Saturday, December 31, 2016

Education will bring world peace long before guns ever will

A few days ago, I found myself intrigued by a meme from the United Nations Foundation:

Believe or not, Malala Yousafzai is only 19 years old and she is already years ahead of her time. To frame her statement in a different context, she seems to understand that peace is achieved by teaching it, not imposing it at gunpoint. She sincerely believes it is her mission to help establish education as a right and has paid dearly for it. She is alive and well, but there are still members of the Taliban pining away for a chance to kill her. Malala has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and she is the youngest recipient of any Nobel Prize.

Naturally, I had to share the meme in the Politics group on Google+. The responses were overwhelmingly critical of the message. Responses primarily consisted of warnings about how teachers have been sent to her country only to be treated to violence and even death. But that didn't stop Malala and her family from building a chain of schools and establishing education as a right for boys and girls in Pakistan.

Malala's statement aligns well with what I have learned in the last few years. For example, a few years ago, I was researching an article when I found, About That Overpopulation Problem: Research suggests we may actually face a declining world population in the coming years. The world's human population is growing and given the rate that we are destroying natural resources to make the world in our own image, we may not last much longer. That article points out that the growth rate of the human population is slowing and will eventually go negative:
A somewhat more arcane milestone, meanwhile, generated no media coverage at all: It took humankind 13 years to add its 7 billionth. That’s longer than the 12 years it took to add the 6 billionth—the first time in human history that interval had grown. (The 2 billionth, 3 billionth, 4 billionth, and 5 billionth took 123, 33, 14, and 13 years, respectively.) In other words, the rate of global population growth has slowed. And it’s expected to keep slowing. Indeed, according to experts’ best estimates, the total population of Earth will stop growing within the lifespan of people alive today.
This research estimates that by 2200, the world population will be cut in half and by 2300 it will be around 1 billion. What is the reason for the slowing of the growth of human population?
The reason for the implacability of demographic transition can be expressed in one word: education. One of the first things that countries do when they start to develop is educate their young people, including girls. That dramatically improves the size and quality of the workforce. But it also introduces an opportunity cost for having babies. “Women with more schooling tend to have fewer children,” says William Butz, a senior research scholar at IIASA.
This might explain why some Muslims are so adamant that girls do not attend school. This might also explain why conservative members of Congress steadfastly refuse to allow equal pay for equal work. They may intuitively see that the opportunity cost of education will reduce the willingness of women to have children.

I find it truly remarkable that something as simple as education can control population and even bring about its eventual decline. If this research is an accurate prediction of the future, it could turn out that education is a greater control on human population than any disaster, war or disease.

With declining growth rates and eventually declining populations, there would be fewer demands on the earth. With fewer people there are fewer fights over natural resources like food and water and land. Education could indeed be the antidote to war.

Malala is helping to spread this trend to the more than 1 billion Muslims on the planet. Every country that industrializes sees the same trend. If you educate girls, your populations will decline. The trend is inexorable and as that same article notes, some countries are offering financial benefits to encourage young people to get married and have kids. They see population maintenance as a problem so worrisome that they have instituted subsides to encourage child birth.

Upon his election, Trump said, "I love the poorly educated." He's not the only one. Congress cuts education without even thinking. Conservative Republicans now have majorities and a few super majorities in statehouses in a majority of states across the nation. They too, will find ways to cut public education funding and/or champion the cause of charter schools. Perhaps they would rather see population grow from the inside rather than from immigration.

If you want to have a war, you need poorly educated people. They're the easiest to convince to get in a uniform, get on a plan or boat, go to a foreign country, and shoot people. They're the easiest to convince to let their sons and daughters get in the line of fire for the country.

So it is with a certain sense of irony that I notice that the most highly educated countries are the least interested in war and have the smallest defense infrastructure. Do we see the people of Scandinavia building large military industries and invading other nations? Not as far as I know. They're very busy building high technology products that they can sell worldwide. They educate their kids and they don't send them to war. They don't need trade agreements with weaker countries that are based on implied military force to enjoy a higher standard of living. They just make better products and sell them.

On the other hand, the United States is considered to be poorly educated compared to our European peers. The United States engages in war for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For some like Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush, war is a business opportunity. Perhaps they are aware of the views of US Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler:
War is a racket. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.
If only more of today's military personnel would realize that they are being used by the owning elite's as a publicly subsidized capitalist goon squad. 
I believe in adequate defense at the coastline and nothing else.
Butler's sentiments should be common knowledge today, but they are not. Perhaps that's because we lack the education we need to avoid war. We almost certainly lack the power needed to avoid war for that power is held by the 1%. It is the 1% who see the business opportunity in war. The rest of us just want to live in peace.

Only the most cynical among us could possibly see war as a business opportunity when there are lives in the balance. Isn't it ironic that a Muslim woman teaches us that education for peace works?

Friday, December 30, 2016

Democrats and Republicans: It's my party and I'll cry if I want to

I'm a fan of the Independent Voter Network in passing. I believe that they are doing great work at helping third parties and independents gain a voice in politics. So it's without very much surprise that I see articles like this, Libertarian Party Robbed of Party Status. From the article:
Out of all the winners of the 2016 elections, the biggest might have been the Libertarian Party (LP). While Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson did not reach the coveted 5% in national polls to boost his party in future presidential elections, he did help his party extend its ballot access to 39 states for the 2018 elections.
Ballot access means that for at least 39 states, the Libertarian Party will not have to spend millions on gathering the signatures needed to see members of their party on the ballot. And they also gained enough votes to attain major party status in several states. Unfortunately, two of those states do not share the same enthusiasm, it seems that Democrats and Republicans are both challenging the results to keep the Libertarians out. Seriously? Washington and Ohio can't stomach the idea of a third major party in their state?

So, just for fun, I did a search for "how the two-party system keeps everyone else out". The results were very interesting. I found that some Republicans are not happy with Trump as president and at least one is calling for a new conservative party to replace the currently inebriated (on power) GOP. It is actually surprising to see calls for more political parties from people who identify as "Republican". Last August, some Republicans wanted to make the GOP a "workers party". I wonder if they're still feel the same way now that Trump won.

On the left, we have the Green Party. They're not quite as organized as the Libertarians, but they too, have grievances about the two party system. Jill Stein requested a recount in 3 swing states and even Hillary jumped in thinking that somehow she would come out a winner only to lose a second time. There is no question that both major parties have been colluding together to keep third parties and independents out. Even an independent Senator from Vermont running as a Democrat could not pull it off. But he sure as hell woke us up.

It is actually surprising that Republicans and Democrats have managed to hang on for so long since both parties command minorities in voter registration. The Republicans had something like 26% and still won the White House. The Democrats had 30% and still managed to lose it upon news of Trump's win. 43% of voters are now registered as independent, yet still cannot muster the votes needed to bring in third party candidates.

Democrats and Republicans could not pull this off without a lot of help from other people. Clearly, they are running the Electoral College as the vast majority of people selected to be electors are Democrats or Republicans.

Then we have the Commission on Presidential Debates. It used to be that the League of Women Voters ran the debates and there are some who might say they were more fair about the debate process. It is unfortunate that the CPD is just another arm for the Democrats and Republicans. It's a handy tool to keep the press focused on just the Democrats and Republicans now that they're running the show. Criticism of the CPD is mounting and it is becoming clear that we really need open debates. This is how far the establishment is willing to go to keep third parties out - from the Wikipedia page on CPD:
On October 16, 2012, Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein and vice-presidential nominee Cheri Honkala were arrested for disorderly conduct while trying to take part in the second presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. The two women claimed they were taken to a warehouse, and strapped for eight hours to chairs with plastic wrist restraints before being released.
Note that the CPD works hand in hand with the press. When third party candidates try to organize other debates, they are routinely ignored because the two presidential candidates from the major parties are not there. It is clear that mainstream media would prefer a two-party system, even if it works against the interests of a majority of voters.

