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.

Happy Birthday Every Day

I was both born and met my death on April 20, 1970.  It also happened on March 25, 1944 when I separated from my mother’s body.  It is happening again in this very moment.

Our universe is energy, in no way fixed, an endless, glorious play of energy.

None of the universe’s energy is created or destroyed.  It simply changes.   That is the first law of thermodynamics.  All energy is conserved.

Physicists have measured the conservation of energy.  It is absolutely consistent across all space and time.

So, along with everything else, what I think of as “me” disappears and is reborn in every instant.  The waves of energy that appeared as “me” when I typed “in every instant” have already changed shape and direction.

Mostly, we notice only the dramatic changes.  Perhaps for a moment we feel the beauty of a flower.  But we do not recognize that our mind-body is always changing.

All the energy that manifested as “me” when I landed in New York forty five years ago remains in this world even though much of it is no longer part of “me”.  Every wave of energy that encountered “me” changed “me”.  The path of every wave that met “me” was changed by the encounter.

How to sense this fundamental truth?  I think of the weather.

The entire weather system is interconnected.  It has no fixed borders yet it is different everywhere and always changing.  The sun is rising in a clear sky above Brunswick Maine this morning.   Yesterday at this time it was gray, windy and raining.  Rain is falling in other places right now.

Tiny actions like the flap of a butterfly’s wing engage with powerful winds that arise seasonally as the positions of the Earth and Sun change.  So many factors change the flow of energy that we experience as weather.

We humans manifest in the same way as weather, all different, all part of the same system, not remaining exactly the same even for a moment.  And, like the butterfly drying its wings, our every action changes the entire energy flow.

Perhaps some of the energy that now creates the appearance of “me” will later join other waves of energy in a summer monsoon to nourish rice in India.  Perhaps a grandchild of a child waking up now in Brunswick, Maine will enjoy some of that rice.  The play of energy makes anything and everything possible.

Our intellect can’t quite understand how our “self” can be imaginary yet cognizant, imaginary but able to choose how it nudges the energy in which it appears.  I’ve learned not to worry about that.

Intellect is what gives us the opportunity to deploy our kindness intelligently.  Becoming better able to do that is my birthday wish.

Beyond the Media Hype: Saudi Arabia

Where next to combat my ignorance about the Middle East?  Here.  We Americans fear and loathe Arabs in general but we imagine Saudis to be our friends.

Saudi Arabia is mostly inhospitable desert that covers 80% of the Arabian Peninsula.  The prophet Muhammed united nomadic tribes here in the early 7th century and established an Islamic state that his followers rapidly expanded.   The center of the Muslim world soon moved to better lands and most of what is now Saudi Arabia reverted to tribal rule.

In the 16th century, Ottoman rulers of Turkey north of Iraq added the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula to their empire.  Their control of the area varied over the next four centuries.  In 1916, tribal leaders encouraged by Britain mounted a failed revolt then the Ottoman Empire collapsed at the end of WW I.  Ibn Saud, who founded today’s Saudi Arabia and avoided the revolt, continued his three decades long campaign against his regional rivals.

He established the kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932 as an absolute monarchy governed under a puritanical form of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabi that is practiced by 85–90% of Saudis.  The other 10-15%, who face systematic discrimination, are Shi’a.   No faith other than Islam is permitted, conversion by Muslims to other religions is outlawed and so is proselytizing by non-Muslims.

The royal family controls all the kingdom’s important posts.  Around 200 of more than 7,000 princes occupy the  key ministries and regional governorships.  The country in effect belongs to the Ibn Saud family.

Saudi Arabia is bordered by Jordan and Iraq to the north with Egypt, Israel and Palestine to Jordan’s west.  Syria is in the northwest and Iran is a few miles east over the Persian Gulf.  These borders were drawn up by the British and French at the end of WW I with little regard for tribal, religious or ethnic realities.

