Archive for December, 2011
A Retrospective of 2011
Posted by Scott Erb in 2012 Election, Arab Spring, Barack Obama, Economic crisis, Occupy Wall Street, Protest, Styx, World Affairs on December 31, 2011
TIME magazine’s naming of “the Protester” as person of the year in 2011 captured what clearly is the defining aspect of the year gone by. Whether it was the Arab Spring, the Russian winter or the Occupy Wall Street movement (which spawned imitations across the globe), 2011 was a year in which people started to more strongly question both authority and conventional wisdom.
This is made all the more poignant by how unexpected it was. I challenge you to find me any pundit or psychic who predicted the events in Egypt (which began in January 2011) or the force of Occupy Wall Street. Much like how no one saw the fall of the Berlin Wall coming when we went into 1989, experts and pundits are again shown to be narrow minded fools by the people on the street. The Tunisian protests were growing when 2010 ended, but the idea that this would start a process ending with the overthrow of multi-decade stalwarts like Mubarak and Gaddafi? Pshaw!
Moreover, in the US the talk still was of the “tea party” and the surge of the GOP. The idea that the left would strike back with its own grass roots movement that would rise as suddenly and with force didn’t seem possible. Not only didn’t the left have FOX News and especially Glenn Beck, primary proponents and builders of the Tea Party, but they were a spent force after 2010 — dissatisfied with Obama but nowhere else to turn.
No one knows where all this will go. The Arab Spring is a good thing, the dictators had to go. As bad as things may get, postponing change would have been worse. The only alternative would have been to defend dictators doomed to fall in any event. The path towards a better future will be rocky and often violent. Such is how history unfolds.
New protests against Putin in Russia show promise; will the Russian state assert dominance as it always has, or do the protesters have a chance? OWS is certain to gain strength again when the weather is warm. Will they focus their protests on making a political difference in an election year, or will they be angry and aggressive against the status quo? The right wing predicts the latter, inside the movement they’re confident of the former. We’ll see.
All of this reflects a fact I’ve blogged about many times: the information and technology revolution is changing politics in a fundamental way. By fundamental I don’t just mean that now candidates solicit via e-mail or tweet their responses to world events. I mean the nature of sovereignty, power, economic relations and world order are being altered. The process is only beginning, but the result will be a world very different than the one we’re used to at the start of the 21st Century.
2011 gave us a taste of what this may entail. No matter how powerful, brutal or apparently invulnerable the leader, politics in the new era make it harder to hang on to power when the people rise up. It’s a good thing as it is a start of a shift of power away from elites towards the people. But it was a good thing when the reformation challenged Church dominance in 1517. After that Europe was at war until 1648. Change may be necessary, but it can be violent and difficult.
It’s hard to find other ways 2011 stood out. The world and especially Japan suffered an immense tragedy in March with an earthquake and tsunami that brought home the possible dangers of nuclear power, limits of human engineering and resilience of human heroes, as many in Japan gave their lives fighting to prevent absolute catastrophe. I don’t think this means nuclear power should be taken off the table; rather, as with anything, we can’t say there is zero risk of disaster.
President Obama had a good foreign policy year, with the killing of Osama Bin Laden and an end to the Iraq war. Obama’s diplomacy abroad has been effective, though a continually lagging economy at home makes him still vulnerable to defeat in his re-election bid. That said, he leads any Republican challenger in head to head p0lls, though is pretty even against Mitt Romney, the strongest and most likely GOP candidate.
2011 has seen a late year bit of economic hope, but the economy slogged through year four of a crisis that started with the bursting of the housing bubble in 2007 and then went into near melt down with the financial blow out in the fall of 2008. The global economy is still resettling, deleveraging, and working out the structural imbalances the grew from 1981 to 2007.
For me personally it’s been a very good year. I again participated as one of four faculty for a travel course to Italy in May with 42 students. The weather was great and the students superb! We installed our geothermal heating system, the boys excelled with skiing early in the year, Dana at age 5 skied from the top of Saddleback in April (he turned 6 this week). The new Mallett School opened, a wonderful building with great teachers and staff. I’ve been involved in the PTA and that’s been rewarding. Work has been excellent, I’m even doing an online winter term course right now that is off to a good start.