Both major parties have become more brazen with abuses of power over the last two decades. Both claim to represent the people, but the people are starting to get it that they really have very little say in how government works. We see big money in politics. We see how people who abuse power are so often given a pass or just a light sentence if there is enough political pressure to pursue imprisonment.

Both major parties have acted with impunity against the interests of American people because they believe that large contributions from wealthy individuals and corporations will save them. Impunity? Where have I seen that word before? Merriam-Webster defines impunity as follows: exemption or freedom from punishment, harm, or loss.

Both major parties believe that they can act with impunity against American voters. They've got the nomination processed locked up to prevent upstarts from winning the nomination (this disease is known as Tweedism). They've got every position in the Electoral College to prevent third parties from wining the White House. They've got the CPD working with them and the press to ensure we're focused on their candidates and no others. They've got Congressional districts that look more like amoebas caught in the act of asexual reproduction than a group of people seeking a voice in government. There were 132 Americans funding at least 60% of all SuperPAC money in 2012, and they're still running the circus. That's impunity.

Democrats and even some Republicans are now claiming that the Russians have something to do with the outcome of the election. Democrats would rather have us worry about Russians than to think about the content of their emails. They would rather not prosecute one of their own than stand up for democracy. Republicans would rather not have us notice that they control a majority of statehouses across the United States, they occupy a majority of governor's mansions and have been increasing their power in Congress despite being unpopular. Just how do they do that with 26% of voters registered as Republican?

Now I can see why Democrats and Republicans would cry if it even looks like the people want alternatives to them. They seem worried they might lose their ability to act with impunity. When our leaders act with impunity, a lack of accountability is implied. Impunity implies tyranny, not democracy. Impunity follows the money, not the people.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Impunity is learned behavior, here's how it plays out in politics

This morning, "We Can Work It Out" by the Beatles is playing in my head. In that song, I hear a story about two people in disagreement. One wants to listen and is willing to hear the others' views. The other is unwilling to listen or consider alternatives. These are some of the elements of a power struggle in relationships and in politics.

Our nation is divided and polarized after a bitter and dramatic election. I see the memes painting Trump as an infant, a toddler, an idiot, a racist and a host of other things, all created to raise emotions. I also see the memes and articles deflecting blame for the outcome of the election upon foreign agitators. All were created in response to what may seem a terrible loss for the millions of people who supported Hillary Clinton.

I supported neither Trump nor Clinton. Though I disliked Clinton more, I still have an open mind about Trump. I have no concerns for what he says for I know him to be an entertainer. I am only concerned with what he actually does as president.

But one thing that I see in the memes of Trump supporters is a sense of impunity. Impunity is defined as follows: exemption from punishment or freedom from the injurious consequences of an action. When one has overwhelming power over another, one has a sense of impunity. He can act as he pleases upon others with less power, without fear of retribution or consequence. Impunity is the sense that I get from conservatives determined to see Trump cut Social Security, Medicare and food stamp programs.

I saw impunity in Hillary Clinton, too. Clinton and her allies disposed of Bernie Sanders yet still expected his supporters to fall in line, as if we had nowhere else to go. I supported Bernie Sanders in his bid for the White House. I still support him because he is true to his principles and takes no money from wealthy individuals or business interests. I saw Hillary avoid prosecution in her email scandal. I saw her give cover to her friends in the DNC after their emails were disclosed with their plans to work tirelessly against Bernie Sanders. That's impunity.

Impunity comes in another form. A refusal to listen to the other side, to consider alternative solutions or points of view. I encountered that kind of attitude with a great many Clinton supporters during the primaries. I could see their expectations in their words. They told me that if I voted for Bernie, and later, Jill Stein, that I was effectively voting for Trump. They felt justified in their attempts to exert power over me, to tell me how to vote, and many of them seemed to have zero concerns for the consequences of their actions. Their words communicated a sincere lack of concern for my views and my concerns because the only thing that mattered to them was that Trump was defeated. They were not concerned with democracy.

We learn impunity from our parents. We've all had the experience of watching our parents impose their will upon us without consideration of our concerns. We've all felt powerless as we watched our parents disappoint us, coerce us and punish us as children. Then they told that we weren't listening to them. That is impunity. We learn that impunity is normal, that it's justified, and that it's OK. We also learn that we can act with impunity because that's a familiar feeling. As we grow older, we may find that we have power over others and that it's OK to act without regard to how others might feel.

But there is something else we learn. We learn that with power comes the right not to listen to others, not to accept the views of others, not to air their grievances or concerns before acting.

Many years ago, a friend told me that I had difficulty listening to others because of a vision impairment that I was born with. She told me that I could not see the point of view of others because of that impairment. But now I know better. I know now that I learned not to listen to others from my dad. Dad had overwhelming power and acted with impunity. I saw him destroy my property, take away privileges and ground me for weeks as punishment without addressing any of my concerns. He did not listen to me, he only expected me to comply.

But there is a consequence to impunity that many people do not recognize until it is far too late: the loss of influence. While my dad may have had good intentions, he did not listen to me. If he doesn't listen to me, I don't have to listen to him. He no longer has influence in my life anymore. This is not how I want it to be, but it is what it is.

This impunity, accompanied by an unwillingness to listen, is exemplified by Congress. Congress has proven over and over again that they are not willing to listen to us, the people. They are primarily concerned with the people who finance their campaigns and nothing more. "Money talks, bullshit walks" applies to Congress now more than ever, and that phrase carries impunity in it.

Congress has a 97% re-election rate despite reaching new lows in popularity. That's impunity.

We allowed this to happen because the feeling is familiar. The feeling we get from dealing with people who have overwhelming power over us is a familiar feeling to many of us. Some of us just accept it as the way it is and move on. Some of us move beyond those familiar feelings to become active participants in the political process and agitate for change.

Have you ever had the feeling that you do things you don't want to do, no matter how hard you try not to do that thing? That's compulsion. It's often unconscious compulsion. We eat too much, we gamble, we drink, we punish ourselves in our thoughts and we hide our pain. These may be signs of addiction, but more importantly, if we weren't raised by people willing to listen to our concerns, we learn to isolate or hang out with people who won't listen, either. We find jobs with employers who won't listen, too. This plays out in politics as having a government that won't listen.

Bernie Sanders was right. Real change comes from the bottom. If we want change, then it must come from the bottom. It starts at the bottom of our hearts. Then it moves on to our family, our friends, our kids. Though I have read many books on the subject of listening, I must say there is one book that nails it: Raising Human Beings, by Ross W. Greene, PhD. I know. I sound like a broken record, so hear me out.

Raising Human Beings explains in simple terms how to collaborate to solve problems. Human beings are problem solvers by nature. We're built for it. We have big brains that allow us to move beyond acting on instinct, brains that allows us to reflect on our experience and change how we respond to situations that happen over and over. Raising Human Beings teaches us to see the behavior as the signal, not the problem, and that reward and punishment are not the solution to the problem.

Raising Human Beings is a book about how to collaborate with our kids to solve their problems that can give rise to challenging behavior. But to me, it is more than that. It is a recipe for human survival.

The problems we face will require durable, repeatable solutions that everyone involved can do. We can come up with those solutions by collaborating with others. Impunity assumes we don't need the others when in fact, quite the opposite is true. It is only through collaboration, that we can solve our common problems. That means no egos, no ulterior motives, no gamesmanship or brinkmanship.

