Thursday, January 19, 2017

Denial is not a river, it is "Not My President", and we could do better

Inauguration day is tomorrow. Tomorrow we will have a new president and I care, but since I don't wield much power, I don't really care that much. What's done is done, so I'm thinking about my family, my day job, my life. I don't have any plans to watch the inauguration, but I know it will happen. At the same time, I see millions of people are chanting, writing, sharing, protesting, that Trump is “not my president” as if somehow they can click their heels three times and find themselves back in Kansas again. This is denial. 

Don't get me wrong. I'm not a Trump supporter, I'm a Trump observer. I see the clown car he's drawing from for his cabinet. All his nominees seem to want to dismantle the agencies they claim to want to run. Most seem intent on running the government like a business, like it's their own private monopoly. Will they sell more than just government services? Will they sell access?

Denying that Trump is president has about as much effect as denying that Bush was president, or that Obama was president just yesterday. Saying that Trump is not my president has nearly zero effect on the reality of what is before us now. Denial of Trump as president arises from resentment. Resentment is like drinking poison while waiting for the other person to die.

I have made a point of being respectful of Trump, regardless of how bad people make him out to be. He still lives in this country and he has said he wants to make America a better place to be. I believe that Trump, like most people, wants to know he did the right thing when he goes to bed at night. I will assume ignorance before malice with Trump as I do with everyone else. I assume that people would do better if they could, but for lack of skills to do better.

Whether or not I agree with Trump on how to run government is almost immaterial here. I have near zero influence on Trump. To quantify that influence in scientific terms, I probably have 10 or maybe 20 ergs of influence on Trump. An erg is a tiny unit of measured force. I use this concept to lend some perspective, because although my influence on Trump is small, collectively, our influence can be large, if we choose to unite against the policies that he wishes to implement, should we disagree with them. I hold out hope that he might do something I can find agreement with.

Notice that I said that we should unite against the policies he wishes to implement if we find that we disagree with them, not Trump the person. I happen to like his ideas on NAFTA and other bad trade deals. So to me, uniting against Trump doesn't make sense. He has the power and the office. Why make him an adversary? Trump likes to make deals. So let's see if we can deal with him. We get to choose if we want him to be an adversary or not.

I once saw a poll that said that 25% of federal workers would quit if Trump became president. If only economic mobility were so good. I can hear how their next interview for their next job would go:

"So, why did you quit your last job?"


They better hope that their next employer and interviewer is not a Trump supporter.

I hope that zero federal employees quit when Trump becomes president. If you truly believe you are doing good service for the country as a public employee, quitting your job over Trump is the worst thing you can do. Once removed, you have also relinquished your influence. If you're going to leave, let yourself be fired while doing the best job you can do, and wear that as a badge of honor. 

If federal employees who oppose Trump stay, they can actually do something that most of us cannot. They can have visible and measurable influence on Trump. I will never forget what I once heard about William E. Simon, former Secretary of the Treasury under Jimmy Carter. He wanted to change things at the Treasury. He wanted to make it run better than it was being handled. But he had to fight people with decades of bureaucratic experience. He had to fight people who knew how to slow things down. He had to fight people who knew how to file the right paperwork to screw everything up so, so completely.

I say that for better or worse, Trump is my president. This isn't to say that I support him. It is to say that I acknowledge the reality of Trump as president and that I'm willing to work with it. Denying reality requires enormous sums of energy. Denying reality takes energy away from what we could do and applies it to what we choose not to do.

This is not the time for denial. If you're a Clinton Democrat, get off the pity-potty and and stop criticizing Bernie Sanders. Don't believe the lies about Sanders. Watch the confirmation hearings and see how Sanders is fighting for you. Do you ever hear him saying that Trump is not his president? I don't. 

I watched the exchange of Sanders and Betsy DeVos, Trump's nominee for Secretary of Education. Sanders is doing what I would expect of any man who keeps his job in government. Sanders did not quit his job because Trump is going to be president. He kept his job so that he could keep the issues important to us in the bright lights. He wants to show us how appointment nominees may be subject to the influence of money in politics. He is pointing out that those in appointed office could start a sideline: selling access. Sanders knows that by keeping his job, he retains influence.

We have no control over how this is going to go. The best we can ever hope for is to have influence over the decisions that government makes. Denying the reality of Trump as president makes no use of that influence. Denying Trump is our president denies that we have any influence over him at all.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

If you doubt we need universal healthcare, let's talk about industrial pollution

Unless you've been hiding under a rock for the last few days, it's rather hard to miss the GOP's unrelenting efforts to repeal Obamacare, also known as, The Affordable Care Act (ACA). I've been perusing the news stories and see that people are holding rallies and sharing stories, daring the Republicans to listen to the stories and continue on their quest to repeal. All they need to do is look at the demographics to see that the vast majority of their constituents will lose coverage with repeal of Obamacare.

Trump isn't making matters any better for the GOP. He's insisting on fast and sure repeal of Obamacare with an immediate replacement that is just so, so good. According to Naked Capitalism, there is no replacement plan, well, at least there isn't a plan out there that meets Trump's requirements. It would seem, based on my reading so far, that Trump will not sign legislation to repeal Obamacare without a clear and present replacement that he likes. Yet, Republicans in Congress seem intent on sailing off the edge of the world and into the abyss.

Bernie Sanders ran for president on the campaign promise of Medicare For All. That is, expanding the program to anyone who wants it as a public option, with no restrictions. Opponents of his plan saw it as a clear challenge to the status quo, they saw it as the road to the single payer plan they believe has failed so miserably in places like the UK. Failed? I don't know. I remember the opening ceremony to the Summer Olympics a few years ago. During the opening ceremonies, they put on a giant show devoted to their beloved health care system, a single payer system, complete with choreographed hospital beds.

While Republicans would have us believe that a free market would serve all far better than any government plan, they seem to omit the salient point that their campaign finance friends have money and they want more of it. Democrats on the other hand, in their quest to keep the ACA intact, with some like Sanders seeking Medicare For All, are missing the point. Half measures avail us nothing. There is a case to be made for universal healthcare for everyone as a right.

