterwards the only responses I got were from members of staff who were suffering from depression.  They turned to me for support because I had been open about it.  

“What happens then is I support them and ignore myself, until it all gets too much and I crumble.  

“It is seen as a weakness, but we are all so strong because we battle through this every day.”  

Mike’s story illustrates how ignorance about mental illness prevents us from helping and even increases suffering, and that imagining depression to be weakness is utterly incorrect.

Mike also shows us the very sad truth that his form of depression is like some physical illnesses–the symptoms can be mitigated but there is no cure.

And we see another very sad truth.  Because he is a exceptionally kind as well as courageous, Mike tries, despite the additional suffering he knows it will cause himself, to help others who cannot get society’s help.

Michael is less unfortunate because he is often in remission.  He  helps fellow-sufferers via an established channel.  He wrote:  I have struggled myself on several occasions.  Now I provide CBT-based therapy through the UK National Health Service to those who suffer anxiety and depression.  

“Once a week I facilitate a workshop to approximately 25 people.  One of the best aspects of this is that the clients can see that depression is very common and does not discriminate.  

“I am keen on public health initiatives that help to ‘normalize’ depression, while acknowledging the debilitating effects that it can have on those who suffer.  In the UK one in every five visits to a doctor is for anxiety or depression.

I replied:  We are trained by society to imagine we can overcome depression with will power. The implication is, if we can’t do that we are weak.  Will power is essential just to keep going but battling depression is exhausting.  It can become impossible to carry on.  

“We must eradicate that delusion.  We don’t expect anyone to overcome diabetes with will power.  We understand for so many other maladies the need for treatment.”

Michael responded:  “If people could ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’ they would have done so. Depression is exhausting and it can take massive will power to just get out of bed. This is a characteristic of depression, not evidence of weakness or laziness – though unfortunately those who are depressed are often all too quick to flog themselves with such thoughts.”

Doug added:  More generally, no mental illness of whatever type is amenable to a willpower cure.   It can lie undisturbed under the surface for arbitrarily long periods and then emerge to endanger any or all aspects of one’s life.   I’m a board member of NAMI New Hampshire which lobbies for treatment options, produces training materials, and provides support for family members.   Along with other readers of Martin’s piece, we do not believe in the miraculous self-help model.”

So, fellow-sufferers from depressive episodes, when opportunities arise and you have the strength, please help others recognize that depression is illness, nothing more and nothing less, and that even those with chronic illness can suffer less and be more productive with treatment.

And everyone, perhaps you can help change society in a systematic way as Doug and others do.

We must eliminate the idea that willpower is a cure for illness.

Depression: Parents and Children

In Depression: Panic Attacks and Focusing Connie tells how she tried and failed and at last found a successful treatment for her panic attacks.

Now Nancy’s story points to two great truths–when we can accept what we have been given we can find the joy in what we did not want, and we must change what in our society creates suffering.

Nancy wrote: Like many parents of special needs children, I experienced debilitating depression for several years.

“I tried all sorts of natural treatments, including two years of no alcohol.  Ultimately, only meds helped, and as I started to deal with recovery in more positive ways, i.e. changing to a special education career, I gradually began to accept and appreciate the cards I was dealt, and no longer needed the meds.  

“Our son brings Chris and me so much joy (and laughter) that today we cannot imagine a life without him.”

The practical short term truth this illustrates is that depression, like other illnesses, may require medication.  The longer term truth lies in what Nancy says about the result of treatment, that she became able to accept what she was given and in that acceptance find joy.

First treatment, then recovery into joy.

Then Nancy wrote:  I now am working with a local mental health hospital, overseeing education services for their adolescent program.

“This experience has been enlightening in many ways, from first hand exposure to the trauma and suicide ideation/attempts these patients exhibit to the horrific insurance hassles parents face.  

“Our special education system, though broken, is at least mandated for all.  Our mental health system discriminates against people of little or moderate means.

“The only way patients who are not wealthy can participate in this program is through scholarships, which are few and far between. Insurance companies masterfully block coverage in ways that seem unbelievable, though true from my experience. 

“This segment from 60 Minutes is an excellent treatise on the problems parents face.”

It had never occurred to me!  How odd it is that our society provides education for every child, including those with special needs, but does not provide treatment for illness to every child.

That’s startling enough but early one morning a few years ago I was staggered by these words of fundamental truth: “If you really want to end suffering, it’s very simple.  Just stop creating it.”

We can end suffering created by our society’s systems and beliefs–we can change them.  We can end our own suffering by accepting what we’ve been given–which may first require treatment.