If we want to solve the problem of a government that does not listen to us, we must institute change by listening to others. We must raise a generation of kids who had parents that listened to them. I know, its slow and will take time. But if you have a better solution, I'm all ears.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Break the myth: a bad economy has nothing to do with automation

I can remember the 80's and how my siblings and I used to give each other presents as young adults. That went on for awhile when the economy was OK. But then something happened along the way. Times were not so good. We cut the gifts to Secret Santa in the 1990's. Then a few more years later, we stopped doing Secret Santa. I don't know when it really stopped, but it stopped and to me, that is a sign of the economy, the changing times.

I can also remember watching MSNBC business news after work. I clearly remember the stock rallies after a large employer laid off thousands of workers. It was like a celebration of a triumph over the working class. It seemed like every January there would be some kind of rally on Wall Street, but that wasn't about us. It was about them.

Then we had the collapse of the housing bubble. Hardly anyone saw it coming, and the people who did see it coming weren't letting on about what they knew. At least, not the pundits, not the people on Wall Street and certainly not anyone in government. Maybe they really didn't see it.

One of the people who saw the housing bubble coming was economist Dean Baker. I discovered him years ago shortly after the housing bubble. In this video he tells us about how the rest of us were being treated like kids by the elite when it's the elite that missed the housing bubble. He pointed out that we can keep the economy going, even if the big banks failed. On September 29th, 2008, he wrote, Why Bail? The Banks Have a Gun Pointed at Their Head and Are Threatening to Pull the Trigger. Can you think of any other economist so clear and blatant about the state of mind of very wealthy people who didn't see the housing bubble coming?

During the past few years, we've seen a movement for a nationwide $15 an hour minimum wage. In reviewing the debate on the subject, I found numerous conservatives in social media had countered that if we raise the minimum wage that high, most service jobs like fast food, cashiers and bellhops would be replaced by automation. Some are even saying that the economy is already bad because of automation. Baker doesn't see it in the numbers. From his column published in the LA Times on May 6th, 2015:
Turning to the evidence, if technology were rapidly displacing workers then productivity growth—the rate of increase in the value of goods and services produced in an hour of work—should be very high, because machines are more efficient. In the last decade, however, productivity growth has risen at a sluggish 1.4 percent annual rate. In the last two years it has limped along at a pace of less than 1 percent annually. By comparison, in the post-World War II “Golden Age,” from 1947 to 1973, productivity grew at an annual rate of almost 3 percent.
Job killing robots are a myth perpetuated by wealthy people who want to suppress wages for their own profits. Baker continues in his article:
Still, the robots story is important because it perpetuates another myth: that inequality is something that just happened, when in fact it's the consequence of specific policies.
If robots are the problem we could feel bad about it, and maybe look to help those who are on the losing side of the great human-android war. But few would want to be Luddites standing in the path of technological progress. Opposing mechanization seems futile. On the other hand, if the rise in inequality over the last 35 years is due to government action or inaction, then we might try to bring about change. The list of policies that have led to inequality is long. It includes a trade policy designed to whack the middle class; Federal Reserve Board policy that fights inflation at the expense of jobs; a bloated financial sector that relies on government support; and a system of labor-management relations that is skewed against workers.
Wait. What was that again? Inequality is a consequence of certain [public] policies? Yes it is. Baker lists a few of them in his article and has a more complete description in a few of his books like, Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich Richer, and The End of Loser LiberalismMaking Markets Progressive. In both books, he provides a historical and economic perspective on how the rules were changed to permit inequality on an astronomical scale while keeping much of the public uninformed of the changes (video). What we're learning is that inequality in America is about the rules and who writes them. Self dealing starts at the top.

A team of economists headed by Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz has written a report dedicated to making the economy work for everyone so that everyone can share the gains in productivity due to technology. It's hosted by the Roosevelt Institute and it's call "Rewrite The Rules".

But even if you think that the market is "free" and that things are as they should be due to natural forces you might want to take a closer look at corporate governance. Over at Alternet, Les Leopold could hardly contain himself with this article, CNN Host’s Attempt to Explain the U.S. Economy Was So Bad I Started Yelling at the TV, (I found it first at Naked Capitalism). Leopold has made some rather interesting points about another capitalist country, Germany:
Fact #1: Germany uses the most advanced technologies in the world.
Fact #2: Manufacturing workers in Germany earn much more than their U.S. counterparts: 44.7% more in textiles, 44.6% more in chemicals, 34.2% more in machine tools, and 66.9% more in the automobile industry.
Fact #3: Manufacturing jobs make up 22% of the German workforce and account for 21% of the GDP. U.S. manufacturing jobs make up only 11% of our workforce and only 13% of our GDP.
Fact #4: The economic gods either speak German or the Germans are doing things differently from their U.S counterparts.
Isn't that interesting? How come we're moving jobs out of the country instead of doing what Germany does? That's because labor has very little say over how our companies are run. From the same article:
The German manufacturing juggernaut depends on vast investments in innovation (by their government), in research and development (by their firms), and in worker education and training (by both the government and the firms).
That's because the Germans are not as fond of stock buybacks as Americans are. I mean, most Americans have no idea that American manufacturers would rather buy back their stocks with their profits than invest in training for their workers and technology needed to increase productivity. Sending jobs across the border or overseas makes sense if you really don't care about your workers.

How did Germans escape our fate? German manufacturing firms are controlled by unions and management. They see a win-win when they invest in the worker and his tools. More from Mr. Leopold:
Germany holds down its wage gap, in part, by discouraging stock buybacks. Through its system of co-determination, workers and their unions have seats on the boards of directors and make sure profits are used to invest in productive employment. As a result, in Germany stock buybacks account for a much smaller percentage of corporate profits.
Wait. Unions have seats on the board of directors in manufacturing firms in Germany? How come we don't do that here? Because labor hardly has a say in how the rules are written.

So the next time someone says that the economy is bad due to robots taking over our jobs, ask them why American manufacturers are moving their plants to Mexico or opening new factories in China or Vietnam. Ask them why American manufacturers are buying their own stock back with their profits rather than investing in their employees or their tools. Ask them who writes the rules.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

A sort of political movie review: Star Wars: Rogue One

A few days ago, I had an opportunity to see a movie and I took it. As a busy dad of two small kids and working full time, getting out to a movie is tough unless I want to be a night owl. For Christmas, my employer bought a theater room full of tickets and sent my team to the movies. I've done this before and saw Batman vs Superman, which I enjoyed. This time it's Star Wars: Rogue One. I enjoyed that movie so much, that I thought I'd offer a sort of political review of that movie.

As I've mentioned before, I've been reading a couple of books that have changed the way I look at pop culture, perhaps irreversibly. Two books written by Ross W. Greene, PhD, have completely changed my outlook on human behavior and pop culture. The first is The Explosive Child and the second is Raising Human Beings. Both are exceptional in their presentation of the subject matter and both provide practical guidance for raising human beings and living life. Adoption of the practices described in those books entails more than learning a method for raising children, it is a lifestyle change.

I'm still on the second pass of Raising Human Beings, a book devoted to doffing the reward/punishment philosophy of child rearing to adopt a proactive, collaborative approach to raising kids. Instead of spanking, extortion, yelling, screaming, grounding and a wide assortment of "incentives", including gold stars, time with electronics and sweet treats, we can take a different approach. We can set expectations for our kids and work with them to help them meet our expectations. We make the assumption that they want to do better and that motivation is not an issue. The only issue we're concerned with is whether or not they have the skills they need to comply with our expectations as parents.