Republicans (and neoliberal Democrats) seem loathe to discuss a few yawning holes in their arguments. First, they don't like to talk about the fact that there is an acute shortage of doctors and how that shortage drives up the cost of healthcare. They omit the fact that doctors who want to practice medicine here must complete a residency program here and that the availability of those programs is limited by law, by Congress. Fewer still want to discuss the very real option of opening up the floodgates to doctors worldwide by adopting an international standard for the practice of medicine, yet they are unabashed fans of globalization.

We have the internet, a network based on multiple international standards. We have cars that run based on widely adopted standards including fuel, parts and design. Cars have thousands of pieces that must work together and must comply with multiple standards and regulations across many jurisdictions - they're complex - so don't tell me the practice of medicine is more complex. 

There is no reason that doctors from other countries, willing to work for a fraction of the pay that our own medical divas receive, can't work here short of the political will to make it happen. Don't forget, doctors were perfectly willing to thrust American manufacturing workers into competition with third world countries while seeking and getting protection for their own incomes. They have the money to influence public policy. Manufacturing workers don't.

Republicans, acting as so-called conservatives, will jump headlong into debates about how free markets work so well while mercilessly refusing to discuss patents and their incipient transaction costs for drugs. Republicans and neoliberal Democrats alike seem perfectly happy with lousy trade deals like NAFTA and TRIPS,  both of which help to spike drug prices and protect doctors. Republicans and now some Democrats-in-name-only would prefer that we not permit programs like Medicare to negotiate drug prices. A free market means that all parties are free to negotiate. This prohibition doesn't sound like the free market at work. Those same people who don't want Medicare to negotiate drug prices also do not want to allow the re-importation of drugs at lower prices from other countries.

How many members of Congress have openly discussed the idea of paying for drug research up front instead of rewarding the researchers with patents? 0. We do this with neglected diseases and we do it with far greater efficiency than their beloved patent system. That could be a result of that wonderful spigot of campaign finance cash from the pharmaceutical industry. See? Money really does cloud judgment.

These are known issues and often turn up if you look for them. But there is one massive white elephant that no one in elected office seems to want to discuss when it comes to the topic of healthcare: industrial pollution. America has a well known history of pollution. Oil, coal and gas industries are the usual suspects. Not a week goes by without some sort of oil spill, coal ash spill or a gas leak that takes weeks if not months to cap off and fix. These examples should all make the case for universal healthcare, but there is one really big pollution story that I've never seen discussed in political debate: DuPont's C8, the sciency name is "perfluorooctanoic acid", and related chemicals. C8 is the chemical that gives non-stick coating its properties in cookware. Most of it is burned off during production, but some tiny fraction remains.

I spent an hour reading an article, which describes the sorry tale of a small town in West Virginia. That town is virtually owned by DuPont. There was a time when if you criticized DuPont in that town, your neighbors wouldn't talk to you anymore and they'd skip birthday parties for your kids. If you showed up in a restaurant, everyone would stop what they were doing and leave.

Welcome to Beautiful Parkersburg, West Virginia, is that story. It's a story about how cows got so sick from the chemical waste from DuPont that they bled to death through their mouths. It's a story about a company that lied through deceit and omission about just how toxic their C8 chemical was. It's a story about a company that took decades to even admit there was a problem and when brought to task in the courts, fought tooth and nail to escape liability and still works hard to flee, while raking billions in revenue.

Here are a few very interesting tidbits from that article to lend some context. Here's an account of a cow bleeding to death:
“One time this cow was coming down the road and it was just bellowing, the awfulest bellow you ever heard,” Della told me. “And every time it would bellow, blood would gush from its mouth and its nose. It just bellowed and bellowed and blood just kept flying, and then it would fall down, and it would try to get up … We didn’t have anything to shoot it with, so we just had to watch it until finally the cow bled to death.”
DuPont is the company that brought us to the Age of Plastic:
The rapid proliferation of plastics gave ordinary people access to conveniences and goods that had once been beyond their reach. It also brought tens of thousands of unregulated chemicals into American homes. In the early 1950s, a group of Columbia University scientists published several papers describing high rates of cancer in rats exposed to plastics such as vinyl, Saran wrap and Teflon. Some lawmakers began to worry about the lack of safety testing for chemicals in the food supply. (emphasis mine)
But because of the powerful influence DuPont had on Congress, not enough was done to investigate and regulate new chemicals released with new plastic products. "Tens of thousands of unregulated chemicals"? Who knew? What follows is decades of publication bias in the literature to protect the business and keep the general public in the dark about these new chemicals.

Legislation passed to regulate these industries allowed tens of thousands of chemicals to be "grandfathered in" as "safe", yet with one chemical alone, C8, babies were born with birth defects and numerous other diseases popped up. Here is a sample of symptoms of C8 exposure from the oldest surviving C8 tester:
Among the plaintiffs is Kenton Wamsley, the DuPont lab worker who was assigned to test C8 in the early 1980s. His complaint cites two C8-linked conditions: high cholesterol and ulcerative colitis. However, these diagnoses don’t begin to describe the extent of his suffering.
The crippling stomach cramps and anal bleeding that plagued him during his early days as a tester eventually grew so bad that he had to undergo surgery to remove intestinal blockages, a common complication of ulcerative colitis. After that, his stomach problems eased, but he developed severe asthma and was unable to work for long stretches of time. Other C8 testers also started falling ill: Wamsley recalls one coworker bleeding heavily from his tongue in the lab. By 2001, Wamsley's stomach cramps and rectal bleeding had returned, and he was diagnosed with intestinal cancer.
It's important to remember that this is just one company and just one chemical compound found in their products. C8 can now be found in small amounts all over the world. Who will pay for this? Who will clean it up?

From this perspective, universal healthcare makes total sense. Look how hard it is to make one company pay up for a small population of victims, let alone everyone who has been touched by C8 and the environmental damage done by it. Now multiply this by hundreds or thousands of companies, all with go for the jugular litigation lawyers who are willing to kill as many trees as it will take to win. Want to see what it means to stall in discovery in a hotly contested lawsuit? You'll find it here in litigation over pollution.

So what is the solution? Well, the solution is to encourage companies that pursue such enterprises to take responsibility for their work and the damage that is done. It is to encourage them to keep the environment safe and clean. But if they're willing to hide when the market is not free, God only knows what they will do if the market really were free. On the healthcare side, universal healthcare seems to be the best solution. Here is why.