My intuition says that 2011 has set us up for major events in 2012 (and no, I don’t mean the Mayan end of the world!) In the US it will be an election year, and the world economy will come into clearer focus. Right now there is optimism that the US economy is finally starting to improve, that the EU is on a path to overcome its crisis, and that we’re past the worst. Yet debt remains a huge issue, and China is facing internal and external economic challenges that could be the first real threat to thirty years of constant 10% a year growth. Events in Syria, Iran, Russia and elsewhere could all create real upheavals.
These changes aren’t new to 2011. I think this has been building since the mid-eighties when the personal computer took off, globalization shifted the meaning of international relations, and the Cold War drew to a close. So maybe it’s appropriate that a song written in 1990 captures my mood. Glen Burtnik’s title song (co-written with Bob Burger) of the Styx album Edge of the Century reflects what I feel heading out of a very interesting 2011 and into what might be a consequential 2012:
See the world in revolution
Spinning faster all the time
We’re heading for the end of something
Just about to step across that line
Oh, can’t you see?
We’re staring in the face of reality
Can’t turn off the information
Can’t sit back in your easy chair
Can’t ignore a generation
Better get ready cause we’re almost there
We’re moving at the speed of life
Into a brave new world where the strong will survive
The dawn’s gonna break and I’ll meet you
On the other side
Last June I blogged about our installation of a geothermal heating and cooling system in our house. (The link is to one of the final blogs, go earlier in the week to see the process). Now seven months later it’s time for an update.
It is winter. You can’t tell by looking out the window because we are barren of snow. That is exceedingly rare for December 30th and has destroyed my plans to spend the week skiing with the boys here in town. We did get a two inch snowfall on December 23rd that melted on December 26th. Maine without a white Christmas would have been an abomination!
So far the geothermal system gets a mixed review. It does a quick, reasonably silent and comfortable job heating and cooling. It’s nice that air doesn’t blast out of the ducts; it’s even hard to tell when the system is running. As expected, there isn’t a lot of heat being pushed to the basement, so while we keep the upstairs at a comfortable 68 when we’re around, the basement is usually a good five or six degrees cooler. We do have a space heater we use sparingly (and we could turn on the oil heat if we really wanted the basement toasty).
We don’t seem to be saving as much money as we hoped to. We haven’t seen any help from our desuperheater, designed to provide hot water. I expected better from something called a ‘desuperheater.’ It is supposed to augment our boiler, which now is used only for hot water and back up heat. The goal was to burn 15% of the oil we used to, but it’s more like 30% – which is pretty much what hot water costs anyway! The boiler acts as if the desuperheater isn’t there.
I plan to increase the temperature of the water sent from the geothermal unit to the hot water supply. I originally set it to 125 instead of 150 out of fear that water too hot would burn the kids. I think the water sent would mix with cooler water so I’ll experiment with that. If the kids start suffering 2nd degree burns I’ll turn the temperature back down.
The other issue is electricity. Unfortunately our electric bills haven’t been consistent. Despite the new use of ‘smart meters,’ a device which sends information on usage to the company so CMP can lay off meter readers, we seem to be getting a lot of estimated bills or wild fluctuations from month to month.
The total cost of the system was nearly $40,000, though we do get a third of it back in tax credits (thanks, Uncle Sam!), making the final cost about $28,000. To pay it back in 10 years we’d need a savings of $2800 a year (I didn’t even need a calculator for that one!). Last year we paid $4500 for heating oil. This year we’re likely going to pay about $1200. That puts us at a savings of $3300 before the electric bill. The electric bill used to be about $120 a month. For people outside Maine that sounds like a lot, but we have expensive electricity in Maine — even the Governor complains about that!
In summer the cooling didn’t increase the cost much, but last month’s bill spiked. If that continues (one month is hard to go by with electric bills, you have to average them out), we could be looking at $500 more for the three coldest months, and probably about $700 more for the rest of the year. Even that is suspect because we had two dehumidifiers pumping water out of the year non-stop this summer since my wife got concerned that there is too much mold in the basement air. I thought it added character to the atmosphere but her sinuses disagreed.