It's Christmas Eve as I publish this and I recall that even Santa Claus has been invoked to coerce kids into better behavior. The song, "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town", uses Santa Claus to extort good behavior from kids. I sang that song with mixed feelings in school with other kids in our auditorium, even though that was supposed to be a "fun" song. Here are a couple of verses to give you an idea of what I'm talking about:

You better watch out
You better not cry
Better not pout
I'm telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town

He's making a list
And checking it twice;
He's gonna find out
Who's naughty or nice
Santa Claus is coming to town

The song tells us that Santa knows when we're sleeping and when we're awake. He knows enough to know which houses to skip on Christmas Eve. The implication is that children should behave during the winter when they have to stay in the house, or there won't be any gifts for Christmas.

Raising Human Beings teaches us that instead of whipping out punishment for failure to comply, we talk with our kids to find out why they cannot meet our expectations and collaborate with them to solve the problems that get in their way to success. That's our job as parents and I think that's our job as humans. Like I said, that's a lifestyle change that I believe will help us treat each other with respect and dignity. Even between adults.

I know, you're wondering about the movie. After reading those books, I found myself wrestling with questions about the plot while watching Star Wars: Rogue One. I considered the characters and their motives and alternative paths to resolve the conflict between the Empire and the Rebel Alliance. Don't worry, there are no spoilers here.

First, I have to say that I enjoyed the entire movie. I enjoyed the characters, the robots and graphics. Everything went together well and the plot moves well, too. It is well written and I laughed out loud because the robot in this movie reminded me so much of C3PO. For me the highlight of the movie was seeing Donny Yen (Internet Movie Database). Some of you might remember him from the Ip Man movies. In this movie, he's funny, fast and smart. If you've seen him before, you may find some delight in seeing him again in this movie.

As I watched Rogue One, I was recalling all of the other Star Wars movies I've seen. It finally dawned on me that I have almost no idea what they're fighting over. What does the Rebel Alliance want? What does the Empire want? I did some research and as far as I can tell, this entire struggle is over trade. I found a Wikipedia article on the subject of Star Wars and here is an excerpt of the description of Episode I: The Phantom Menace:
About 32 years before the beginning of the Galactic Civil War, the corrupt Trade Federation sets a blockade of battleships around the planet Naboo. The Sith Lord Darth Sidious had secretly planned the blockade to give his alter ego, Senator Palpatine, a pretense to overthrow and replace the Supreme Chancellor of the Galactic Republic.
It looks like the spark of the struggle is a trade blockade setup as a pretense for a power grab. Sounds familiar, huh? And notice that The Empire has an enormous military infrastructure and it hasn't stopped building yet. So I have to wonder about Senator Palpatine. Just how much power does he want? Does he have a family? Kids? Does he even know when he has enough power to stop? Will he ever get to a point where he sits in his chair at home (if he has one), looking at the horizon as two suns set and asks, "Pfffft! What's the point?"

If this struggle is about trade, then The Empire is using force to enter into trade agreements on their own terms. That sure sounds familiar. The United States is like that. Bases all over the world, "free trade" agreements with every country that will buckle, and all of the agreements are negotiated on terms that are decidedly favorable to the United States.

Then I looked at the stormtroopers. The way they talked, they have a remarkably human nature to their voices. I have to wonder, don't those guys have families? Where do they live? Do they really believe in what they are fighting for, or are they just mercenaries? Could they be under mind control from the guys at the top? Are they even conscious?

Then there is the Force. "May the Force be with you." There is the Dark Side and there is everyone else. The Empire is on the Dark Side. It is all about rule by fear of punishment and lust for reward. There is judgment and severe punishment for failure, but no inquiry as to why someone fails. There is no assistance from the guys at the top to fix the problems that get in the way of the subordinates when they fail to meet expectations.

When I see Darth Vader closing the windpipes on one of his subordinates with the Force, as in the first movie, I now see someone who thinks that motivation is an issue. Every character in the movie wants to do well, they want to meet expectations. But when they fail, they failed in a contest of skill and luck. If the other guys have better skills and they defeat you, Vader lacks the compassion to help you. He makes no inquiry to find the problems and fix them, other than by force.

I notice also, that the good guys don't wear masks that hide their eyes. The bad guys, for the most part, are completely covered in body armor. The bad guys at the top are always scheming against each other and the Rebel Alliance. The good guys show their faces, they help each other and have each other's back. The Empire practices competition in the extreme. The Rebel Alliance practices cooperation and compassion with everyone except for the enemy.

The Dark Side never negotiates. The Dark Side operates on the threat of force at all times. The Empire has enough power that it does not need to negotiate in good faith. The Dark Side does not question failure, it only expects success and punishes failure rather than collaborating to solve the problems that get in the way of meeting expectations.

This is what I mean when I say that the book, Raising Human Beings has changed my outlook so much. Instead of accepting the plot of the movie at face value, I deconstruct the plots in movies for more favorable outcomes. As all the Star Wars movies show, just plowing through conflict with force is very expensive and very time consuming. A little tact and compassion goes a long way to smoothing things out.

The antagonist of the Star Wars story line, Darth Vader, imposes his will upon others and does so by force, open, implied and applied. Children, adolescents and young adults all enjoy the movie and get the message that it's not right to impose your will upon others and that fighting back is justified when someone tries to impose their will upon you.

In a sense, Star Wars is a cultural irony. Parents eager to raise children "the right way", the way they have been taught by their parents, have been using force in the form of extortion, open threats and/or implied threats to coerce children into complying with their expectations, however reasonable they might be, regardless of whether or not their kids have the skills to do what they ask. This is not a case of bad parenting, but rather, uninformed solutions to problems that kids experience everyday.

No one is guilty or wrong. Just a bit confused. I don't even believe in evil as a concept, for it is born out of religion. Evil is a supernatural explanation for challenging behavior in both children and adults. In my mind, there is no good and evil. There is only confused (what we call evil), and less confused (good).

The way Vader treats his subordinates implies that everyone who fails is guilty of not being motivated to succeed, even when it seems abundantly clear that they are motivated. Whether or not someone has the skills to comply with his expectations is never questioned because the entire focus of Vader is not skills, it is ulterior motives for failure to comply. He represents the ultimate alias for the authority figure in the lives of millions of children and adult children.

The message of the movie is to fight back and protest when confronted with an authority figure. The assumption is that the authority figure cannot comprehend the suffering of his adversaries, therefore, the only reasonable response is to fight. But Star Wars raises some interesting questions. If it is wrong for Darth Vader to impose his will upon others, why is it OK for parents to impose their will upon kids? In a political context, it is reasonable to ask, why is it OK for American government to ignore the needs of the middle class while catering to the wealthy?

Star Wars is not just science fiction. It is an allegory for what America has become and will continue to be until we decide to be the change we want to see. The Empire is a totalitarian regime, no doubt. America is not a totalitarian state, and I hope we can keep it from becoming one. But The Empire is analogous to the oligarchy we have here in the United States. The Rebel Alliance is analogous to the middle class struggling to sustain themselves and to restore their ability to influence the government for the benefit of everyone, not just the 1%.

To live together in harmony requires skill. Such skills include recognizing challenging behavior when it happens and to conduct a non-confrontational inquiry into why it happens. Additional skills include being proactive in addressing challenging behavior because in most cases, it's predictable. And finally, we need to develop the skill of collaborating with people who exhibit challenging behavior to find out the cause and come up with a solution for it, together. Challenging behavior is the signal not the problem. This isn't just for kids. It's also for adults.

Rogue One is a great movie. But, like much of popular culture, it pretends that injustice comes from someone else, outside of us. It perpetuates acceptance of the wartime economy that powers the United States with "free trade" and cheap foreign goods. It also perpetuates the myth that with enough force any problem can be solved with an adversary.