It is already a given that a corporation that pollutes the environment will do everything in their power to externalize their costs of production. That means if there is a pollution issue, they will seek to externalize those costs or hide them. DuPont is a great example of how companies do that. When a manufacturer externalizes the pollution costs of their products, that also means those costs are not built into the products we buy in the stores. The costs of cleanup and healthcare are usually paid by the taxpayer. Wealthy corporations have a team of lawyers who know tax law and can use tax havens. Most ordinary people do not.

It is also worth noting again that wealthy elites and organized business interests have a far greater influence on Congress than ordinary people do. This has been amply demonstrated by this study, Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens. In that study, polling was reviewed on more than 1700 political issues over 20 years and it was found that better than 60% of the time Congress voted against the polls. Yet, somehow, Congress now has a 96% re-election rate despite an 11% approval rating.

I really don't know how much universal healthcare would cost for America. Our taxes are pretty low now as it is and a large contingent pay zero federal taxes, with one estimate placing that contingent at 45% of Americans with income. But we're going to have to start somewhere because what we are doing now is unsustainable.

The point of taxation for universal healthcare is to ensure that the costs cannot be externalized and to ensure that everyone bears the costs of the pollution created by the products we make and buy. Note that much of what we import has pollution costs, too. The externalization of this pollution cost by setting up manufacturing overseas must be a highly attractive feature of offshore manufacturing.

No one that I've seen in the healthcare debate has discussed the need for universal healthcare in this context. No one has connected industrial pollution, which affects everyone without exception, and universal healthcare. Not Jill Stein or Bernie Sanders or even Hillary Clinton, once a staunch proponent of a single payer plan. The rest of the field is probably too timid to discuss it at all. Not like this.

I can't think of a better argument for universal healthcare. If American companies insist on making toxic products and lying about it, hiding it, or even moving it offshore (believe me, it comes back to us), then we need something that provides a catch-all solution, with no exceptions. In that context, a universal healthcare system with a tax that American industry cannot escape doesn't just make sense. Universal healthcare is now an urgent necessity. 

Sunday, January 15, 2017

$5 billion worth of free media coverage will get you the White House

A few days ago, I learned something astonishing. Someone crunched some numbers and found that by March 2016, Trump had received $2 billion in free air time on TV. Well, according to this article, he "earned" it. The latest estimate I can find shows that Trump "earned" a total of $5 billion in free media by November, (twice as much as Hillary Clinton). Trump is a master at working with media and that explains why he piled up so much coverage. As a master media manipulator, he fits the definition of entertainer. Yes, he may be president in a few days, but he'll always be an entertainer to me. 

Let's not forget how the dummies at the DNC encouraged their allies in the mainstream media to cover Trump above all others on the Republican primaries. I think it's fair to say that their plan backfired.

So how did Trump thank the media for all that coverage, gratis? "You're fake news! Next question!" Translation: "Your fired!" That was a few days ago at his first press conference since the election, and you can catch it in this video:

Here we see Trump calling out a reporter from CNN as "fake news". I could hardly believe what I was seeing. The kicker is this: they will come back for more because that drives ratings through the roof. Anyone who saw that clip will be looking for more coverage of Trump and watching him dispatch anyone who he thinks is in the business of selling fake news. I can't help but recall how CNN chose to train a camera on a vacant podium at a Trump rally instead of showing us a Sanders rally, live.

This is a story about how the mainstream media tried to choose our president for us. I think someone at the top truly believed that voters would come to their senses and vote for Clinton while they were making money on Trump. Look at all the decisions they made up to the point of seeing the outcome of the election and we can see that they knew that they were not making the right choices for the country. They were in the business of making money and while they were doing that, they just forgot the part about serving the country and informing us of all of the candidates. They did not give equal time.

From the Hollywood Reporter, we learn that the CEO of CBS Leslie Moonves has very nice things to say about Trump like, "It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS", and "I've never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It's a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going," And here is the money shot"Man, who would have expected the ride we're all having right now? ... The money's rolling in and this is fun." Who signs his checks?

90% of the media is own by 6 parent corporations. I'd say it's the CEO of one of those parent companies that signs Mr. Moonves' checks. CBS is not the only one. All of the major networks played this game for fun and profit. Clearly, the money clouded their judgment and we got Trumped. Ha ha. For the record, I'm not a Trump or Clinton supporter, I wanted Bernie Sanders and he got the least amount of coverage between the three of them.

I've lived for years without cable, without TV on a schedule. That broke the habit for me. I just don't watch live TV except for the weather report. I have lived with days at the park, bike rides around town, walks to the store to get something to eat and I'd like to keep it that way. Now I have a family and I spend time with them. There is just something that gnaws at me, reminding me that the TV doesn't love me, that the TV is a distraction to the life buzzing around me. I still watch some, but mostly on my own schedule, my own terms with no commercials. 

For me, the spell is broken, but I observe the people who still watch TV the old way, even with a DVR. I see how they vote and how they choose their products. My rule is this: if I see something advertised on TV, I make the immediate assumption that I don't need it. This holds to true to most political ads, too. I think what really got to me was a book I read when I was a kid: Subliminal Seduction. It seemed such a curiosity in the bookshelf and since then, I have known that there are hidden messages in adverts, so I avoid them. I don't like that kind of influence on my brain.

That power to advertise below the conscious level is dangerous. That is the power of the media. They seem to have created a Skinner Box to condition voters in such a way as to ensure that their favored candidates win. The Skinner Box is about insecurity and how to get relief from it.

If millions of working class people suffer from job insecurity, then the people with some of the best jobs probably feel the most insecure, not for lack of food or shelter, but for the lifestyle and the status they hold now. The business owners at the top are fine because they're signing the checks and have the option not to. But the people working for them are worried about the money, not the choices they should be making as journalists or editors. Inequality doesn't just affect our economy, it affects our media and the choices they make. If the goal is to drive up ratings irrespective of the message, what is the point of journalism?

Trump didn't have to win the money primary. He won the media primary and then went on to win the election through the media. According to this article, by October of last year, Trump's campaign raised $512 million compared to $1.1 billion for Hillary Clinton. And Clinton still managed to lose the election. She lost largely due to her incompetence as a candidate as her campaign funding was more than adequate. But there is no dispute that Trump owes much of his victory to overwhelming support from mainstream media, to the tune of $5 billion in free coverage.