Saudi_Arabia_map(Map created by Norman Einstein, February 10, 2006)

Saudi Arabia is interesting to two communities.  Mecca, the birthplace of Muhammed and the site of his first revelation of the Quran, is Islam’s holiest city.  Non-Muslims are prohibited from it and a pilgrimage to it is mandatory for Muslims.  That Saudi Arabia is the world’s dominant oil producer and exporter and has the world’s second largest proved petroleum reserves motivates our interest.

Oil was struck in Pennsylvania in 1859, Russia found it in the Caucasus in 1873, then the British found it in Iraq in 1903.  They promptly declared they would “regard the establishment of a naval base or a fortified port in the Persian Gulf by any other power as a very grave menace to British interests, and we should certainly resist it with all the means at our disposal.”  Five years later, they struck oil in Iran.

Three years after that, the British began converting their navy from coal, of which they had ample supplies, to oil, of which they had none.  They landed forces in Iraq in 1914, captured Baghdad and began projecting power from there.  More oil was found in the Persian Gulf, starting in Bahrain in 1931 and followed by Kuwait and Qatar.  Then in 1933, Americans found oil in Saudi Arabia.

American businessmen were cautiously welcomed by the Saudi king as less threatening than Britain or other colonial powers.  He negotiated well with Aramco executives, the business established to export the oil, and later with the US government, trading oil for infrastructure development that transformed Saudi Arabia in a very short time from a medieval fiefdom to a 20th century one that became leader of the petroleum exporters, OPEC.


Saudi Arabia gained control of 20% of Aramco in 1972, full control in 1980 and was by 1976 the largest oil producer in the world.  In 1973, Saudi Arabia led an oil boycott against Western countries that supported Israel in its war against Egypt and Syria.

The Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 led Saudi Arabia’s king to fear rebellion by the Shi’a minority in the east where the oil is located, and in the same year protesters against laxity and corruption in his government seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca.  These events led to enforcement of much stricter religious observance and a greater role in government for Muslim legal scholars.

The royal family’s relations had been primarily with Aramco leaders until the reign of King Khalid starting in 1975.  After 1975 was when Saudi and US foreign policy grew closely aligned.

Saudi Arabia provided $25B to Iraq in its 1980-88 war against Iran, which we supported.  It condemned Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and allowed US and coalition troops to be stationed in Saudi Arabia.  But it did not support or participate in the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.  The US by then no longer seemed a dependable ally.

There is significant opposition in Saudi Arabia both to US influence, and to the absolute monarchy.  The strongest opposition comes from Sunni religious leaders who want a stricter form of Islamic rule.  Others want the opposite.  The Saudi government was rated the 5th most authoritarian government out of 167 in 2012.  Women have almost no rights, it’s the only country in the world that bans them from driving.  There is also opposition from the Shi’a minority as well as tribal and regional opponents.

The Saudi royal family’s greatest fear, however, until the recent rise of the Islamic State whose stated goal is leadership of an Islamic world, has been Iran’s growing influence.  They are more alarmed now the US and Iran seem to be inching closer to a rapprochement.

So the Saudi royal family needs US military support but is at odds with us among other reasons because, like every other nation in the Middle East, they opposed the creation of Israel and are supportive of the Palestinians.  They have condemned the Hezbollah militants in Lebanon, but the Saudi royal family is Sunni and Hezbollah are Shi’a.

The royal family must also deal with anti-American feeling among the Saudi people.   Osama Bin Laden and fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia and it is widely believed, in former US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s words, that: “Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”

Very recently, the king criminalized “participating in hostilities outside the kingdom” fearing that Saudis taking part in Syria’s civil war will return knowing how to overthrow a monarchy.  Syria now defines terrorism as “calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based.”  One of the groups they have named as a terrorist organization is the Muslim Brotherhood.

Fear of its neighbors motivates Saudi Arabia to spend more than 10% of its GDP on its military, among the highest percentage of military expenditure in the world.  The kingdom has a long standing military relationship with Pakistan.  Some believe it funded Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program and could purchase such weapons from them for itself.

A good representative of what the Saudi government fears is Safar al-Hawali, a scholar who was a leader of the 1991 movement opposing the presence of US troops on the Arabian peninsula and a leader of a 1993 group that was the first to openly challenge the monarchy.