If those figures are accurate that would mean the additional electricity would cost about $1200, or $100 a month on average. That would make our savings $2100 for the year. If we can’t improve on that it will take the system as much as 15 years to pay for itself.
So far the system has only malfunctioned once, and Jeff Gagnon Heating and Plumbing was there early the next day to fix what was a minor problem (free of charge, of course, as it is under warranty). I gotta love Maine — we weren’t able to be home when they could stop by, so we just left the house unlocked. That’s typical here. During that time it was nice to have oil heat back up. We also had a 13 hour power outage in mid-autumn which also required us to use oil. We have a generator, but it’s not powerful enough to start the geothermal system. The electrician who worked on the installation just laughed heartily when I pointed to my generator and asked if it would be enough to keep the geothermal going.
Despite that, I still do not regret installing the system. My wife – a CPA much more in tune with money issues than a dreamy academic like me – isn’t so sure. But if oil prices sky rocket, the payback time could decrease quickly. Looking at headlines from Iran, Syria, and the Mideast I find it a bit comforting not to be relying completely on oil.
I also really like having air conditioning in the summer. You don’t need it in Maine, but if you’re going to entertain guests, cook indoors, or be comfortable on those hot weeks (and we seem to be getting more of them), it is very pleasant. We couldn’t have had central air without duct work being done anyway, and that was a chunk of the cost. We would never have gotten central air for that reason and a few window units would have been a pain. There is real value to having a cooling system!
Finally, I’m not yet convinced about the cost. I need more data about the cost of electricity over a full year, and I hope to get the desuperheater to provide more relief heating water.
So the unit works well, we get good heat, and I’m happy with it. We don’t seem to be saving as much as we hoped for, and the basement stays chillier than the upstairs. Nonetheless seven months in I’m still glad we did this! My wife tells me that even if I get a major midlife crisis I’d better be happy with my Ford Fusion for at least another decade — this was my expensive toy of choice. I can live with that!
Posted by Scott Erb in 2012 Election on December 29, 2011
A few Republicans across the country are engaged in what I consider to be onerous, anti-democratic and even anti-American efforts to try to suppress voter turnout of groups not likely to vote Republican. I do not believe this to be in the spirit of how most Republicans think, or the traditions of the grand old party. But it’s happening.
The logic is simple: college students, immigrants, and the poor tend to vote Democratic more than Republican. They also are less likely to have state drivers’ licenses and other forms of picture ID. Moreover, though the Supreme Court has made it clear that students in college can vote in elections (states cannot deny them the ability to register – there is no requirement they have the intent to make a community their permanent home), students are less likely to have the kind of ID that some Republicans want to require.
The goal is clear: increase the chances that Republicans will win close elections by trying to suppress the turnout of groups that tend to vote Democratic. The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York State School of Law has issued the most definitive report on the impact of these laws, noting:
“Over the past century, our nation expanded the franchise and knocked down myriad barriers to full electoral participation. In 2011, however, that momentum abruptly shifted.
State governments across the country enacted an array of new laws making it harder to register or to vote. Some states require voters to show government-issued photo identification, often of a type that as many as one in ten voters do not have. Other states have cut back on early voting, a hugely popular innovation used by millions of Americans. Two states reversed earlier reforms and once again disenfranchised millions who have past criminal convictions but who are now taxpaying members of the community. Still others made it much more difficult for citizens to register to vote, a prerequisite for voting.
These new restrictions fall most heavily on young, minority, and low-income voters, as well as on voters with disabilities. This wave of changes may sharply tilt the political terrain for the 2012 election. “
Many rationalize this effort as protection against fraud. Spare me. At least New Hampshire’s speaker of the House William O’Brien was honest about the intent of making it harder to vote:
“O’Brien told the group that college students registering to vote on Election Day ‘are basically doing what I did when I was a kid and foolish, voting as a liberal. I look at towns like Plymouth and Keene and Hanover, and particularly Plymouth,’ O’Brien said. ‘They’ve lost the ability to govern themselves.’