I believe that as a family and a nation of families, we can do better.

Write on.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The political implications of the discoveries of Alice Miller and an unconscious electorate

"The unexamined life is not worth living." -- Socrates

From the Wikipedia page concerning the same man:
Socrates believed that philosophy - the love of wisdom - was the most important pursuit above all else. For some, he exemplifies more than anyone else in history the pursuit of wisdom through questioning and logical argument, by examining and by thinking. His 'examination' of life in this way spilled out into the lives of others, such that they began their own 'examination' of life, but he knew they would all die one day, as saying that a life without philosophy - an 'unexamined' life - was not worth living.
When I think of what Socrates said, I agree with him, but I think of examining life in the more personal sense. What motivates me to do what I do? What happened to me when I was a kid and how does it affect the person that I am now? Who am I? What do I want?

I just finished reading a fascinating article by Ryan Cooper at The Week. It's about recent events in North Carolina and calls that evidence of tyranny in America. Specifically, Cooper has taken note of successful efforts by Republicans to assert control in North Carolina, even when they lose elections. Republicans in that state are really upset with their loss and the governor is even contesting the results. So they have passed laws on their way out that significantly reduce the power of the governor, post election.

To further explain the context of Ryan's claim of tyranny, it's worth noting that North Carolina was one of the states on the losing side of the Civil War. When Ryan talks about tyranny in NC, he's talking about the institutionalized oppression of minorities that been entrenched there for more than two centuries. Though it is much less evident today than it was even in 1964, disenfranchisement is still a problem. 

Disenfranchisement is a very polite word for tyranny. I suggest here in this post, that tyranny is where the person or party in power imposes the personal fate of their childhood upon everyone else. From the same article:
"About every modern dictatorship, for instance, has some form of pseudo-democratic legitimation, typically a one-candidate vote where a 99 percent approval rating extracted by threats of violence "proves" the dictator's popular backing."

When I read that passage, I'm sure Ryan is making an allusion to the long history of racial oppression in North Carolina. Notice that The National Review holds an entirely different view and re-assures us that North Carolina is nothing like it was in the 1860's. 

Never you mind that both parties are already jockeying for points among the public in anticipation of the next election. Sadly, most of the political posturing is not for the people who live there, it's for the donor class who might someday bestow real money upon their election campaigns. That's oppression that few of the elite pundits are willing to talk about, regardless if the source if liberal or conservative.

I see these conditions in North Carolina and America in general as a result of the reward/punishment pedagogy of American child rearing practices, particularly from families of conservative, religious and authoritarian origins. American child rearing practices have been evolving to be sure, but the reward/punishment regime has been prevalent for well over 400 years, so perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised about finding any sort of tyranny in America.

Threats of violence is often what it takes to permit an unpopular minority to assume power in any state. Where else do we see threats of violence? How about the family?

Noted psychologist and author, Alice Miller wrote about families in her books. For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence (Amazon) taught me that the boy Hitler was beaten savagely by his father on a daily basis. I learned that he boasted to his sister that he had learned how to stifle his urge to cry and to count each whack when he was spanked. I also learned that he made every attempt to impose the fate of his childhood upon the country he would later rule, and I dare say that he succeeded in no small measure. While many are content to equate Hitler with evil, few are truly willing to examine and discuss the reasons he rose to power and did what he did.

For Your Own Good, reviews the early life of a drug addict, a serial killer and Hitler, all to show the results of abusive child rearing practices when those same people became adults. Her review of Hitler's life made the biggest impression upon me by demonstrating the political implications of authoritarian culture. Succeeding books books by Miller repeat the theme with more recent examples of how childhood tyranny results in adulthood tyranny.

In Breaking Down the Walls of Silence, Miller discusses Hitler, Stalin and Nicolae Ceausescu. All were beaten and abused by their parents. All unconsciously sought to impose the fate of their childhoods upon the people they claimed to represent. The story of Ceausescu made the biggest impression upon me. From page 102 of the same book:
As Ceausescu, aided by Communist ideology, came to power, he presented himself as "a God with inordinate wishes." He brought down on the entire Rumanian people the fate that had once been his own: a superfluity of of children, enforced by the insane whim of a god-like dictator, children one could neither feed nor keep warm. As priests and the confession box had seen to the upholding of God's dictates in Scornicesti, so the "Securitate," Ceausescu's secret police, were enjoined to watch over and check the wombs of of Rumanian women. They were to see to it that the dictator's godlike "wish for a nation of families teeming with children" - children who would then freeze to death - was fulfilled. Nor were women, on any account, to have time to devote themselves to their children. Enforced births would see to that. They were to have it no different than Ceausescu's own mother, who, compelled by an alcoholic to conception after conception, had no choice but to let her children grow up in misery and want. By proxy, the tyrant revenged himself for his personal fate on thousands of mothers, fathers and children. Because he refused to face his destiny, keeping his story and feelings from that time completely repressed, he drove an entire people to the brink of destruction.

I know, that passage seems unreal and extreme. I had misgivings about putting it here in it's entirety in this article. I decided to put it here because I want to raise awareness that when we're acting unconsciously, the political implications are extreme and dangerous. Even in modern times.

As I read that passage from the book again to recount for this article, I could not help but be reminded of a well documented American conservative schism to enforce birth after conception, yet continue to cut public support for health care, child care, education and training. The message seems to be something like, "God loves you until you're born. Then you're on your own, punk."

On a higher level, the results of the election past arise from identity politics, an unwise and unreasonable belief in the sanctity of a two-party state and a clear unwillingness to deal with the resulting corruption of big money in politics, head on.

Notice also that every tyrant has had their assistants. They have an army of people who identify with him and his cause, yet are unwilling to address the corruption of the party or the leaders of the same. Identity politics is exemplified by people like Hitler, Stalin and Ceausescu. 

In a similar vein, we can see the same thing with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, both of whom are champions of identity politics. Few pundits were willing to admit that "the emperor has no clothes" during the election. Of the elites who supported them, all are living under a sort of family code of silence, consigned to toe the line for threat of ejection, ostracism or, perhaps something far worse. The rest of us have practically no influence on our government because we lack the money to influence government. That's tyranny. 

Conservatives and liberals alike who expressed horror at the prospect of tyranny (with Trump or Clinton - take your pick) need only look in the mirror to find a solution. Only with awareness of one's own history, can anyone become alert to their own tendency to accept tyranny without question. Maybe someday it may be common knowledge that every act of oppression and tyranny is an attempt to exact the personal fate of the oppressor upon anyone and everyone else who might have had the misfortune to be nearby. I just can't think of a better reason why one person or class of persons would seek to oppress another.

If we truly want to save America, then a thorough self-examination becomes a worthy cause. I know, it's not a very popular subject and even in familiar company, it can be an uncomfortable subject. Until we are willing to look at ourselves objectively, perhaps with help from others, we may then see that we have brought on the election of people like Donald Trump and George Bush as president. We can elect people like President Obama who claim to be progressive, yet disappoint us with unrivaled support for "free trade" agreements like the TPP. We played a part in nominating Hillary Clinton, whether we wanted to or not. We live with a government that will not yield to ordinary people. 