 

Depression: Panic Attacks and Focusing

Depression: Help for Young People is a story about a treatment that worked.  Here is another courageous story that I hope will help those who suffer.

Connie courageously revealed what she experienced and pointed to the healing path she discovered.

“I had debilitating panic attacks since age six and depression as certain situations would make my personality disappear in a self-protection beyond my control.

“I had saved for years to take Arthur Janov’s Primal Therapy when they opened a center in NYC but it didn’t reach the problem.

“One day at age 27, I decided I had enough and took the body sense that was so strong and presented possible scenarios and the second day, a cameo of a hateful face of my mother presented itself to me that connected to the body sense.  It was a pre-verbal memory.  When they connected, it released about 90% of the panic attacks.

“I was curious about what occurred and one day read in the NY Times book section a description of Eugene Gendlin’s book “Focusing”.  It turned out that was the process I had stumbled on.

“Years later, I learned Focusing and became certified to teach it.  It is a powerful bodily awareness to consciousness technique that can be used by itself or with other modalities.  So powerful, I have even had body healings from some of the connections – one being a now normal back after 14 years of debilitating back pain.

“Focusing can be done by ones self or more easily with a partner, who “holds” the space as you go within, and can be done via partnering on the phone – it does not need to be done with your partner in person.  It is a little known process, sadly.

“There is a Focusing community.  Gene Gendlin was a contemporary of Carl Rogers at the University of Chicago.  He discovered Focusing by listening to successful sessions of therapists to try to understand what they were doing in their session, but discovered instead it was a process the patient was doing!

“Focusing saved my life.  I, too, did not see myself continuing my life if I had to go on with those panic attacks and depression from the inability to “be” in the presence of others.

“One can learn how to do Focusing from a certified trainer over the phone as one option.”

Focusing looks valuable for everyone, even those who have no depressive episodes at all!

The www.focusing.org website says: “Focusing shows how to … create a space for new possibilities … your body picks up more about another person than you consciously know.  With a little training, you can get a bodily feel for the ‘more’ …  From that bodily feel come small steps that lead toward resolution.”

Thank you so much, Connie, for your bravery and recommendation.

Depression: Help for Young People

I was inspired by Professor Railton’s courage to join him in coming Out of the Closet” to admit that I, too, have lived through debilitating depressive episodes.  

Railton says: “We must call [depression] mental illness because that’s what it is, illness that takes up residence in the mind, but no more of the essence of a person than any other illness.  And when we hear of mental illness, treatment should be the first thing that comes to mind.”

The Facebook link to my “confession” prompted an outpouring of moving stories, mutual support and help that I hope to make more accessible with this and other posts.  

Teenagers are especially vulnerable to depression and are among the least well equipped to get help.  Liz wrote:  “The black dog” of depression and other mental illnesses are part of our common human experience.  We need to be able to openly discuss our mental health, just like we do our physical health: there should be no shame in being in pain.  I was recently gratified to read an article my high-school age daughter wrote for our local paper on this subject; I didn’t know she was that brave!  Maybe it means things are actually changing? 

Liz’ daughter, Katie, is indeed brave and her article “Teen Talk: YouTube can be a valuable resource” offers very practical help.

Katie begins by telling us: “Studies show that the number of teenagers who report feeling regularly anxious and/or depressed has doubled in the last 30 years or so, that children today have anxiety levels similar to those of the average psychiatric patient in the 1950s.”

When Katie experienced “a perfect storm of stress and unhappiness” she, like every teenager, needed more help than her parents could provide:  “I am lucky enough to have supportive parents who could sympathize with what I was experiencing, but sometimes sympathy wasn’t enough.  I wanted to feel understood; I wanted a sense of camaraderie with other people my age who were going through similar things.”

What she found is: “on YouTube of all places … a handful of younger people — younger women especially — who made videos on their experiences with anxiety, depression, body image and mental illnesses in general, to spread awareness and encourage recovery …  People … offered authentic and beneficial suggestions on how to manage living with anxiety or depression on a day-to-day basis.”

This is so important because:  “Teenagers who don’t feel comfortable telling anyone that they are dealing with mental illness now have somewhere they are able to get information.”

“That’s not to say,” Katie writes, “that informational YouTube videos are a replacement for cognitive behavioral therapy or any other form of treatment, but they are certainly a step in the right direction — a step that many people would not normally be able to take.”

I hope we can change what Katie points out:  “There is still a stigma surrounding mental illness. Our culture teaches us that mental illness is something we must keep to ourselves, something that is too personal to share or discuss, something we should feel ashamed of.”