That’s it, those young foolish kids might vote liberal! So making it harder to vote seems the right thing to do. There are numerous studies that show how such laws prevent people from voting. And while some offer misguided thought experiments (e.g., ‘I have to show ID to buy booze, why not to vote’) to rationalize the effort, the reality is that despite the expansion of voting rights and increased ease until this year of voting in US elections, all evidence indicates that fraud is lower than ever.
Intimidation has also been overt in Wisconsin as opponents of the campaign to recall Scott Walker have harassed people gathering signatures and even committed felonies by tearing up valid petitions and gathering names on fake petitions with no intent to submit them. Democracy falters when people see it as a hindrance to “winning at any cost.”
The most obscene thing about these efforts is that higher voter turnout is usually associated with stronger communities and less poverty. The more engaged people are in their civil society, the less likely they are to want to leech off of it and not take responsibility. People who vote are more likely to work, pay taxes, take an active role in their community, and become informed on the issues. The best way to expand the sense of personal responsibility and community involvement is to get people engaged in the process; make it easier rather than harder to vote.
It’s possible that these voter suppression efforts will backfire. Students and members of other groups who are adversely affected might become motivated to get involved with more intensity than before. The reality is that students, minorities and the poor tend not to vote. Even in 2008 when the youth supported Obama by a large margin the number of non-voters under 25 was as high as usual. Even with a black candidate, black voting levels remained far lower than average, the poor vote far less often than the middle class or wealthy.
Will this further discourage them from voting, or can the Democrats turn it into a motivational tactic — defy those who want to silence you by taking the steps necessary to assure your voice is heard! Will this hurt the GOP among middle class voters who find this unfair and even dishonest? I’m not sure, but you can bet that on college campuses these laws will yield intense organizational efforts by students involved in campaigns to try to not only get out the vote, but get students angry enough to want to vote. By all accounts a larger and more organized Occupy movement will emerge in the summer; this could be an area of focus.
To me it’s troubling that people would embrace unnecessary efforts to suppress the vote in order to try to win. It’s vindictive, anti-democratic and petty. But in an era where “anything goes” to win, it’s not surprising. I personally think these tactics will backfire, at least in a Presidential election year where the campaign is likely to be intense and emotional. It also adds to an already negative Republican image; Scott Walker’s Wisconsin approval ratings have been sinking like a stone, now with 38% approval and 58% disapproval. Maine recently overturned an effort to stop same day registration despite some dirty politics by the (out of state) opposition.
I again don’t think this reflects the true values of the Republican party. I think most Republicans want to win, and believe they can win by convincing people of their values, arguing for a less intrusive government and more fiscal conservatism. These tactics reflect a Machiavellian insider game by those who consider elections less as great public debates and more as ‘full contact sports’ where two teams look to use anything they can to their advantage.
I vote at the local community center. I give my name, and they check it off. I usually know at least one person working there, many in the community know each other. It would be absurd to all have to show some kind of ID to be allowed to vote. The impact this would have on even those not dissuaded would be sad, and there are likely to be elderly folk and others who would be turned away because they expect to vote as they usually do. Let’s not make it harder to vote.
Predictions for 2012!
Posted by Scott Erb in 2012 Election, Arab Spring, Barack Obama, China, Democrats, Economic crisis, Foreign Policy, Globalization, World Affairs on December 28, 2011
1. President Obama will win re-election, albeit narrowly if Mitt Romney is the GOP standard bearer. He wins handily against Gingrich, Paul or Perry. Jon Huntsman is the one Republican who could knock off Obama (I mean, the guy speaks Mandarin — we’re not talking oranges here!)
2. Mitt Romney will win the GOP nomination. Romney-Thune vs. Obama-Biden.
3. The economy will improve — unemployment will still be high, but there will be a sense of relief that the great recession is finally giving way (2013 will be the year of inflation, but we’ll not dwell on that now). This will be enough to help Obama, but isn’t a true ending of the crisis – structural imbalances still exist, very serious ones in fact.