The lesson here is that money can and does cloud our judgment. This election is just the tip of the iceberg as to how money clouds our judgment. The polar ice caps are melting. We live in an economy mostly driven by the use of oil, coal and gas as energy sources. Our oceans are filling up with plastic. Plastic comes from oil, yet another use for fossil fuels, yet another source of money. And we are continually mired in war over that oil. Those are just a few examples, but I think you get the idea. When it comes to money, humans have a hard time maintaining empathy for others and the environment. I'm not saying we can't, I just saying its difficult.

We could talk about the Fairness Doctrine and the Equal Time rule, both from the FCC. But ultimately, it comes down to us to check our sources and to make conscious decisions about what we choose to believe in the media. Then its up to us to make informed decisions based on that information. The moment we make a conscious decision to decide for ourselves how to vote, the spell is broken.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The personal and political implications of criticism

I don't criticize the people in my life. I just don't. I've tried it and it never works. I don't get the response I hope for, and I always felt awful after I criticize someone. So I just focus on keeping my side of the street clean. I only offer suggestions or advice when asked and even when asked, I make no criticism, I just offer positive guidance and problem solving assistance. I understand that when people make mistakes, they often realize what they did long before I can say something about it. I have seen people beat themselves up for their own mistakes, sometimes for days, as their own worst critic. So I remain focused on being the best human I can possibly be.

This article continues a theme I started a few months ago, and that theme is that people would do better if they could. I did a search on my own blog and found the first instance of where started on this trail here, in July of 2015. I have found that there are personal and political implications to this theme and I'd like to explore them with you here.

Years ago, when I was a lost and isolated soul, almost completely bereft of any understanding of people, a kind person directed me to a book. Books are like software and we read books to change the way we think. This book changed me forever: "Getting the Love You Want", by Harville Hendrix.

In that book, I read of a story of an older couple, married for 35 years. They had come to see Mr. Hendrix for marriage counseling. Sitting on the couch together, both were bickering, needling each other, insulting each other and generally carrying on. They said that they had been doing this for 35 years and wanted to stop.

So Hendrix gave them a pen and paper and told them to write a list of ten things they want the other person to do for them without being asked to do it. They spent a few minutes quietly writing their lists. "Now give your list to the other person," he said. They exchanged lists. To paraphrase from memory, "Now go home and plan on doing one of those things for each other every day. You must do one of those things for the other person without prompting by the other person. Just do it and let me know how it goes."

Harville further explains in his book that in the succeeding weeks and months, the couple were transformed into a more peaceful couple. By doing that one thing for the other person everyday, they changed the way they were seeing each other, not with their eyes, but with their hearts. In more or less scientific terms, they modified the response of the part of the brain known as the R-Complex, specifically, the medulla oblongata. Where before that part of the brain was associating the other person with pain, the couple changed the response of the medulla by doing something nice for each other.

Now this didn't solve all their problems, but with a simple thing like that, their lives were transformed for the better. No longer were they caught in the fight or flight response, because once they took the initial stimulus of pain away and replaced it with something nice, they built new neural pathways of association.

Criticism doesn't teach any lessons, it only teaches pain. That is why I don't criticize the people in my life. I strenuously avoid criticizing people in social media as well. I believe that the pain/pleasure response operates subconsciously and that people avoid me if I criticize them in life and in social media. So when I see their posts, I don't rain on their parade. If they post something I disagree with, I move on and make note of it, but I don't drop bombs on their posts. Especially if I know them in real life, like on Facebook. Live and let live, right?

If there is a debate in the comments, I'll partake and offer differing points of view to engage, but mostly, I just read and observe. I keep it civil, too. I don't call people stupid, nuts or what have you. I just try to offer the best evidence I can and state my opinion, mindful of the medulla.

I try to extend this to politics, too. It's very, very difficult to do. Politics is the art of living in a large group of people, each with varying needs. So I try to keep my criticism reserved to politicians. You have to have thick skin to be a politician, so I think they're fair game. But when I have something to say about them, I keep it political not personal. I don't give a damn what they do in private. What I care about is how they represent my voice in government.

I know for myself, that when people criticize me, I have programmed myself not to take it personally and to interpret that as feedback. If I do have any feelings about it, I let the feelings pass and then think about how I want to respond, if at all. I am not perfect, but I've practiced this for a long, long time and it has paid off in peace of mind.

I have hurt myself too many times before to allow myself anymore to act in anger as an older, wiser man. I am empathetic enough to not hurt other people with my words. In civil discourse, and in my blog, I avoid the personal and keep the discussion political. In debates in social media, I do my best to avoid criticizing the other person and focus instead on rebuttals with facts and documentation.

I am mindful that if I act with the intention to hurt someone's feelings, their medulla oblongata is going to respond, sometimes in ways I am not interested in learning about. I try to offer solutions rather than criticism. I try to offer alternatives as suggestions for changing the way things are.

I see the insults hurled at Donald Trump and I am sure that he has thick skin. I am fairly certain that he's in character most of the time for he's an entertainer. I don't see him or anyone else as evil. To me, there is no evil, for the concept of evil is just a supernatural explanation of challenging behavior in adults and perhaps a few kids. There is only confused (what we call "evil") and less confused (what we call "good").

Hurling insults at Donald Trump (or anyone else for that matter) does nothing to help your cause. Depicting Trump as a baby, an idiot, a dunce, or what have you, is a waste of time. Yes, those are criticisms, actually insults, but they are personal insults. Donald Trump is now a politician and he knows how to handle personal insults and criticisms. Anyone who remembers the "small hands" fiasco in the primary debates should know better.

To criticize is to stay in the problem. To notice a shortcoming and to offer a solution or alternative behavior, with empathy, well, we might get somewhere with that.

I notice also that even Bernie Sanders is critical of Trump. But his criticism is not personal, it's political. It doesn't matter to him how smart or dumb Trump may be. What seems to matter to Sanders is whether or not Trump will honor his promises and whether or not Trump will help or hinder the middle class. He really does try to stay on point. I still love Bernie Sanders and wish he were president, but I accept the reality of what we have now and work with it.