But people need help now.  So, everyone who knows a teenager, here’s a way they or a friend can get help when they feel alone, too vulnerable to talk.

Thank you so much, Liz and Katie!

 

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.

Income Inequality Impacts Consumption

In this post I explore the great increase in income inequality during US economic expansions.  But does income inequality lead to inequality in relative consumption of necessities and luxuries?  Here’s an analysis by quintile since 1984:

http://www.clevelandfed.org/research/commentary/2014/2014-18.cfm

The data overall show (quote): “for lower and middle income quintiles, the share of total inflation-adjusted (real) consumption going to purchase necessities has contracted since 1984, while the share of the total going to purchase luxuries has remained fairly constant or slightly increased. For the highest income quintile, however, there has been growth in the relative consumption of luxuries.”

Wait – lower income folks are now spending less on necessities, more on luxuries?

Relative Real Consumption Shares by Income Quintile

We are not shown the trends for individual items by quintile but when we get to the end of the piece, “implications”, we do get one example of the impact of classifying items as “necessities” or “luxuries”:

Average Share of Total Real Consumption

Education is classified as a necessity although parents struggling to get by and/or maintain their customary enjoyment of luxuries such as “entertainment” and “public transportation” (!) might have a different view.

(Quote): “if the necessity “education” continues to decline as a share of real consumption for all but the highest income quintile, it may exacerbate the income inequality trend over the coming years; increased education is one of the most reliable paths to increased income. However, the lowest, second-lowest, middle, and second-highest income quintiles have all seen their shares of education decline significantly over the analysis period (8.1 to 2.6 percent, 2.8 to 1.2 percent, 2.5 to 1.1 percent, and 2.6 to 1.6 percent, respectively). The highest income quintile has seen its share of education consumption remain relatively steady, declining only slightly from 3.4 to 3.2 percent.”

The devil is famously in the details.

Capitalism, the General Welfare and Education

I’m blessed to have friends whose beliefs I do not share.  They make it so much easier to see that if I believe this, I cannot also believe that.

My ideas were well tested in a discussion of this New York Times article about income inequality analyzed in the context of US economic expansions by Ms. Tcherneva, an economist at Bard College.

In the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, most income gains from the bottom of one recession to the start of the next went to most people, i.e., the bottom 90% got a majority of the increase.  But in each expansion they got a smaller share while the top 10% got increasingly more.

From 2001 to 2007, an extraordinary 98% of income gains went to the top 10% of earners.

In the first three years of the current expansion, the incomes of the bottom 90% actually fell, which meant the top 10% got a seemingly impossible 116% of all income gains.

Inequality Increased with Expansions

The top 10% now gets almost half of all income.  Just the top 3% got almost a third (31%) in 2013 and the next 7% got 17%.  The remaining half (52%) is shared by the bottom 90%.

Making life harder for the bottom 20%, they got only 36% of federal transfer payments in 2010, down from 54% in 1979.

The short term result of rising inequality is weak economic demand.  The longer term impact is lack of progress in education.

The USA is the only high-income country whose 25-34 year olds are no better educated than its 55-64 year olds.  College graduation rates for the poorest increased only 4% from those born in the early 1960s to the early 1980s while the rate for the wealthiest increased by almost 20%.

Upward mobility is very limited without a college degree so high inequality in education results in children of prosperous families tending to stay well-off while children of poor families remain poor.

Ms. Tcherneva focuses on the short term issue, weak demand, and observes that our fiscal policy – lower interest rates to increase demand to create jobs – is not working.  She suggests the Federal government focus directly on employment:  “The manpower of the poor and the unemployed can be mobilized for the public purpose irrespective of their skill level, which in turn will be upgraded by the very work experience and educational programs that the program would offer.”

When the discussion began, a different version of the income distribution chart by Robert Reich was dismissed as “bull crap.”  By the end, we agreed that income distribution really is highly unequal in the US and is growing more so.  We further agreed that the trend is unsustainable.  We came close to a consensus that if it continues too long, there will be civil strife. 

And we ended up agreeing that our economy is undergoing structural change.  Off-shoring and automation are eliminating many lower paid jobs.  AI software is also replacing many higher paid jobs.  Perhaps there simply will not be enough jobs humans can do better/cheaper than intelligent machines and we will in the longer term need a new economic paradigm.

When we discussed solutions for today, we disagreed about whether government should try to alter income distribution, directly create jobs, or do more to govern behavior in markets e.g., with stricter bank regulations.  We disagreed about whether government should ever try to influence society in any way e.g., by tax incentives. 