4. Occupy Wall Street protests will grow again in the summer, but activists will make a concerted effort to be positive and politically engaged, a very stark comparison to the summer of 1968 when protesters stormed the Democratic convention. This will help focus the election year conversation about relative wealth and the middle class, giving Democrats a boost.
5. The Democrats will keep the Senate and narrowly take back the House in an election that will have people saying “who’d have thunk this a year ago.” I’ll e-mail them a link to my blog.
6. The Democratic majorities will be narrow in each House, and President Obama will call for the “reasonable center” to govern. It will.
7. The New England Patriots will win the Super Bowl with Tom Brady – the best QB in the league today – MVP.
8. Maine will pass a referendum legalizing gay marriage, tbe the first referendum to get popular support for gay marriage, not relying on the courts or a friendly state legislature. This will mark a turning point for this issue.
9. Iran’s nuclear controversies notwithstanding, the people will rise up in protest against the clerics that guide the Islamic Republic, leading to a severe crisis. China, the EU and US will stay out publicly, but privately facilitate a way for change to come to Iran that doesn’t completely drive out the Supreme Leader and Guardian Council. One result of this will be Iran publicly eschewing nuclear weapons.
10. North Korea will also undergo a very positive change, this time driven by China. China will influence, bribe, threaten and cajole the North Korean military to undertake a major change in policy, opening the country. North Korea will rely on China to help it overcome high debt and poverty, and cede to China control of its nuclear weapons. Whether North Korea will unify with the South or connect in some way with China remains an open question (not to be decided in 2012).
11. Angela Merkel will emerge as the “person of the year” for 2012, thanks to her steering of the EU through crisis and claims that her work with President Obama helped him secure re-election. A feminine face on German leadership in the EU will help Europeans accept that German leadership is not only required, but no longer something to fear.
12. Syria’s President Assad will fall, around the same time Iranian protests rachet up. The tension in the region will escalate, as no clear successor to Assad’s government will emerge.
13. Iraq will continue to suffer unrest and division, with Iranian and Syrian instability spreading. Some will say the US should go back, but President Obama will note that the Iraqis have to build their own future.
14. The unrest will have a surprising side effect — it will lead to a new Israeli-Palestinian peace plan that will surprise a lot of people. Spooked by what Mossad says the impact of regional instability could mean for Israel, Netanyahu decides that some kind of agreement for a two state solution needs to be reached, and thanks to Wikileaks, he knows Hamas’ bark is worse than its bite. President Obama will be part of this late summer agreement, enhancing his re-election chances.
15. Russian President Vladimir Putin will become more openly authoritarian in his bid to win re-election as President. But the Russian people are not as docile as they were in Soviet times and Russian protests will threaten Putin’s grip on power. Ultimately Putin will be pushed out by bureaucratic insiders, but that will not satisfy the crowds.
16. Mideast unrest will cause a spike in oil prices by late summer. By the end of the year this will show itself in a slowdown of the economic recovery.
17. After some bad early press, the Chevy Volt and other electric car alternatives will make a comeback due to technological innovations and continued government support for research and development.
18. The EU and China will reach an agreement that expands Chinese investment in the EU and further links their economies. In the US some will decry the EU’s “switching sides” and abandoning the US for China. However, it simply reflects the changing balance of global politics.
19. A conference will be held near the end of the year to deal with increased threats to global economic stability and on going financial turmoil. It will take place in Asia with the bold purpose of forging a ‘new global economic order,’ or what some call a ‘new Bretton Woods’ (though much different than the old). The US will have to accept its diminished role due to high debt and structural economic deficiencies. China will recognize that it can no longer simply grow as “factory to the world” and needs to shift its economy as other Asian states supply cheaper labor and products. African states will focus on getting a fair return on resources, and the first major talks on long term energy sustainability will take place in order to avoid future ‘resource wars.’
The conference will begin around December 3rd and not close until near Christmas, the weekend of the 22nd. Pundits will have a field day comparing this to the Mayan calendar prediction that the world will end on 12-21-12. “The old world of US dominance and state-centric economics is indeed being pushed aside by these historic agreements; it’s both the end of an era and the beginning of a new one.”