With greater awareness of our own personal history with it's political implications, we may then see that it is no mystery how two of the most unloved candidates for president were presented as our only choices last November. What we have now, with Trump as president and a political class supported by big money in politics, was brought upon us not by conscious will, but by unconscious compulsion. I can't find a better reason for it because nobody likes being told what to do.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Animal Farm, American style

Raise your hand if you read Animal Farm in high school. I did, too. I can recall an assignment in school to read Animal Farm, and that I had the sense that I was being indoctrinated. Animal Farm is a "fairy tale" by George Orwell about how animals on a farm try to improve their lot by giving everyone an equal share of the fruits of their labor. In the book we learn how some of the animals decide that they are privileged above the rest, so they engineer the rules to allocate more of the pie for themselves at the expense of the others. Sounds familiar, huh?

The problem explored in the Animal Farm story is that there is an instant decoupling of income from productivity. The book attempts to point to the form of government as if that is the root cause of the problem. It is not the form of government that is the problem, it is the people that run it and shape it.

It is fine to assign Animal Farm for reading in class as long as teachers are clear on the point. If the point is to say that communism is bad, well, that's indoctrination. If the point is to compare various forms of economies and governments objectively, then that is a fair goal, as long as we're clear.

In my high school the teachers pointed at communism as the problem. Yet the same thing that happens in Animal Farm is happening here in America. But this time, we call it "capitalism" and that it's "just how the market works". For the poor and the working poor, they are being paid far less than they need to live, much less than to advance their lives. For the wealthy, they are being paid far more than is possible for a human to produce. Both impose a tax on the rest of us.

Economist Dean Baker has documented the decoupling of income from productivity very well from a historical and economic perspective. In his 2007 report, The Productivity to Paycheck Gap: What the Data Show, we see that since about 1973, there has been a growing and now yawning gap between what is produced and what is paid. That gap is the cause of what we now know as the near complete collapse of the economy in 2008. In 2008, we saw that the gap between what people are paid and what they produce was no longer sustainable. I think that on an intuitive level, people were beginning to feel that they could no longer support an economy that failed to meet their needs. Isn't it interesting that Dean Baker was one of the few economists who told us in 2004 about the collapse of the housing bubble before it happened?

That same collapse gave rise to Occupy Wall Street and numerous other groups calling out the wealthy for writing rules for the economy that favored themselves above everyone else. It was the 1% vs the 99%. Isn't it interesting that economic collapse can almost always be traced to self-dealing by the wealthy? When called upon this problem, the wealthy say that they are being paid what the market will bear. But who decides what the market will bear? How the market functions is determined by public policy.

Notice that in much of the mainstream media reporting of the events leading up to and after the collapse of the housing bubble, there was something missing from the news. Most reporting of the collapse of the housing bubble was about bad actors in the economy. Hillary Clinton and many others said that people should not buy houses they could not afford. Some said that the banks should not have made loans to people who could not afford them. Very few discussed public policy as the cause of the housing bubble and its collapse, and nobody touched the story of who was writing that same public policy.

We now know who was writing public policy for the rest of us. The 1%. How do we know this? Because we can now measure the influence of different groups and individuals upon the government and the laws passed by the government. From the study, Testing Theories of American Politics:Elites, Interest Groups, and AverageCitizens:
Each of four theoretical traditions in the study of American politics—which can be characterized as theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy, Economic-Elite Domination, and two types of interest-group pluralism, Majoritarian Pluralism and Biased Pluralism—offers different predictions about which sets of actors have how much influence over public policy: average citizens; economic elites; and organized interest groups, mass-based or business-oriented. 
A great deal of empirical research speaks to the policy influence of one or another set of actors, but until recently it has not been possible to test these contrasting theoretical predictions against each other within a single statistical model. We report on an effort to do so, using a unique data set that includes measures of the key variables for 1,779 policy issues. 
Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic-Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism. (emphasis mine)
Economic elites and organized business groups have influence, huh? I think they were talking about groups like the Chamber of Commerce, a great champion of business interests if I ever saw one. So the wealthy have the cohesion to join associations of businesses, you know, like unions. They also like to sit on the boards of directors of multiple companies in what are known as interlocking directorates. There, they have friends on the board of directors at the largest companies in the world. If a member of one board of directors sits on the board of directors of another competing company, it would seem reasonable to say that those two companies are colluding, wouldn't it?

Did you know that CEO pay is largely a matter between friends? Dean Baker does. If the wealthy can determine their own pay, then they can determine the pay of everyone else, too. This is how they all work together to ensure that the greatest share of income from the companies they control goes to them, not to the people who create the value in the companies: the front line workers. The people who create that value do not receive the full value of their work from the people who pay them because they have no say in how the market works. Sure, they could protest, but by then, it's too late.

Here's the kicker. Both the wealthy and the poor were raised on the reward and punishment pedagogy of American culture. The same culture that tells us we build character from work is the same culture that refuses to pay workers a living wage for the value they create. The same culture that tells us that our value is what we produce isn't willing to admit that we produce much more than what we are paid. At the same time, the top 1% is being paid far more than what they produce. An economic collapse is a symptom of when the wealthy are being paid far more than they produce and are unwilling to let the market determine their compensation.

Once the top 1% figured out how to decouple income from productivity with exclusive influence on public policy, it's party time, right? So they used their money to buy public policy that keeps the gravy train going and it's not going to stop anytime soon. They just love that reward and they are not going to give it up without a fight.

Self-dealing at the top is why we need people like Bernie Sanders, Zephyr Teachout and Tulsi Gabbard in Congress and as president. Corruption in government is why Larry Lessig created, a superPAC to end all superPACs and to promote anti-corruption laws with teeth. Corporate corruption is why Dean Baker calls for better corporate governance with his Director Watch blog. They are some of the few who are willing to call out self-dealing in the economy.

Self-dealing is not "evil". I don't believe in evil as it is a religious concept, the term "evil" was conceived as an attempt to assign a supernatural cause to unexplained phenomena. Men created gods to explain what they did not understand. All human behavior can be explained by science and so far, I have not seen an exception. While getting involved in politics provides a good short term and long term solution for change, real change starts with our children.

Real change starts when we remove ourselves from reward and punishment and see challenging behavior as the signal not the problem. From self-dealing to racism, bad behavior is a signal for a problem that has not been solved yet. Here, I'm promoting a holistic approach to human suffering. In addition to getting involved in politics, we need to get involved with our kids and collaborate with them to solve the problems that give rise to challenging behavior that they might otherwise continue as adults.

That's why I'm promoting the book, Raising Human Beings, by Dr. Ross W. Greene. He has created a framework for dealing with challenging behavior in children that will, in my opinion, reduce bad behavior in adults. He calls it, "Collaborative and Proactive Solutions", a framework for raising kids that is non-judgmental, non-confrontational, that helps us to solve the problems that give rise to challenging behavior. Using this framework in schools, detention facilities and in the home could foment a peaceful revolution that could help to change how we look at bad actors, and reduce their influence in the world.

Instead of focusing on the challenging behavior and how to punish it, we could focus on the solutions to the problems that give rise to it - from the school room to the board room to Congress. I believe that framework for looking at human behavior  is the turning point in human evolution, to change humanity for the better.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

BF Skinner, kids and politics

I'm looking forward to seeing my kids go to school someday. They have graduated from peanut to toddler and preschooler. It is at once a wonder and a little teary for me. I remember how cute they were as babies and how I used to walk around the house in the dark with their head on my shoulder to help them fall asleep with motion. Drool on my shoulder was a badge of honor for me. Now I see that school is on the far horizon for them and I want them to have a good experience there, too.

So I did some checking to see if corporal punishment is allowed in schools in the fair state of Utah. Happily, it is not. The literature suggests that schools did not give it up so willingly. Most states gave it up to avoid litigation that tends to empty their coffers for things that would be better spent somewhere else. Yet there are still 19 states that permit corporal punishment in our schools. Studies have shown there is a clear bias in meting out this punishment. People of color are far more likely to be paddled in school than anyone else, a trend that continues well into adulthood.