No surprise that al-Hawali is also a critic of the US government.

In 2005, al-Hawali wrote in An Open Letter to President Bush “the Roman Empire claimed to be the symbol of freedom and civilized values, just as you referred to America in your first statement after the incidents of September 11.  It was the greatest world power of its day, the heir of Greek civilization.  It had a Senate and a façade of democracy.  The Roman citizen had freedom of religion and personal behavior.  All this made it superior to other Empires throughout the world, and yet history does not speak well of this Empire because of the repulsive crime with which it stained its reputation: the persecution of the Christians.”

Elsewhere, al-Halawi wrote: “Since World War II, America has not been a democratic republic: it has become a military empire after the Roman model … the American way can be discerned and defined in one word: war.  America unhesitatingly enters into war anywhere in the world … Thus we notice that America is always seeking an enemy, and if it does not find one it creates one and inflates it using its terrible media to persuade its people’s conscience that the war it has declared is necessary and for a just cause.”  (“Inside the Mirage” Thomas A. Lippman, p. 328)

We imagine Saudi Arabia is our friend, but our thirst for oil provokes their memories of colonial powers.  Saudis and others in the Middle East don’t understand our unquestioning support for Israel.  Their Muslim leaders are as suspicious of American Christians as we are of them.  Inside Saudi Arabia the Shi’a minority is oppressed by their Sunni rulers, Wahhabi fundamentalists battle progressives, and nobody except the royal family can have a role in government.

Preconceptions like the ones we and Saudis hold about each other are not a dependable basis for friendship.  Instead, they fuel hatred.

Beyond the Media Hype: Iran

A 2013 BBC poll found 87% of Americans view Iranian influence negatively, which is odd because few Americans ever met an Iranian.  What caused the negativity?

Our relations with what was Persia used to be positive.  We established diplomatic relations in 1883 when Persia, like many other nations, was threatened by British and Russian colonizing although there was little contact between us until 1906 when Persia established a constitutional monarchy.

The Shah was forced to accept an elected parliament.  The Qatar royal family had borrowed massively from Britain and Russia, ruining the country’s finances, so Persia’s new parliament appointed an American, Shuster, as Treasurer General to set things straight.

But Britain and Russia continued to dominate Persia and its neighbors.  Following their formal agreement about which of them would control which parts of Persia, Afghanistan and Tibet, they pressured Persia in 1911 to expel Shuster.

In 1921 when the treasury was empty again, another American, Millspaugh, was hired to straighten things out.  He freed the country from foreign loans by 1927 and Persians came to see the US as their liberator from Britain and Russia.

In 1925, Reza Shah deposed the last Qajar Shah and founded the secular Pahlavi dynasty.  He introduced reforms that modernized the nation he renamed Iran, but he was a despot.  He was forced to abdicate in 1941 at the time of a WW2 Anglo-Soviet invasion.

In 1942, Millspaugh was invited back by Iran’s parliament but he was forced out in 1945 by Reza Shah’s son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, because he kept refusing to increase military spending.

In 1953, the government was overthrown in a coup orchestrated by the CIA and the British MI6 after Iran’s elected leader tried to nationalize its oil industry, 80% of the profits of which were going to Britain.  Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was reinstated as a close US ally.

During the Cold War, we supported Iran’s and many other unpopular and repressive regimes as bulwarks against the Soviet Union.

In 1979 when widespread unrest forced the Shah to flee, Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile and established an anti-American, radical Islamic regime.  Iranian students, angry when the Shah was admitted to the US, stormed our Embassy and held hostages.

That was the end of secular Iran and friendly relations with the US.

We made a failed attempt to rescue the hostages in 1980, they were released immediately Reagan replaced Carter, then things got murky.

Iraq hoped to take advantage of the chaos in Iran and attacked without warning in 1980.  Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, fearing the Iranian revolution could spread, provided support.  Saudi Arabia is thought to have provided $1B/month.   Support also came from France, Germany, the Soviet Union and the US, including intelligence on Iranian deployments from our satellites and radar planes.