As for my political debates in Google+ and on Facebook, with the former being a lot more interesting, I try to always err on the side of peace. I avoid making it personal with anyone and keep it on topic, on point, and keep it political. I will continue to err on the side of peace, to try to set an example of what I think civil discourse looks like. I don't tell other people what to do. I just speak my mind with respect to their medulla.

I practice this art of getting along with everyone I come into contact with. I see this continuum for degrees of engagement and trust, from the political to the social to the deeply personal. I am mindful of the Butterfly Effect, where simple actions that I take now can have much larger effects in the future.

With each passing day I practice this art, the art of living in peace, with hundreds of small actions and decisions. Every action and every decision is focused on the single goal, the prime directive: to err on the side of peace. When I err on the side of peace, I work to maintain the peace in my life. And yours.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Government isn't the problem - people are the problem - let's solve our problems together

I've been debating in Google+ again. The worry over Trump as president increases with each passing day as inauguration looms closer. I'm not worried myself, because we have a government that is built with checks and balances. I don't believe the gloom and doom about Trump. Already, I see the debaters in Google+ scoring points against each other and I see the posturing. I've also noticed some anarchists coming out in the debates I've participated in. Some are gun rights activists. I know this because I can check their profile to see what they're promoting with their Google+ accounts.

"Guns don't kill people, people do." This is the mantra of most gun rights activists, and they're right. That doesn't mean we should not regulate the sale and use of guns. That slogan simply makes the observation that guns are inanimate objects and do their damage in human hands.

I have a song playing in my head and I can't get it to go away. It's called "Heartache Tonight", by The Eagles. They are the ultimate band for the bar scene because that's what they sing about. I see the bar scene as being analogous to the playground and high school. That song "knows" that someone will get hurt tonight and assumes that no one can do anything about it. The Eagles were a big part of American pop culture for my generation and they provide some of the inspiration for this article.

I'm also reminded of this very interesting quote from a former member of the Nixon Administration:
“You want to know what this was really all about,” Ehrlichman, who died in 1999, said, referring to Nixon’s declaration of war on drugs. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
That was from John Ehrlicman, counsel and Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs under President Richard Nixon. It is a rather startling admission of the need of those in power to score points against those not in power. The attitudes expressed by the drug war clearly show the need to silence the opposition, the dissent, so that other wars may proceed without challenge. It is all about scoring points against the other side.

More recently, I'm now seeing worry about efforts by the GOP to defund Planned Parenthood. There are some who would have us believe that efforts to defund Planned Parenthood are about defunding abortions performed by the agency, but I've seen very well documented proof that no federal money is used to pay for abortion services at Planned Parenthood. Defunding Planned Parenthood means removing funding for a wide range of services that women need to check on and maintain their health. Again, I see one party with power scoring points against someone with less power.

Maybe it's just me, but lately, politics has become a sport to some and for them, it's all about scoring points. I disagree. Politics is not a sport for me. Politics about how we can all get along together. In peace.

As we close the book on the Obama Administration, I see that people are worried about Obamacare. There are serious concerns that millions will be booted from their health care plans, their insurance, and a portable system that works regardless of jobs or employers. Millions of Americans found that they are no longer tied down to one employer just for health insurance, always a dismissal away from being uninsured. Millions of Americans found that they could work part time and still have health insurance and made a choice to work part time.

With the election of Donald Trump, we see Republicans, with their majorities in Congress, ready and willing to repeal Obamacare. Yet, few if any can point to a practical and realistic replacement for Obamacare offered by Republicans. It is even a fair question to ask if Republicans did whatever they could to hobble Obamacare with amendments to the legislation that were tacked on in committee or during reconciliation proceedings as the legislation went from House to Senate and back. Their goal, it seems, is to make sure that no government healthcare program could ever work.

A fair number of conservatives that I've encountered in social media debates on the subject would have us believe that private enterprise has clean hands. Yet I can recall upon the passage of Obamacare how private insurance companies jacked up rates, leaving the marketplaces set up for Obamacare and generally, acting like sore losers in the debate, doing everything they could to make Obamacare bitter for the beneficiaries.

More than a few conservatives in debate and in the op-ed pages worried that Obamacare paved the way towards a single payer system. They worry about a government monopoly on healthcare. What they fail to acknowledge is that in many cases where government monopolies are compared to private monopolies, government monopolies tend to be more efficient. 

We have a natural experiment to consider with public vs private monopolies: internet access. In millions of homes across the country, most people have one or two broadband providers, and they are mostly private service providers. This is not a sign of thriving competition. These private monopolies are often unresponsive to the needs of the communities they claim to serve. They use a portion of their profits to lobby for greater protection of their business interests. Protection? From what? Municipal broadband.

In places like Colorado, Tennessee and even Utah, incumbent providers faced with real competition from "the public option" have spent millions lobbying statehouses to protect their monopolies. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, they have the very popular EPB, the Electric Power Board, now offering 1Gbps up and down service for $70 a month. Neighboring counties clamored for EPB service but are now denied service due to state legislation that prevents the EPB from servicing customers outside of their original service area. Incumbent providers like Comcast, Time-Warner and ATT all lobbied hard against the EPB, claiming unfair competition. This is what I mean when private enterprise claims the need for protection against "the public option". This is what opponents of Obamacare are afraid of - that the public option might actually work.

In Colorado, communities fed up with the private monopolies of Centurylink, Comcast and ATT decided to build their own broadband services run by the local municipalities. The incumbent providers prevailed again with a state law that says that communities may not provide public internet service without passing a series of hoops intended to hobble adoption of municipal broadband, again claiming unfair competition from a public utility. The law had an out, the referendum.

To date, 95 governments in Colorado have passed referendums seeking local control over their internet access to escape the grasp of the private monopolies running the show in their towns. Often, these referendums passed with better than 80% of the vote, sometimes breaching 90%.

Colorado is not exactly a hotbed of liberal passion, either. They are a mostly Republican state and have found the low hanging fruit of change is at the local level. Colorado passed legislation making cannabis legal for recreational use. They are flirting with the idea of a public option in healthcare, too.

Long ago, I read of an insurance executive who was paid $80 million for one year of service. He was one of the highest paid executives in the United States. His company had a PR department that worked hard to justify this outrageous CEO compensation. The wealthy, when they find the power that comes with their wealth, seem to have a hard time knowing when to stop. How do they know enough is enough? They too, are scoring points.