And we disagreed if education should be primarily private or public. 

Seeking a philosophical basis for our beliefs, we discussed the Constitution’s: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, … promote the general Welfare …”, and its section 8, which gives the legislative branch the power “… To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.” 

What, we debated, is the Federal government’s responsibility for “the general welfare” in a capitalist society?

Characteristics of all forms of capitalism include capital accumulation, competitive markets and wage labor.  Piketty’s research suggests the rate of return on capital is inevitably higher than the rate of growth of wages.  What government action does that suggest?  To what extent should government constrain behavior in competitive markets?  And is the freedom that comes with wage labor sufficient?

What preceded capitalism was slavery where slaves could not seek a better owner, and feudalism which also kept those at the bottom in place.  Capitalism has no such iron-clad constraints.  In pursuit of higher wages, a better boss, more interesting or safer work, we can try to get any job at all, anywhere. 

Furthermore, capitalism requires property rights and other laws while in slave-owning and feudal societies, laws are the whim of the slave-owner or land-holder. 

We did not dispute the ideas in the preamble to the Constitution; that central government must enable us to live in peace under the protection of the law.  Hamilton in the Federalist Papers was emphatic about “a more perfect union” and “common defense”.  States must not have armies, he wrote, because they would go to war with each other if they did.  The nation as a whole must defend itself. 

Where we disagreed was on Section 8, about the meaning of “the general welfare” and the Federal government responsibilities it implies. 

My thoughts were clarified by the discussion.  I believe the central government of any nation is responsible for establishing the infrastructure, broadly defined, that is necessary for the general welfare.

Infrastructure means basic facilities, services, and installations necessary for a society to function, e.g., transportation and communications systems, water and power lines.  Infrastructure also includes public institutions such as schools, post offices, and prisons. And it includes protection of “the commons”, things we all need that nobody owns such as the air.

Different combinations of public and private involvement can create and maintain infrastructure, but the central government is always responsible for ensuring that current and future generations will have an infrastructure that enables the nation to remain competitive and viable.

I have long thought, for example, that our central government should lead us from dependency on Middle East (or other) oil by establishing a suitable electricity grid.  What struck me in this discussion is that I think a well educated and healthy work force is also part of our infrastructure. 

And I want nobody to be prevented from fulfilling their potential by the circumstances into which they are born.

That led me to two conclusions about education.  First, it must be funded from the center because if it is not, welfare cannot be general.  Some will be privileged by accident of birth while others who may have high intellect and/or other gifts will not get an education that enables them to fulfill their potential.  Second, the curriculum must be set at the center because if it is not, our workforce will not have a dependable base of skills.

I do not mean specific work-related skills, almost all of which now have a short shelf-life because technology is advancing so fast.  I mean the ability to seek out and recognize facts, to reason from facts to conclusions, and to communicate effectively with people whose ideas are different. 

We are not born knowing how to do any of those things or how to act as members of society, just as we are not born knowing how to read or do arithmetic, and that’s important because we can’t have an effective democracy if voters can’t recognize facts or reason from them. 

In fact, we do not have an effective democracy, and I want that to change!

My views, taken as a whole, seem to fit no label.   I believe, among other things, that:

  • Markets should operate as the engine of creative destruction (i.e., I’m a capitalist)
  • Which means, for example, that too-big-to-fail financial institutions must be broken into smaller entities that can go bankrupt
  • And (almost?) all tax incentives should be eliminated
  • Individuals should be held accountable for their actions
  • Which means we must strengthen regulation and enforcement of individuals’ behavior in markets (i.e. prosecute criminal behavior)
  • Everyone should have a reasonably good opportunity to fulfill their potential (i.e., I’m a progressive)
  • Which means we need a progressive income tax code and high inheritance taxes
  • And Federally funded education with a uniform national curriculum
  • A reasonable amount of health care and etc should be available to all (i.e., I’m a socialist)
  • Which means we need a universal single-payer health system
  • Infrastructure investment by the central government is necessary and can be funded by borrowing (i.e., I’m not a fiscal hawk)
  • But spending programs should be funded with current revenue, i.e., taxes (so maybe I am a fiscal hawk)
  • Our misguided spending on wars should be invested productively, e.g., on an electricity grid that helps us overcome our dependency on oil and coal (i.e., I’m a peacenik) 

My education left me unable to accept an entire package of ideas from anyone else, but it’s hard to avoid cognitive dissonance when you assemble your own set.  It’s almost impossible to spot every inconsistency.  This is why I’m so grateful to my diverse friends for helping me see more clearly.