President Reagan said we would “do whatever is necessary to prevent Iraq from losing the war with Iran.”  We sold poisons for chemical weapons Iraq used against Iran and its own Kurds.  The war ended in stalemate in 1988 with perhaps half a million Iraqi and Iranian soldiers and as many civilians killed.

In 1985 while we overtly supported Iraq, we also secretly sent weapons to Iran in exchange for help freeing US hostages in Lebanon.  We illegally sent the profits to anti-Communist rebels in Nicaragua and when that became public in 1986, President Reagan suffered a short-lived political crisis.

In 1988, we shot down an Iranian commercial flight over the Persian Gulf, killing 290 Iranians, most of whom were on their way to Mecca.

When the war ended, Iraq could not repay the $14B it borrowed from Kuwait and asked that the debt be forgiven, saying they had prevented Iran from over-running Kuwait.  Kuwait did not agree.

In 1990 Iraq accused Kuwait of stealing Iraqi oil by slant drilling, then invaded and announced that Kuwait was now part of Iraq.  US-led forces drove Iraq out early in 1991.

That was when Iraq ceased to be our ally.  In 1993 we adopted a new “dual containment” policy that aimed to end the regional ambitions of both Iran and Iraq.

Iran elected a reformist president in 1997 but in his 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush named Iran part of an “axis of Evil” and said Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons.

Then in 2005, Iran elected a conservative president.  He called for Israel to be wiped off the map, and Iran resumed uranium conversion.  US Secretary of State Rice termed Iran an “Outpost of Tyranny” along with Cuba, Burma, North Korea, Belarus, and Zimbabwe.

But in 2006, Iran’s president wrote to President Bush calling for dialog.  We made no direct response but agreed to join European nations in talks with Iran if Iran suspended uranium enrichment.  In 2007, for the first time in 27 years, officials of Iran and the United States met face-to-face.

In December 2007, a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate said Iran had ended its nuclear weapons program in 2003.  But nonetheless, the UN ratified four rounds of sanctions on Iran between 2006 and 2010 and the US and EU also imposed sanctions, including on its financial sector in 2012.  The US Treasury claims Iran’s currency lost two-thirds of its value in the next two years.

In 2013, Iran’s next President, a reformist, called President Obama, the first between US and Iranian heads of state for 30 years.  Diplomatic discussions began but our State Department website says: “The current Iranian government still has not recognized Israel’s right to exist, has hindered the Middle East peace process by arming militants, including Hamas, Hizballah, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and continues to play a disruptive role in sustaining violence in the region, particularly Syria.”

Is that what really motivates our government?

No.  In 2001, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said:  “Several of these [small enemy nations] are intensely hostile to the United States and are arming to deter us from bringing our conventional or nuclear power to bear in a regional crisis.”

In 2008, Democratic Senator Robb and GOP Senator Coates wrote:  “Iran with nuclear weapons capability would be strategically untenable. It would threaten U.S. national security … the ability to quickly assemble a nuclear weapon would effectively give Iran a nuclear deterrent.”

What really motivates us, then, is that nuclear weapons would prevent us from attacking Iran.  It’s quite a stretch to claim Iran is an existential threat to us.

Our media portrays Iran’s leader (whoever he may be at the time) as a new Hitler who will stop at nothing to dominate the world.  But that’s nonsense.  Iran will not commit suicide by using a nuclear weapon against us or Israel.  We both have huge nuclear stockpiles.

Positioning Iran in that way tells them they would be fools not to acquire nuclear weapons.  The dictators who gave up that quest, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, provide the lesson.

It is rational for Iran to want nuclear weapons.  We toppled their democratically elected government and installed a despotic ruler in 1953, we backed Iraq’s war against them from 1982-8, President Bush threatened a military strike, Israel often does, we’ve imposed the harshest ever sanctions, and they see what we’ve done to their neighbors, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Equally, it is not irrational for Iran to back Hezbollah’s battle against an Israel that keeps threatening military action.  A deal to end that support would be good for us as well as Israel because Hezbollah is a far more capable terrorist group than al Qaeda ever was.