I'm reminded again of the soup bowl study. They tested college students in two settings. In one room, the control group, the test subject was presented with a bowl of soup and something to read, like magazines. Students were asked to eat until they were full or until the soup was gone. Most ate until the bowl was empty. They stopped when they could see the bottom of the bowl.

In another room, they were presented with the same thing, but this time, there was a hose connected to the bottom of the bowl that would create a bottomless bowl of soup. Students with the bottomless bowl would not stop even after they were full because they were looking for the bottom of the bowl. Instead listening to their bodies, they were looking for external clues and references to determine if they had enough to eat.

Wealthy people do that. After making their first billion, do they have enough? I see hedge fund managers who make more money in a day than many people do in a lifetime. Oil company executives work long after they have more money than they could ever hope to spend. Long after our environment has been polluted and denatured. The wealthy can use their money to influence politics, for better or worse. I see them just scoring points, too. They seem dependent on external cues for happiness.

Life is more than just scoring points: getting an A, getting rich, making the other side feel pain. Yet there are some people who want government to work that way. Legislative jockeying and political posturing is about scoring points and making the other side feel pain. We saw that with the government shutdown a few years ago. We saw that with the DNC and their deliberate plans to make Hillary the nominee. We're seeing it again now that Republicans have majorities in Congress and the White House. They're all about scoring points and making the other side lose or feel pain.

Government is not the problem. People are. The Washington Post has an interesting article about two socialist countries. One on the brink of economic and social collapse, the other experiencing economic growth and blossoming culture. Conservatives would score a point by telling us that Venezuela is getting what they deserve while omitting how well Bolivia is doing. Both countries made different decisions about how to allocate resources. Both countries have problems, just like ours, both countries have governments that are run by people and those people determined the outcomes.

People have frailties. They have faults. They are not perfect. When governments fail, it's not because of the system, it's because of the people. When governments are run by people who treat others with respect and empathy, it doesn't matter which system they're in, the people will be better off. In every case where there is tyranny, there are abusive people in abusive cultures raised by abusive parents. Hitler's Germany was an authoritarian culture seeking world domination. The system of government didn't make Germany that way, the people did. Scandinavian countries shun confrontation with their kids, they shun judgement of their kids and they actively work with their kids to solve the problems of life with them.

It doesn't matter if the service provider in any economy is public or private. If the people providing the service are abusive, we can expect abuses. It doesn't matter if the system of government is libertarian or totalitarian, if the people are abusive, we can expect abuses. It doesn't matter if the economy is socialist, communist or capitalist, if the people are abusive, we can expect abuses.

People who are abusive believe in reward and punishment. They believe in scoring points and making the other side suffer for their weaknesses. Abusive people have a really hard time finding or creating internal motivation to succeed, to do the right thing, to have empathy for others. Abusive people rely upon external cues for happiness. This is not to say that abusive people are bad. This is to say that abusive people lack the skills they need to get along.

We find abusive people in a continuum, from the violent to the merely passive aggressive. We find them in a cult of personality. We find them in identity politics where we are made to focus on the person rather than the policies. Abusive people in politics exhibit little interest in teaching skills and more interest in making people pay the price for their lack of skills.

So how do we break the cycle? How do we make the world a better place? Bernie Sanders said real change starts at the bottom. Although I don't think this is what he had in mind, I believe that real change starts with our kids. How we raise our kids determines their outcomes. We've tried teaching them how to score points, but in the end, they will not find happiness in a gold star or winning at the game of life. Scoring points means that someone else loses.

We could teach them collaborative and proactive solutions. When we see challenging behavior in kids, we could look at the behavior as a signal rather than the problem. Then we work with the kids to solve the problem that gives rise to challenging behavior. In so doing, we teach kids how to meet their own needs without making someone else lose. We teach them to be internally motivated to solve problems independent of how other people act.

Where could we learn about this? We could start with a book by Ross W. Greene, PhD., "Raising Human Beings". In fact, this isn't just for kids, this is for adults, too. The principles described in this book (and a few others by the same guy), are not techniques for getting along. They are a way of life.

Dr. Greene is not the only one on this trail. There are many others on the same trail. They too, have learned that reward and punishment don't work. Happiness is not about scoring points or getting the best of someone else or making them lose. Maybe the human race is starting to learn that happiness is knowing that we have the skills to solve problems with durable, repeatable solutions.

Isn't that what government is supposed to be for?

Friday, January 06, 2017

Tweedism is a progressive, fatal disease that can kill this country - here's how to arrest it

The discourse in social media has become a lava stream of reproach, guilt and finger pointing. It seems like everybody who is against Donald Trump is pointing a finger at someone else as the blame. Yet few of those who oppose Trump are willing to admit that it is no error to vote our conscience. Fewer of them still are willing to admit that it was Hillary's job to convince us to get out and vote for her, not just to vote against Trump.

There are some who say that our democracy is failing. We might even point to North Carolina, as a sign. According to The Hill, The Electoral Integrity Project analyzed the states laws, electoral district boundaries and other attributes and found that it's about as democratic as Iran, Cuba, Indonesia and Sierra Leone. For those who believe in the Domino Theory, North Carolina may just be the first state to fall.

I believe that our government is unresponsive (to most of us) by design. I can recall my high school textbooks and their fairy tales about how a great democracy was left to us by the founders. But as an adult, I see that for much of our history, the majority of the people were not involved in the process of running this country or even choosing the leaders to run it. Most of us have no say in who gets to lead this country because we have no control over the nomination process.

I would like to direct your attention now to the work of Harvard law professor, Lawrence "Larry" Lessig. Mr. Lessig is one of the great unsung heroes in politics, and few know what he has done. Lessig woke me up to realize that when it comes to the nomination process, I had near zero input. The election just passed, with that farce of a nomination process in the Democratic Party confirmed everything that Lessig has taught me through his articles and videos.

For a short summation of what Lessig stands for, go here:

Most of the people in our country have next to zero control or input over the nomination process. It was a great stroke of luck to see Bernie Sanders jump into the fray to show us that we can nominate people to run for office without help from the wealthy, but only the most disciplined people can do it. Sanders is one of them. Sanders and his travails on the way to the Democratic nomination, if only to lose in the end, proved to me beyond a doubt that our country has a disease: Tweedism.