While digging around for this information, I happened upon this article from the Daily Herald in Utah. It's a guest editorial by Julian Mercer, published astonishingly enough, in February of 2015. In his article, Mr. Mercer expresses his fondness for the good ol' days when spanking was still cool and kids were under control. He likes to think that kids behave better when force is in the wings, waiting to strike should a kid cry, whine or complain in church. To wit:
I believe in spanking and I wish schools today would return to using the paddle. When I say spanking or paddle, I know many people jump to the erroneous conclusions of child abuse or battered children and want to report such activities, and so do I. I’m not advocating abuse but discipline.
I probably spanked my kids once or twice total, and that was all they needed, because it sent the message. After that, when they saw that look on my face, they settled right down. At church, they always had several choices: Being quiet was first and paramount, and to help with that process, they had quiet books, pencils, crayons and paper for drawing and snacks to eat. If nothing worked, then it was out for a spanking. For some reason they never chose the latter. They were able to amuse themselves.
I suspect he's a bit optimistic about how often he has spanked his kids, but here is where it gets really interesting:
The behavioral psychologists B.F. Skinner learned what behavioral psychology really meant, by placing some chickens in a box with a red dot on the wall. As the chickens pecked the wall and hit the red dot, food would drop down.
Guess what happened.
The chickens continued pecking the red dot and nowhere else.
Like those chickens, people always go for the reward. Children soon learn this at a very early age, so that’s when negative reinforcement comes into play.
This is from a newspaper in Utah, a Red State no doubt. But these same people will tell you that they believe in America, the land of the free. On the other hand, they believe that people behave better if they know that physical punishment just a few steps away. Training kids to behave on threat of force is not the way to teach kids about liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I know this first hand.

Here we have a man advocating the same tactics used by BF Skinner to raise his kids in modern day America. Be nice and you get the reward, for the alternative is pretty grim. Get out of line and we can talk about it quietly in the car or the restroom after a few good whacks. Notice that for this man, spanking is not something to be done in public, so I guess he might have a bit of shame about that. Or maybe not.

After I read that article, I was reminded of someone else who talks about BF Skinner: Larry Lessig. I know, I know. Some of you might not be pleased that Lessig is offering pro bono legal counsel to get enough unfaithful electors in the Electoral College to vote for someone other than Trump in two days. That's not likely to happen, but if it does, maybe they'll have the good sense to elect Bernie Sanders instead.

Anyway, Lessig has been fond of pointing out how many members of our Congress are stuck in a sort of Skinner Box, a metaphor to describe the pickle that most members of Congress are in:
...members of Congress spend 30-70 percent of their time fundraising, Lessig noted, adding that they behave like animals in a “Skinner Box,” a device that doles out rewards (food) for animals that push the right buttons. 
Gosh. That sounds a lot like the description that Mr. Mercer gave earlier about using reward and punishment for raising "good kids". Now we see how that plays out in politics. Our politicians have become more interested in rewards than policy. Once a politician gets into that Skinner Box, they have no choice but to let that reward influence how they write and vote for public policy.

The results we see today are consistent with the Skinner Box metaphor described by Mr. Lessig. In this study, Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens, we discover that we reap what we sow. From the summary:
Each of four theoretical traditions in the study of American politics—which can be characterized as theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy, Economic-Elite Domination, and two types of interest-group pluralism, Majoritarian Pluralism and Biased Pluralism—offers different predictions about which sets of actors have how much influence over public policy: average citizens; economic elites; and organized interest groups, mass-based or business-oriented. 
A great deal of empirical research speaks to the policy influence of one or another set of actors, but until recently it has not been possible to test these contrasting theoretical predictions against each other within a single statistical model. We report on an effort to do so, using a unique data set that includes measures of the key variables for 1,779 policy issues. 
Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic-Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism. (emphasis mine)
To rephrase what is said above in simple language: the average person citizen has near zero influence on the men and women who write public policy. The Skinner Box is the perfect metaphor to describe just how dependent our elected officials are on big money in politics. Larry Lessig has created the SuperPAC to end all SuperPACs which can be found at He has advocated for strong anti-corruption laws with teeth that send people to prison for corruption. Unfortunately, there are too many people in positions of power to let that happen nationwide. They just can't bear to get off the gravy train.

It is also worth noting here that Bernie Sanders is not in the Skinner Box. He does not dial for dollars from members of the wealthy donor class. He has advocated for publicly funded elections and himself only takes small donations from average citizens. He has won 14 elections just using small donations. His focus is on policies that work for all of us, not rewards from people who want something else in return.

The behavior of our politicians is the signal, not the problem. The problem starts in the home and works up to politics that all of us have to deal with. Generations of kids have been raised on the reward and punishment pedagogy. These same kids grow up to get into positions of power and it shows. This is the end result of using reward and punishment to raise kids. You get a government that is more interested in rewards and punishments than actually solving problems.

How do we stop this cycle and get off? We change our theories of how people behave. We make the assumption that kids would do better if they could. We assume that challenging behavior is the signal, not the problem and we investigate to find out what the real problems are.

How do we do all that? It won't be easy, but life gets easier if we make some changes. Dr. Ross W. Greene is all over it in two books: The Explosive Child and Raising Human Beings. He's got many more, but I've read these two. I believe that a change from reward and punishment to collaborative problem solving for kids will help to create a generation of kids that know how to avoid the Skinner Box.

Note that the principles taught in both of those books can be applied to adult relationships, too. This isn't just about kids for me, this is about humanity.

Bernie Sanders said that real change starts at the bottom. He's right. It starts with our kids.

Friday, December 16, 2016

How two books left me deconstructing politics and movies with the same lens

One night not too long ago, I found myself looking for something to watch on Netflix. I tried my phone, but it would not cast Netflix to the Chromecast dongle I had plugged into the TV. I tried the tablet, but it was dead and needed time to charge. YouTube worked on my phone, so I started there.

Not feeling so interested in fiction, I looked for videos by Dr. Ross W. Greene, PhD, child psychologist, and author of two of the best books I have ever read on the subject of human behavior, The Explosive Child and Raising Human Beings. I love the books, and am reading the latter in a second pass for better comprehension. But now I have found that they have taken some of the joy out of movies for me.

I like to watch action movies and still do if the writing is good. But those two books have irreversibly changed my mindset, such that I can never look at movies the same way again. Dr. Greene's basic premise in both books is simple, and as a parent, one that I appreciate learning and applying. Kids would do well if they could. He proves without a doubt that challenging behavior is not a question of motivation. He also proves that the punishment and reward model that has been used for centuries on kids doesn't really work. Punishment and reward assumes that kids lack motivation to do better. Kids are born with motivation to do better, but they get punished when they lack the skills to meet parental expectations.

Here are two simple examples. When kids have trouble reading, we respond with empathy and work with them to find the roadblocks to reading. When kids have a temper tantrum we punish them and make no inquiry as to why they had a temper tantrum. We demand compliance despite a lack of certain knowledge: whether or not kids have the skills required to comply with our expectations.

Kids are born problem solvers, and if they're lucky, they get to solve all of the problems they can't solve on their own with their parents until they no longer need their parents to do so. When there are unsolved problems there is challenging behavior. Most parents will whip out the rod rather than spoil the child. Spanking is still prevalent in better than 70% of American homes today. Most parents would rather not endure an investigation for unsolved problems. They don't believe or may not be aware that collaborating with the child to solve the problem that gives rise to the challenging behavior will do any good. That's just not how they were raised. So they offer the carrot and the stick, instead.