It is true that Iran has a terrible human rights record.  In 2013 it ranked 167 in the world, according to the International Human Rights Indicator.  But we don’t care about our allies’ human rights: think Mubarak, Gaddafi, and for many years, Saddam Hussein.

What we care about is compliance with our foreign policy.  Egyptian dictator Mubarak was OK with Israeli military action in Lebanon and occupied Palestinian territories.  Gaddafi became our friend until he spoke of nationalizing Libya’s oil.

We supported Iraq’s war on Iran then made war on Iraq, threatened Syria, are making drone attacks in other Middle East nations, and now we say the “Islamic State” is the enemy.    But if we really do want to destroy the Islamic State, we need Iran as a partner because air strikes won’t be enough.

And more importantly, the power vacuum that allowed the Islamic State to flourish must be resolved unless we want perpetual instability in the Middle East.  There must be a political solution, which means we must talk with Iran not just because of their concerns but because they influence Shia leaders in Syria and Iraq.

Our leaders fear an Iran with nuclear weapons that would neuter their freedom to attack.  But what makes we the people fear Iran?  What is our underlying fear?

This poster from a Facebook friend, many of whose beliefs distress me, offers a clue:

Pastor Saeed Poster

Iran jailed Pastor Saeed for “undermining national security.”  His Christian missionary work did not threaten territorial security.  He was working against the religion on which Iran’s laws are based.

We, just as the colonial powers did, send missionaries to “foreign lands” to replace their beliefs with our own.  The poster’s publisher, ACLJ.org, is an arm of Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism, Inc.  Christian evangelism tends to suggests we aim to make the whole world American.

Iran’s leaders may also wonder if temporal victory really is our aim.  President Reagan believed in the Rapture, when all true believers will be taken into heaven and all others will face tribulation.  On at least eleven occasions he said the end of the world is coming, maybe soon.  President Bush had similar beliefs but, since the Cold War was over, he saw the Antichrist not in Russia but the Middle East.

Still though, why would so many Americans want no deal to stop Iran getting nuclear weapons?  How could the pastor’s release from jail be more important than nuclear proliferation in the Middle East?

Because humans are programmed to fear “the other.”  Some small group becomes noticeable, we don’t know any of them personally, we don’t know much about them, they seem different from us, we imagine they are all the same and rapidly growing in number, then we feel threatened.

Jews have been “the other” in many societies throughout history.  Roman Catholics were “the other” here when Kennedy was running for President.  More recently Muslims have become “the other” here and in Europe.

Now we imagine all Muslims are the same, and because the ones we’re shown by the media are terrorists, we imagine all Muslims to be potential if not yet actual terrorists.

Nothing I or anyone else can say will eradicate that fear.  It will only evaporate as more of us get to meet more Muslims, or if our media first positions some new small group as “the other.”

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.

The Canary and the Colly Bird

Colly birds are unexpectedly thought-provoking.  Learning that colly comes from the Old English col led me to the history of coal and other energy sources, how power shifts when it’s abused or new technology arrives, and differences between resource-extracting and self-sustaining economies.

Colliery work was very dangerous.  Workers who were not killed by mine shaft collapse, flooding, or explosive gas accidents died later from black-lung disease.  Mine owners in 19th century British held all the power and invested little in safety.   The workers could get no other jobs but they organized as the 20th century approached.  They balanced the owners’ power by striking and they got safer conditions.  In 1947 all mines were bought by the government.  The miners’ and other unions continued to gain power and make more demands via work stoppages that peaked in 1979 when over 29 million working days were lost.  In 1984, the miners stopped work for a year.  That cost the economy well over $2 billion but the government refused to negotiate and broke the unions’ power.  Stoppages were below 2 million working days by 1990.   The number of mine workers fell even more precipitously from over 700,000 in the 1940s to around 12,000 in 2002.