For a great discussion of what Tweedism is, you can watch Lessig explain it here:

The takeaway from Lessig's message is this: if we want government that is responsive to most of us, even all of us, we must all be involved in the process of nominating the people who represent us. In that video above, Lessig references William "Boss" Tweed (the namesake of Tweedism) who says:
"I don't care who does the electing, as long as I get to do the nominating."
This concept of a two-stage election for high office has been practiced from the beginning of our country. It is to ensure that the great unwashed have the sense of having a say in how the country is run, but never have a chance to choose the people who they get to vote for.

First there is the money primary. That's where candidates for high office dial for dollars and beg for money from the anointed. We sometimes call them, "the donor class". If a candidate wins the money primary, they go on to run in the primary election that we read about in the news, and they usually do very well. Then while providing proof that they are still beholden to the donor class, they receive more money from the donor class to win the election.

Once in office, the winners of the money primary will spend 30-60% of their time in office begging for money. They will find themselves in a sort of Skinner Box (Lessig's words, not mine), constantly facing the choice of doing what the money says, or losing the money that keeps them in office.

Notice that many states have closed primaries in their nomination process. That's because the nomination is generally considered a private event in which only members of the party, a private party, may choose the candidate. In the second video above, Lessig mentions how Texas primaries were run far in the past. He reminds us that for a time, only white people could vote in the primaries in Texas and that everyone could vote in the general election when that came to pass. The nomination process was reserved to white people in Texas for a long, long time.

Many of us still recall the drama of the Democratic National Convention. We recall the monumental disappointment of watching Bernie Sanders as he declared Hillary Clinton the nominee. We now see the results as Hillary Clinton went on to lose the election. Bernie Sanders was as close as we have ever gotten to nominating and electing someone as president who was not graced with big money from on high. He did not have to win the money primary, he did not even try. Bernie eschewed large contributions so that he could focus on what the people wanted, so that he didn't have to serve elite interests before everyone else. This is how hard it is to vote for someone who represents us.

From the electoral college to super delegates, the entire system is designed to prohibit ordinary people like you and me from having any say about who gets elected. Why? Because only the wealthy elite get to choose who is nominated for high office and they want to keep it that way.

This isn't just about the election for president. Tweedism affects all races to high office at both the state and federal level. And for those who didn't watch the second video, the United States isn't the only country infected with Tweedism. Lessig provides a useful example with the protests in Hong Kong, to show how a tiny minority was able to use the power they gave to themselves, to choose who gets to run for office.

When wealthy elites get to choose who gets to run for office, they make a mockery out of what we call democracy. Tweedism creates a walled garden, limiting our choices for who will represent us. Tweedism permanently disables our ability to reform our government because reform candidates cannot get past the money primary. They cannot even get past the closed primaries as we learned with Bernie Sanders. Third parties and independents continually struggle to attain high office, that's why Bernie ran as a Democrat.

Tweedism relies on political monopolies (one party) and duopolies (think Democrats and Republicans). I remember how I used to laugh with my conservative friends at countries like China and the Soviet Union (now we call it Russia). We can add North Korea, Cuba and Vietnam to the list to illustrate this point. All of those countries have one party, The Communist Party. There is one party and the nomination process is under even tighter control in those countries, yet they still refer to themselves as democratic or people's republics. Even they try to wear the veneer of democracy, to show that their people live voluntarily under tyranny. Yet, this country is populated with people who still think that we have a superior system to those "backwards countries". Those "backwards countries" suffer from Tweedism just as we do, but you'll never hear that from the mainstream press, lest we get any funny ideas.

No longer can we say that we are better than those "backwards countries" when two parties dominate the politics of our own country and accept no meaningful input from ordinary citizens. No longer can we laugh at those "backwards countries" when we have so little chance of getting a reform candidate through the primary process.

To reclaim our country, to take back the power that is rightfully ours, we must root out the political disease of Tweedism. We must reclaim the right of nomination. To reclaim the right of nomination, we must reform the nomination and election process so that it is open to all who hold the right to vote. Open primaries are a requirement to take back the right of nomination. Publicly funded elections are also required. Election holidays are required. And finally, the one thing that will nail Tweedism where it really counts, is anti-corruption laws that put elected officials in jail when they take money for favors in office.

Mr. Lessig has provided much of what we need in the Citizens Equality Act of 2017. This legislation provides reforms to voting rights, electoral districts and funding of elections. It is not just his legislation, a team of people have reviewed the state of election laws across the country and written the best of the best for election reform into the Citizens Equality Act.

Lessig has also created, the superPAC to end all superPACs. This is a superPAC with one purpose: to promote and elect people to Congress and other high offices who will dedicate their time and effort to reform our elections and restore power to the ordinary person. also promotes anti-corruption laws that have real teeth, that provide for penalties when elected officials take money and gifts for favors.

There are many proposals for reform of our government, but none of them shall pass until this one does: We must get big money out of politics. Why? Because those who profit from the way things are pay big money to keep it this way.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Democracy: for best results, teach your children the skill of self-regulation

I'm starting to notice a common thread in debates in social media: If people are wrong, punish them. I kid you not, people who think they are right think that they should punish the people they deem to be wrong, and attempt to do with their words. The righteous tend to talk a lot about punishing those who are wrong long before they talk about teaching what is right. What is right in political discourse is what we might call, "accurate information". You know, something we can back up with corroborating evidence, like a scientific study that's been peer reviewed.

For the divinely righteous, it is original sin to be wrong and that God must beat that wrongness out of us. But since God isn't presently available, they tend to take the initiative and impose the punishment themselves.

As I've said before, I don't believe in evil. The concept of evil is akin to superstition, it is an attempt to assign a supernatural cause to challenging behavior in kids and adults alike. It is also an attempt, perhaps an unconscious one, to divert attention from the cause of such behavior, for who wants to admit that an abusive leader learned to be abusive from his parents?

I'm keen on keeping democracy alive and well. I'm also keen on noticing and calling out challenging behavior in adults that hold political office or influence. We might know challenging behavior in adults by more familiar terms like, drunk driving, assault and battery, vandalism and theft. In government, we know challenging behavior as corruption, coercion and rigged elections. We see challenging behavior in adults when they engage in war, are dictators, conducting genocide or financing terrorism. It seems almost reflexive to call the most heinous crimes "evil" so as not to question the cause. "He's evil and that's good enough for me. Let's burn him at the stake."

