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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Time to Pay Up

In my last installment, I talked about “we, the people” and what we’re not getting from our friends in Washington D.C.  This time, I’d like to take that topic on a somewhat different tangent.  I spoke of courage.  I guess you can spin courage a lot of different ways.  Some might say that standing up to big spending bureaucrats it courageous.  I say “bullshit!”  Courage isn’t standing up to the other political party.  Courage is standing up to the citizens of this country and calling them out on their faulty expectations.

The last president to do this was John F. Kennedy, when he infamously said, “ask not what your country can do for you, but rather, what you can do for your country.”  He was pointing out that a great nation is made up of great citizens, not great politicians.  Americans are willing to pitch in when they are asked.  Unfortunately, nobody in Washington has earned the right to ask us to do anything.  We pay our tax bill and expect them to do everything for us.
Well all the things we expect of our government cost money.  Since Reagan, raising taxes has been political suicide.  As a matter of fact, tax cuts seem to be very popular.  Of course government isn’t getting any smaller.  When was the last time you heard of a massive layoff in the federal government?  Yeah, me either.  I don’t know how a service organization saves money without layoffs.  Well, the federal government did figure out one trick – they stopped sending money to the states.

This was a neat trick because it came along with something called the “unfunded mandate.”  They just told the states they had to pay for things the federal government used to pay for.  What with all the extra money the states didn’t have, it should be no problem, right?  I guess it’s no coincidence that several states are fighting bankruptcy and most of the others are trying to figure out which services they “must” keep in order to remain solvent.  You see, states don’t have something the federal government has – printing presses.  When the federal government wants to start a war or something, they just fire up the presses and sell it to the Chinese.  Kind of strange really – we’re fighting an enemy funded by the Chinese government (indirectly) with money from the Chinese.  I’m sure Dick Cheney and his pals don’t care, they’re getting all the money that isn’t going to China.

Meanwhile, back in the states, they started borrowing a trick from the federal government.  They started pushing expenses down to local governments – like education, roads, and law enforcement.  A byproduct of this is that poorer communities have bad schools, bad roads and excess crime.  Welcome to the legacy of trickle down economics.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

If It’s Broken, Break It

“We, the people” are being slowly cut out of the system.  Our forefathers were revolutionaries.  They demanded change and they were willing to take to the streets to get it.  They could have never anticipated the current state of their invention.  To be sure, money has always been a part of politics in this country.  Washington, Jefferson and the Adam’s boys all had personal wealth to varying degrees.  But, back then, candidates told “the people” what they thought and if “the people” liked what they heard, they elected him.  That newly elected official owed “the people” his victory.  There was no confusion about who he served.

Today, there’s lots of confusion.  Big business has replaced “we, the people” as the primary constituents.  Spin doctors craft sound bites for major news outlets that are designed to “sell” a candidate to the electorate.  What thin veneer of integrity that was expected of candidates has been slowly stripped away by an election process that is so refined, an election team’s ability to execute is more important than the candidate’s beliefs.

Look where that has gotten us.  In 1928, approximately 25% of the gross national income was earned by the top 1% of the population.  Need I remind you what happened a year later?  The economy collapsed.  That transfer of wealth to the top was caused by the industrial revolution and the exploitation of workers, not yet protected by laws or unions.

In 2008, approximately 25% of the gross national income was earned by the top 1% of the population.  Sound familiar?  The outcome is quite different.   Back then, the government recognized that rich people’s greed was to blame for the whole thing, so they punished them by allowing them to be turned into poor people by the very market they created.  This time, our government printed money and replaced the losses, so rich people haven’t suffered.  Oh, the poor and middle class have suffered.  They have lost their jobs and their savings, respectively.  The government has no plan for them.

This current trend all started with Reagan’s “trickle-down economics.” The idea is: if the government makes it easy for rich people to get richer, they’ll carry poorer people along with them.  The problem is: it doesn’t work.  It’s what put us where we are now.  Greed is a trait we all possess.  Rich people are just better at it.  Now, they control the government.  Hell, they ARE the government.  Furthermore, with our new election process, they don’t even have to give a crap what the rest of us think.  They can just “craft a message” to lead us to believe what they’re doing is right, when they know full well that “we, the people” are getting screwed.

Which brings us back to the beginning…  The founders of this country were revolutionaries.  I fear the saviors of this country will need to be revolutionaries, too.  The current system is not conducive to repairing itself.  It will either need to fail so completely that it must be replaced (a distinct possibility, but not so good for “we, the people).  Or, it will need to be replaced by force.