So, excessive power was abused first by the mine owners, then  the workers’ unions, then government gained the upper hand before re-privatizing the mines.  Union leaders got power when the workers were roused to desperate protest, then lost it when coal began to grow scarce and new technology eliminated the miners’ jobs.

UK Coal Production

While UK coal production fell from 112 million tonnes in 1980 to 9 in 2006, coal consumption fell only from 123 million tonnes to a low of 59 million in 2000 after which it grew to 67 million in 2006.  The growth in demand for coal came from power stations that accounted for 86% of all UK coal consumption by 2006.  The drop in UK coal production was balanced by increased imports.

UK Coal Consumption

Overall UK energy use grew from 205 to 232 million tonnes of oil equivalent since 1980.  Oil use was roughly constant, coal dropped and use of natural gas doubled.

UK Energy Use

In the USA, where I found longer term data, there is much higher dependence on oil, coal still is as important as natural gas and, as in the UK, although production from renewable sources is increasing, it is still only a small fraction of the total.  I’ll return in a future post to energy use and its implications for economies and societies but first, why did I mention the canary?


Canaries were used in British coal mines from 1911 to 1987 as an early warning system.  Carbon monoxide, methane and other toxic gases in the mine shaft would kill a canary before affecting the miners.  Its signs of distress alerted the miners to escape.  It occurred to me that our house was heated by coal when I was a kid and I liked that but I knew nothing about conditions in the mines.  Could there be  mine-shafts in our economy now where great wealth is being extracted and toxicity is building up?  I felt I should take a canary to investigate.

And why colly birds again?  Because they and other birds in the song were rich folks’ food.  The audience for and singers of the song were being promised those things.  We tend to overlook toxic by-products of rich folks’ things because we like to imagine that we, too, could be rich.  That makes us vulnerable to contemporary equivalents of the Monty Python pet store salesman who insisted the deceased Norwegian Blue parrot he sold was not dead but resting, pining for the fjords or momentarily stunned, or the 4th century Greek man complaining to a slave-merchant that his new slave died who was told: “When he was with me, he never did any such thing!”  Those jokes work because we really are vulnerable to such nonsense.

We should always, but rarely do, consider incentives.  To understand a business’ sales results, understand its sales folks’ comp plan.  To understand a society, understand the basis of its economy.  Resource-extracting endeavors like coal mining encourage owners to make their one-time harvest as fast and profitably as possible.  Self-sustaining enterprises like Nepali hill farms that require terraces to be maintained for food this year also enable them to raise crops next year, and their descendants in future years.  The different bases of the two economies drive short-term-only or short-and-long-term-optimizing behaviors.

Coal mining and subsistence farming are illustrations.  I’m no romantic about village life.  My sheep needed care every day; care in bad weather, intensive care in lambing season, care when I was sick, care that must be expert or they would die.  It’s hard and stressful work that never ends and sheep die in disasters no matter what.  There are much easier ways to support oneself.  All I’m saying is we should notice negative side-effects of the way we live and consider if there are better ways.

So, in future posts I will take a canary down some jointly-owned, private-public mine-shafts that are disproportionately rewarding for their owners and harmful to others.  Four that seem especially problematic are the:

  • Miilitary-industrial mine-shaft that keeps us in a ruinously costly perpetual state of war
  • Washington-Big Oil mine-shaft that keeps us in a military trap in the Middle East and keeps climate change off our agenda
  • Washington-healthcare industry mineshaft, our largest at 17% of GDP, which costs us twice as much as in any other rich country and makes us the only one without universal healthcare
  • Washington-Wall Street one that supplies almost every US Treasury secretary and paved the way for financial crisis, mega-bailouts and not a single prosecution of criminals.

I will also explore the economic and social impact of technology.   The UK coal miners who improved their lives by increasing their relative power later lost their livelihood to new machines.  New technologies like that can greatly increase capital returns by replacing human labor, which increases unemployment and pushes down wages.  That cuts society’s ability to pay for the newly automated products and services, and everything else.

I will try to shed light on how governments can respond to:

  • A great imbalance of power in part of the economy
  • New technologies that will have disruptive economic and social impact.