For better or worse, we have a democracy, and such a fragile thing it is. Democracy is dependent upon all of us to cooperate together. In fact, it doesn't matter which form of government you choose, if the culture is abusive, hello tyranny.

To keep our democracy, what we have left of it and to build upon it, we must be willing to discard any notions of good and evil. Assume for the moment that there is only the confused (evil), and the less confused (good). Confused people don't know how to get their needs met without applying force. Remember, we're humans, so please, no talk about the animal kingdom and how the fittest shall survive in the comments. Darwin talked about love among animals, too.

There is ample evidence that people are capable of ruling themselves alone. They start to experience some difficulty in small groups and seem to come to a boil when the group reaches a few million. Much of human suffering can be avoided if we teach self-regulation. Who wants to tell someone what to do, check back in an hour to find that "it's not done" and have to impose punishment to "get it done"? Wouldn't it make more sense to teach self-regulation?

There are more than a few studies to show that teaching self-regulation works. I know, there's that science thing again, but bear with me. If you're like me, you might want world peace and if you've read a few of my articles on this blog in the recent past, you might notice that I'm sniffing the trail of what I think could bring world peace about, in our lifetimes.

I'm a ScienceDaily fan. I go there from time to time to check on news about materials science, stuff like graphene, nanotech, and superconductors. I'm a closet fan of particle physics and my study of particle physics has lead me to the conclusion that control is just an illusion. We're just a loosely organized cloud of buzzing elementary particles, if that. To me, that makes control over anyone else, especially kids, a fantasy far beyond human comprehension.

So it was with great interest that I happened upon a couple of studies that discussed the practice of teaching of self-regulation. "Federal report recommends teaching self-regulation in schools" is an article about just that on the ScienceDaily website. Here's the nugget:
"Self-regulation affects wellbeing across the lifespan, from mental health and emotional wellbeing to academic achievement, physical health, and socioeconomic success," said Desiree Murray, associate director of research at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute and lead author of the report. "Unfortunately, prolonged or pronounced stress and adversity, including poverty and trauma, can delay children's self-regulation development." (emphasis mine)
Oh. You mean to say that poverty and trauma can introduce developmental delays in children? Trauma? You mean like, beating, spanking, and threatening of the same? Oh, yes, I do. They do. What are the alternatives?
"For optimal self-regulation, a child or adolescent needs to have a full bucket of skills and supports on which to draw," Murray said. "There are two crucial periods when children are developing their self-regulation skills the most -- in early childhood and early adolescence -- when teachers and parents can help them build the skills they need for the rest of their lives." (emphasis mine)
Skills? Wait a minute. These kids know the difference between right and wrong. I've seen them do it right before, so it must be a lack of motivation:
According to the report, strengthening self-regulation can be thought of like teaching literacy. Similar to literacy, self-regulation develops with simpler skills first, which build upon one another. (emphasis mine, again)
Self-regulation is a skill? Like reading? Yes, it is. But we have entirely different approaches to each. When a child fails at reading, we become empathetic and discard any notion of punishment and start teaching or get help to do it. When a child fails to regulate themselves, we call that "behaving badly", and resort to punishment for correction. What if we could correct the behavior through teaching and collaboration rather than punishment? We can:
Murray and her team outline a comprehensive approach to the development of self-regulation, which includes teaching skills through repeated practice and frequent feedback in a supportive context. They suggest providing universal interventions across childhood and into early adulthood, with a strong emphasis on teaching caregivers (including teachers and other school staff) how to support children. She said the keys to this support are warm and responsive relationships, paired with positive discipline and consistency. (emphasis mine, still)
The study above informs us that self-regulation is a skill taught by adults to children. This is not good and evil, folks. This is teaching kids the skills they need to remove any confusion they might have about how to get their needs met. The findings of that report are consistent with the works of Dr. Ross W. Greene, PhD, in books like The Explosive Child and Raising Human Beings, which I've discussed extensively on this blog in previous articles, with a good example here.

Self-regulation is also important in the economic sense. "The secret to raising a smart shopper: Pick the right parenting style" appeared about 9 days later to inform us of the following:
The researchers created categories to define four basic parenting styles. Authoritative parents are more likely to tell children what they want them to do while also explaining why, which the researchers describe as "restrictive" and "warm" communication. These parents tend to relate quite effectively with their children and expect them to act maturely and follow family rules, while also allowing a certain degree of autonomy.
There were three other categories:
Authoritarian parents are also restrictive, but not as likely to exhibit as much warmth in their communication, explains researcher Les Carlson, a professor of marketing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "They are more likely to tell a child what to do and not explain why," he says.
Neglecting parents offer little guidance for their children's development and limited monitoring of activities. Indulgent parents are lenient, compliant, and give children adult rights without expecting them to take on responsibilities.
Their conclusions?
The researchers found that many of the studies showed children of authoritative parents had the best outcomes when interacting with the world around them. These children consumed healthier foods like fruits and vegetables, and made safer choices such as wearing a bike helmet. They also provided valuable opinions on family consumption decisions.
Again, we're seeing the value of teaching skills. Even when parents were restrictive, as long as the restrictions were explained, kids tended to have better judgement. Authoritarian parents told their kids what to do without any guidance as to why. Indulgent parents didn't offer much guidance as with the neglecting parents. Authoritative parents provided some limits and guidance on those limits while still allowing some autonomy. Authoritative parents were teaching the skills of critical thinking in consumer choices, whereas the others were not. I'd say parenting has a bearing on how our democracy functions.

Whenever we teach skills to our kids, we are teaching autonomy. When we teach self-regulation, we teach kids to find their motivation internally. When we teach kids critical thinking skills, we are still teaching autonomy. A generation of kids who are taught how to regulate themselves and their consumption habits are more likely to foster a democratic government than a tyranny. They will see autonomy as natural and will treat other people accordingly. They will find cooperation easier because they will know how to get their needs met, even in a group, even in government. They will foster a government that runs according to their experience.

In other words, when we teach kids the skills they need to live and to get along with others, they will be more inclined to pursue their own goals rather than to control other people to achieve them. You know, stuff like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.