How much abuse can U.S. citizens take?  If history is any judge of what citizens can take, the answer is hard to predict.  Revolutions have been started over much less abuse of power.  However, we are still the richest country in the world – for the time being.  We no longer have the best infrastructure, the best educational system, the most productive workforce, the most innovative people.  China’s military and economic powers are growing fast.  At the current rate, they will pass us soon.  Asymmetric warfare strategies have all but rendered our military strength useless. We’ve been propped up only by the U.S. dollar remaining the international currency of choice.  Once this situation changes, the dollar’s value can tumble as far as it wants, without other, more prosperous countries having a care about what happens to it.  That day may not be too far away.

What will “we, the people” think then?  How much can we take?  When will one voice, heard above the din, be enough to bring down a broken system?  I suspect that most of us will find out in our lifetimes.  It ain’t gonna be pretty – revolutions never are.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Leaders vs. Leadership

I don’t like to get into politics in this blog, but this isn’t so much a rant about current events as the likelihood that the crowd in D.C. will be able to do anything good about them.  We elect our leaders.  Our process for selecting leaders is greatly flawed.  Well, not really.  The flaw has less to do with the process itself and more to do with the ability of the people making the choice to do so effectively.

Before I explain myself, let’s back up and talk about an implied expectation: leaders will practice leadership.  On the surface, this seems to be an intrinsic truth.  How can someone whose job it is to lead be in that position and not lead?  It turns out, the answer is: easily.  You see, leadership is a skill.  To have these skills, one must be a good judge of talent, have the vision to see a good path forward and communicate effectively. 

What about politicians?  What skills do they need to get elected?  First, they need to be able to assess what the majority of the constituents want to hear.  They need to be able to say it in a compelling manner.  And, most importantly, in the age of television, they need to look and sound good.  Notice that only one of the three skills, strong communications, is in common with both jobs.  This is not to say that a politician can’t have all five attributes.  Oh, to be a politician AND a leader, one need one other attribute – courage. 

The reason that courage is so important is because most of the politicians in government are not “leaders.”  That means they lack vision.  If most of the people we choose to lead are not leaders, those that are will need to be able to stand up against not only their peers, but also the many citizens who bought into the clever arguments those “non-leaders” made during their campaigns.  The reality is, everybody wants a great society, but nobody wants to pay for it.  People will let the situation degrade over the course of many years, but they want it fixed up right now.  Politicians that promise to do that are lying, but people don’t want to hear the truth.  Candidate Obama said that it would take time to solve the deep issues faced by our nation.  President Obama has been given less than a year, during which time his approval rating has dropped from over 70% to less than 50%.

So, people don’t know what’s good for them.  Politicians tell them what they want to hear.  Because they lack vision, the people and the politicians believe the bullshit.  Therefore, we get politicians – not leaders.  How can we get out of this?  That’s for another blog.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Mind Over Matter Matters

Humans are convinced that we have the best brains on the planet.  If tool making is any measure, there is no doubt of it.  Until we learn to speak whale or dolphin, we may never know if we’re the greatest philosophers.  Maybe it’s enough to know that we’re in the top three.

On the other hand, our bodies are nothing special.  There are lots of animals that are bigger, stronger, faster, stealthier and more adaptable.  Even our opposable digits, which are critical to our tool making, are not unique.

By this evaluation, our bodies are just a receptacle for our amazing brains.  Yet for all of our mental powers, many of us conclude that the joys of the flesh are the reason for our existence.  Why do I say this?  Just look at what we do: overeating, recreational narcotics, unhealthy lifestyles, dangerous activities, smoking, overworking, and under exercising.  We abuse our bodies in pursuit of “feeling good.”  Sometimes, we feel bad the next morning, but we do it again anyway.  The point is, the pleasures of the flesh tempt us beyond our mind’s ability to control it.

Maybe this is all part of evolution.  We are still essentially survival machines.  We’re programmed to do things that make us feel good.  It is a primitive mechanism to direct us towards “good” behavior.  The problem is – what was good behavior back in the caveman days of our existence, may not be so good now.  Eating is a good example.  Back when we were hunter-gatherers, our species ate lots of fruits and vegetables in the summer.  Our bodies made good use of the high quality sugars in the fruit.  In the winter, there wasn’t any fruit to be had, so our consumption was seasonal.  Today, we have access to unlimited, year-round highly refined sugars.  In nature, we never had the opportunity to consume so much.  Now, it’s easy and cheap.  No wonder obesity is such a pervasive problem.