Dr. Greene has proven with 38 years of experience working with kids that collaborating with kids to solve their problems reduces challenging behavior in detention facilities, in-patient and out-patient treatment centers, in schools and in life. He is building empirical evidence to show that it is more effective to help kids solve problems that prevent them from meeting parental expectations than to punish them for failing to meet those expectations. If you're a parent, The Explosive Child and Raising Human Beings are highly recommended reading. Even if you're not a parent, you will still learn something from them. For me, this is not just about raising kids, it's about humanity, all of us.

I have been reading my second pass of Raising Human Beings, to learn how to build a collaborative partnership with my kids. I am now dedicated to collaborating with my kids to solve problems that can lead to challenging behavior. I no longer believe in the punishment/reward dogma, regardless of who promotes it.

As I said before, I like to watch action movies, well I used to like to watch action movies. Maybe I still do. But now, when I watch action movies, well, any movie, I find myself deconstructing the plots. I ask questions while I'm watching. Why are they fighting to solve a problem when they could collaborate to solve the problem between them? Why so much destruction when they could get some counseling to solve their problems? Why not just set an appointment and have a meeting to discuss it?

The basic plot of every action movie is that with sufficient force, any problem can be solved between protagonist and antagonist. The thrust of any action movie is that punishment is justice served. No questions asked. But during the movie, I'm asking questions.

I'm even beginning to deconstruct intellectual dramas of intrigue. It's still the same thing, but instead of using action in the plot, it's deception, intrigue and diversion. Why all the mental effort to score points against each other? Why all the effort to one-up the other guy? And why should we enjoy seeing someone else defeated in the struggle?

How did I get to be this way? I have actually been this way for a long, long time, but didn't know it. My "prime directive", a phrase I borrow here from Star Trek, is to err on the side of peace. I made the decision to err on the side of peace, as far as I can remember, about 20 years ago. If I make any errors today, I will be sure to err on the side of peace. People are already suffering and there is no need for me to add to it. So when I read The Explosive Child, and Raising Human Beings, it was for me, an epiphany. It was confirmation that I've been right all along.

It was a with an enormous relief that I learned why I challenged my own parents, particularly my dad. Dear old dad. I still love him, but can't talk to him. At least, he doesn't want to talk to me to punish me for some trivial offense in the grand scheme of life. He lacked the capacity to teach me the skills I needed to comply with his expectations. He has no clue that every punishment he imposed on me did nothing to teach me the skills I needed to comply with his expectations, or the skills I would need later in life. Sure, we could say that he taught me about the "real world", but who wants to live in a world where punishment and reward are favored over collaborating together to solve problems?

By now you're wondering, "Where did the politics go?" They're still here. Those two books now give me pause to deconstruct politics. Considering the problems that face humanity today, we need to collaborate to solve them or we are all toast.

Think of the tension between liberals and conservatives. Both sides want to punish each other. The wealthy want to punish the poor for not getting it, for not knowing how to better themselves. The poor feel vindictive for the punishments they've received and want to punish the wealthy for making their lives far more difficult than they need to be by writing rules that favor the wealthy over the poor. Both sides believe that there is a solution in rewards and punishment.

Congress is set with conservative majorities in both houses to cut social welfare programs and is intent on working with President-elect Trump to effect those cuts in the name of "austerity". Austerity for who? All of us? Or just the people most deemed undeserving of government support? Who gets to decide this? Are we going to drug test the CEO of every business that takes a government insured loan? Or are we only going to drug test the people who receive food stamps? Does this austerity really solve any problems or is it just punishment to fit the narrative that serves a special interest?

When Bernie Sanders was running for president, he talked a lot about Scandinavia, places like Norway, Denmark, Finland and Sweden. He talked about universal health care and free college education in Scandinavia. What we didn't hear about so much is the low rates of recidivism in their correctional systems (courts and prisons). What is recidivism? Recidivism is the tendency for prisoners to commit and be convicted of a crime after release from prison. Scandinavian recidivism rates are a fraction of what they are here, so what are they doing right? They are treating prisoners like human beings, teaching them the skills that are required for getting their needs met without hurting others.

What else is significant about Scandinavian countries? According to this video starring Dr. Greene, Scandinavia has a long tradition of non-punitive, non-adversarial interaction with kids and it shows. Scandinavians gets it that punishment and reward pedagogy isn't working. They also banned spanking.

Scandinavian countries are considered to be socialist countries here, as if that's a bad thing. But we don't see them building enormous military infrastructures, invading countries and setting up bases around the world now, do we? We have bases all over the world and then wax eloquent about "free trade" as if other countries enter trade agreements with us voluntarily.

There must be something to what they're doing in Scandinavia that we're not doing here. In Scandinavia, they don't like to talk about God or religion. It's not central to their ideas of how government should run. Members of our Congress are 92% Christian. Most of them claim to be conservatives. I suspect that those conservatives are not about to spare the rod to spoil the country. Like their neoliberal brothers and sisters, they are set to impose discipline...I mean, austerity, on the rest of us while sparing their billionaire and millionaire buddies. Remember, many of the same people who voted for the bailout in 2008 are still in Congress today.

We are a nation divided. By focusing on punishing the other side, we lose the time we so desperately need to solve the problems that face us all. By focusing on scoring points against the other side, we lose time that we could use to solve the problems that face us all. Every jeer, every challenge, every scandal serves to distract us from the problems that face humanity.

Our oceans are filling up with plastic. The fish are being scoured from the oceans giving rise to the slime. The polar ice caps are melting and will soon be gone. Our water is being polluted with fracking. Our air is being polluted with industry and transportation. This is due to public policy choices that were made while we were scoring points in politics against the other guy. Who makes public policy? The top one percent. The billionaires and millionaires who are the relevant funders of the people are elected and re-elected to Congress and state houses.

Based on what I know now, the entire US economy, with it's outrageous inequality, is designed to impose punishment on the 99% for failing to meet an expectation that most people do not have the skills to meet. Most people don't have the skills to become wealthy. Homeless people don't want to be homeless. They just lack the skills to find a home. Our best estimate right now is that 44% of the homeless have jobs. Are you sure that punishing them by cutting benefits is going to help them?

Yet CEO pay continues to go up. The wealthy continue to earn 74% of their money from intellectual property, rather than helping the world be a better place to be. The wealthy continue to write self dealing rules and then have the nerve to say that they prosper in a free market, why can't the rest of us do the same?

Poverty is not a question of motivation, it is a question of skills. This is the point missed on both sides, and now that conservatives have majorities in both houses of Congress, the presidency, majorities in both houses in a majority of states and a majority of governors offices, they are keen to prove their point: punishment and reward as motivation really works - skills don't matter.

What we are doing now isn't working, but I have hope. Bernie Sanders gave me hope and I voted for him. He continues to do what he does best by pointing out the self-dealing nature of oligarchy. He continues to focus on the positive things we can do as a country, to make the world a better place to be.

For centuries, we've been training our kids on punishment and reward, just like Pavlov trained his dogs. This has led us to a state of the nation where people voted out of fear, other people sought to rig the election out of fear and still others sought to alert us to alternatives to acting out of fear. Let us not forget that Hitler's Germany was an authoritarian state and that Hitler himself was a product of a culture built on child abuse.

I believe that the work of Dr. Greene can foment a peaceful political revolution and create a generation of kids and parents dedicated to solving the problems that beset us all. When we collaborate with our kids to solve the problems that give rise to challenging behavior, we develop the skills to discern the problem from the distraction. We begin to see the behavior as a signal, not the problem. We can then cast aside the political posturing and focus on the solutions and policies that help all of us, not just some of us.