Doma’s First Month in the USA

This was a fun and busy month introducing Doma to life and friends in coastal Maine and helping her prepare for Hampshire College.  Our world and ways here are so different from life in Nepal.  I am not surprised but I am greatly impressed by how calmly and happily she adjusted.  In this post I’ll try to give a sense of what we’ve been doing (you can click on the photos to see more clearly).  At the end are descriptions of  her first semester classes.

The ocean was quite a surprise   2014-07-29 07.00.04

but Doma soon grew accustomed to the ever-changing tides.  2014-07-29 07.00.34

“There is so much jungle,” she said,  2014-07-29 10.15.44

and everything is so clean!”  2014-07-29 10.48.52

Some foods were familiar, like these cakes.  2014-07-29 13.06.46

but lobsters that “look like a scorpion” were not.   2014-07-27 19.26.02

I was ill-prepared for shopping but blessed by friends like Kris  2014-07-31 12.06.25

who provided guidance about both fashion and food.  2014-07-31 13.21.09

Getting the rest of her inoculations was no fun 2014-08-01 14.27.23

but life improved greatly once she got a laptop 2014-07-30 18.51.19

She enjoyed meeting our neighbors, other friends 2014-08-02 15.07.21

and Patty’s delightful dog, Maya. 2014-08-02 15.30.54

Later, Doma renewed her Buddhist vow to live a good life 2014-08-10 12.44.49

and my teacher, Phakchok Rinpoche, led us in happiness 2014-08-15 18.01.05-2

then I took selfies while she checked in to her room at Hampshire College. 2014-08-23 16.51.31

Hampshire is a traditional Liberal Arts college in that students must take a wide variety of classes in their first couple of years but different in that study and reflection lead to action, to projects.  Doma’s classes in her first semester are:

How Things Work: How things work is a first-year Physics course, using easier mathematics (algebra through pre-calculus) to study the full range of its topics. It introduces students to college physics, projects, and science through study of ordinary objects. Principles flow from everyday applications in mechanics, electricity & magnetism, electronics and optics. We steadily build an individualized project, learning stages of research and write-up that are needed for any intellectual investigation. This course covers the five elements of a complete Natural Science experience, including quantitative and verbal skills, the methods of scientific inquiry, and the importance of social context, all as applied to the topic of each student’s choice, thereby addressing crucial first-year program goals.

Dancing Modern I: This beginning level modern dance technique course will introduce students to “modern” and other dance technique practices. By practicing in-class exercises and phrase-studies, students will refine bodily awareness and articulation, hone spatial and rhythmic clarity, develop facility in perceiving and interpreting movement, and practice moving with our dance musicians’ scores. We’ll also consider what movement principles and priorities underlie the techniques we employ, and compare them to those of other dance styles and cultures. How do these influence the dances that result? Going a step further, we’ll examine the final products of dance practice, the dances themselves; students will learn to read and analyze choreography in performances from a range of dance styles and cultures. Students will be expected to grapple with the studio work with commitment and rigor, view performances live in concert, and think in movement, style, and written word.

Global Poverty: Theories and Practices: Poverty action and alleviation are terms that have been used in relation to how we imagine engaging with the so-called “Third World.” This course seeks to analytically engage with poverty practices utilizing different models and paradigms of poverty alleviation around the world. Furthermore, the investigation of poverty alleviation will be situated within a larger historical context of 20th and 21st century international development. While global poverty action and alleviation has been propagated through state-led International development projects, the course also seeks to examine the role of non-governmental organizations, social movements, private corporations, and philanthropic foundations all aimed at tackling and eradicating poverty. The course also examines the ways in which poverty is concentrated in urban settings. While most of the course content is situated in the “Third World,” case studies on poverty and inequality in the “First World” will be examined as well interrogating normative notions of the “Third World” and “First World.”

Introduction to Social Entrepreneurism: Students explore themselves, talents, motivations and dreams to realize new ways to address social needs and change through enterprise development. Grounded in experiential learning, this class is a balance of theory, hands-on learning, best practices and skills building. Students actively engage in creating a social enterprise. Class includes case studies, guest speakers and a possible field trip. No prior entrepreneurship or business experience is necessary. All students will complete and present an enterprise concept plan.

This week Doma and other international students are being introduced to everything Hampshire.    2014-08-23 17.01.06

She is having fun making new friends but eager for start of classes on September 3rd.