Our ancient impulses still control our actions.  Some of us have begun to gain control of our impulses, but as a species, the practice is not as widespread as it should be.  Our minds may be getting stronger, but clearly we have a long way to go to take full advantage of our full potential.  For now, our bodies still rule, but one day, maybe…just maybe…

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Hearts & Minds

Umar Abdulmutallab's attempted bombing of a flight over Detroit on Christmas day could have been another symbolic message from Al Qaeda.  Al Qaeda works very hard at sending the western world “messages.”  The west, on the other hand, fails miserably in sending clear messages back.  I’m not saying that our message to Al Qaeda isn’t clear.  The “we want you gone” message has been made crystal clear.  However, we know the best way to make that happen, yet we fail to send the right message to the right people.

Look, any terrorist organization that relies on suicide bombers is going to need a zealot to get the job done.  These organizations can train up a zealot, but they’ve got to get some raw material first.  Why does a young person (Abdulmutallab is 23) decide to join a terrorist organization?  There could be several reasons:
  1. They don’t have any better prospects (poverty, oppression)
  2. They hate Americans or westerners in general (maybe had a family member killed)
  3. They have a screw loose (Timothy McVeigh)
There’s not much anyone can do about that last one except early childhood detection and treatment.  But, the first two are situations over which we have some control.  By providing aid and support to poverty stricken or oppressed people, we can let them know that we are with them.  This takes away one more reason to hate westerners.  Anyone in the know will tell you that we do this, but we do it so badly that our efforts are usually wasted.

I am reminded of something that a coworker does.  Every time he sends his grandchildren, who live across the country, a book or a gift, he attaches a picture of him and his wife (grandma) to it.  That way, whenever the grandchildren read the book or play with the toy, they are reminded of who gave it to them.  The U.S. does a crappy job of making sure that the people we help know where it is coming from.  We send millions of dollars to help impoverished people in the same countries whose residents try to blow us up.  We can do better.

Then there’s the matter of killing civilians.  We know that our enemies are going to do everything in their power to make us need to blow up civilians in order to blow them up.  It is their best recruitment tool because they know that if they use the locals as human shields, they can recruit from the survivors after westerners have dropped bombs on the neighborhood.

We are fighting an asymmetrical war.  We’re going about it the old-fashioned way and they’re using modern tactics.  We should be recruiting locals ourselves.  We don’t need a whole army to do it.  Everything could be low key special operations.  It would be a lot cheaper and we would have plausible deniability if anything goes wrong.  Bottom line: we’re fighting the war they want us to fight.  It costs too much, most of our citizens don’t like it, and we’re not winning many hearts and minds.  In this type of war, if you don’t win hearts and minds – you don’t win.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Infinite Improbability

I am a big fan of Douglas Adams.  He's the guy that wrote Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.  For those of you who don't know the story, it is, among other things, a story about a guy named Zaphod Beeblebrox, who steels a spaceship with an Infinite Improbability drive.  Adams wrote some very funny material, but what is little known is his fascination with science.  It turns out that some of his silly ideas may not be so silly after all (or maybe they are).

The drive system in question took advantage of an element of quantum mechanics known as the Uncertainty Principle.  In essence, this principle postulates that at any given point in time and space, a particle may or may not exist.  Further, our observation of the particle has an influence on this outcome.  This seems to create a paradox because without observing something, we can't really know whether it exists or not.  Apparently, our universe has a sense of humor, too.

But, what if this is just another puzzle to be solved by our meager brains?  Maybe we just aren't smart enough yet to overcome this little conundrum.  Assuming our species survives long enough, we just might figure this one out.  If we do, we could unlock a universe of unlimited possibilities.  Think of it -- if we harness the power of improbable events, we could bring about scenarios that are "almost" impossible, but not completely impossible.

The infinite improbability drive essentially passed through every point in the universe, which allowed the ship's computer to identify the desired destination coordinates and stop the process there.  I know, it sounds silly (which is why Adams was such a genius), but it is "possible."  How about an infinite improbability replicator?  You just tell the replicator what you want and it just cycles through an infinite number of permutations and finishes on the one you wanted.

I know, I know -- if it's infinite, how can you cycle through all of them?  Details, details.  We need to leave these issues to our great great great great grand children.  They'll be much smarter than us.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

The Cycle of Life

This morning my son called and told us he is engaged to be married.  It was a moment of joy, anticipation and reflection – mostly joy.  After some of the emotion of the moment dissipated, I was able to reflect some more, which brings us to today’s blog.

Why are we here?  Being an armchair philosopher, I’ve spent my share of time considering this question.  I’ve decided that the answer is: to leave the world a better place than we found it.  There are two fundamental ways in which we can accomplish this goal:
  1. Be good
  2. Make more good people
Anyone who has read Richard Dawkin’s seminal work, The Selfish Gene, knows that biologically, we are here to propagate our gene pool.  So, we try to be “fit” and then we create more “fit” people.  There’s probably not too much argument about this.  The trouble comes when you try to define fitness or goodness.  Tricky.

About 2000 years ago, a guy got nailed to a cross for saying how much better off we’d be if people were nice to each other, and people are still talking about the guy.  We should keep that on the list of what it takes to be good.  Being nice means helping other people and not hurting them.  This is a challenge for some, who feel the need to climb over the top of other people to get where they’re going.  But, even venerable sources of business knowledge like the Harvard Business Review are starting to encourage businesses and business people to be nice to each other.

And, we should take care of our home.  A wise philosopher once said, “Don’t shit where you eat.”  Now, if you’re a plant, a nice nitrogen rich meal can be very invigorating, but for most animals (insects notwithstanding), this means keeping the place tidied up.  Most of us do a crappy job of this.  Some of us can’t even keep our room tidied up, let alone our city, state, country, continent or planet.  If we don’t take care of our home, it will fall apart and then the place will go back to our nitrogen and CO2 consuming friends.

What does all this have to do with my son getting engaged?  I forgot…wait…that’s right – good people!  I happen to think my wife and I made a couple pretty good people.  We didn’t do it by teaching them to be good, we did it by trying to be good ourselves.  That’s the cycle.  Good people find other good people, they raise good children who become good people, who find other good people…you get the idea.

What about people that aren’t so good?  How will we ever make the planet safe for good people if there are people like Osama bin Laden, Slobodan Milošević and Dick Cheney out there?  Answer: time.  What appears as a pendulum in the near term is actually a spiral in the long term.  Each time our planet falls into violence, there are fewer and fewer people who want a part of it.  In time, we may actually learn to care for one another on a global scale.  Hopefully, our technology won’t get the better of us before we learn to be nice to each other.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Buddhist's Lament

New Years Day is typically a day of reflection and anticipation.  Since this blog is about looking back on history and projecting our future, this would seem like to perfect opportunity take apart some element of the day’s events in that context.  But, being the contrarian that I am, I choose to talk about “now.”

The Buddhists have a saying: “be here now.”  It speaks to the moment in which we live our lives – “this” moment.  Sometimes, I find myself realizing that it is only “now,” which I can truly control.  Even during the seemingly mundane tasks of life, small decisions are made that can have great impact.

For example, I was chopping an onion once and I was balancing it on the cutting board so that I could make nice round slices.  As I cut off more slices, it became more unstable, but I was in a hurry.  The onion finally slipped and I also sliced a chunk of my fingertip nearly off.  I taped it back on and it eventually healed with only minor permanent nerve damage.  It was a small, momentary decision, yet it has become a permanent part of my future.

One of the things that I love most about being a musician is within the context of the structure of the song being played; there are infinite variations of rhythm and harmonic structure.  Each moment is a decision.  Because of this, it forces me into a state of concentration in the moment that is not unlike Buddhist meditation (or any meditation for that matter).

Meditation is simply the act of focusing on “now.”  When you are sitting quietly with your eyes closed in a quiet place, thoughts can only take you in one of two places – the past or the future.  Reflection on an empty moment doesn’t require thought.  Westerners believe that a moment devoid of thought is a waste.  They are wrong.  Everything must have balance.  To have great pleasure, we must know great pain.  To be fully alive, we must know death.  So, it only stands to reason that to truly appreciate thought, we must know the absence of thought.  Yet, many westerners go through their whole lives never experience even two minutes of absolute mental silence. 

I know this because I meditate from time to time and I know that it takes a significant amount of practice to be able to vanquish all thought for even a full minute.  Buddhist monks and others trained in the practice of meditation can clear their minds for hours.  Imagine it.  I know is sounds like nothingness, but it is not.  It is an inward journey.  It takes you to a place you’ve never been.

If you could go to another universe where the laws of physics are completely different, would you consider that the adventure of a lifetime?  If so, then your chariot awaits – and it won’t cost you a dime.  Ironically, instead of being in the moment, most people spend their whole lives dwelling on the past and the future trying to find the things that are easily found “now.”  Love and joy!  Have a happy new year.