Nonsense on Stilts!
Posted by Scott Erb in Culture, Human Rights, Philosophy, Political thought, Rights, Values on December 27, 2011
Jeremy Bentham, the rationalist British utilitarian philosopher, scoffed at the notion of natural rights. “Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense, nonsense on stilts.”
He has a point. People like to posit “ought” statements as having some kind of ontological status beyond that which ones’ own biases and beliefs provide. To say “you shouldn’t kill because I think killing is bad and a lot of others agree with me and will punish you” is less persuasive than “you shouldn’t kill because nature (or God) says its wrong.”
Nature says no such thing. Nature does not care a wit if you kill, steal, lie, cheat, or jump to your death from a high cliff. Humans are born into the world with one “natural right” only: you are free to do whatever you want to do, limited only by your capacity to act (abilities and constraints) and the consequences of your action. Everything else is fine with nature.
Rights like “life, liberty and property” are things we humans construct for various reasons. For John Locke it was to give the rising middle class a way to challenge the aristocracy and set limits on government. For libertarians it’s a convenient way to rationalize views on politics skeptical of government. But make no mistake – those rights don’t exist in nature.
They can’t. They are based on human concepts and definitions, all of which are constrained by context and linguistic sloppiness. Context means simply that the same ‘concept’ has different meanings depending on what the situation is. One might posit a nice rational focused definition of theft: taking from someone something that belongs to that other person. But whether you’re stealing from a man who otherwise doesn’t have enough to feed his family or taking food from a rich Nazi to save a Jews’ life changes the essential nature of the act.
This leads to the first “bullshit” aspect of claims of natural rights – the idea one can define a right abstractly and ignore how context shifts the essential meaning of and nature of any act.
Now, I don’t swear much – either in print or in speech – so let me define bullshit here. Bullshit is an absurd and arbitrary claim that rests on fancy sounding rationalizations and justifications put forth sometimes with righteous indignation. You can usually tell “bullshit” arguments by how they are defended. For instance, deny natural rights and many will respond in an appeal to emotion, or appeal to public opinion: “Oh, really, you say you don’t have a natural right to your property — if someone comes and tries to take it, will you just say ‘oh, I have no right, so you can take it.”
Such an illogical argument is absurd on its face — just because a right isn’t natural doesn’t mean I won’t assert my own claims and defend them. I just don’t appeal to some kind of mystical natural justification. I won’t defend my property because of some natural right, I’ll defend it because I’m not going to let people take my stuff! I don’t need any fancy justification for that. Moreover, saying there is no natural right to “life” does not mean one thinks murder is OK. It just means we see those “rights” as humanly constructed, and often for good reason. The ‘argumentum ad populum” bit seems persausive because that’s the reason we constructed those rights — most of us think they should exist. Whether nature provides them is irrelevant.
The most common bullshit way to try to argue against context is the use of a vague definitional justifier. “You shouldn’t take life unjustly.” ‘Unjustly’ is a magic word here, meaning ‘anything contextual that I arbitrarily define as just killing can be dismissed.” Unjustly can be defined by other similar abstract efforts to delimit a term, creating confusing complexity that hides the underlying bullshit upon which such an argument stands. Words like ‘valid, just, legitimate, etc.’ are like big neon signs saying “bullshit alert!” It’s all fancy ways people try to make it sound like their opinions represent not just their own particular take on reality, but some deeper truth that they have uncovered thanks to their superior intellect and moral integrity.
This is not to say that John Locke is completely wrong (though his view on epistemology has also been brushed aside into the ash heep of history). Rather, he just had too much residual scholasticism in his way of thinking. Instead of debating how many crystal spheres make up the heavens, now there is an effort to trace human rights – or ‘ought’ statements – to the nature of reality — or for Locke the nature of British reality in the 1600s.
The point is not that the rights posited as natural are to be ignored or thrown out — on the contrary, I believe most of them should be put forth as rights to be defended and protected at all costs! Not because we have discovered them in nature but because as thinking humans we have decided we believe putting forth those rights is good for society and reflects what we value. And if lots of other people value them, then all the better. They don’t need to be from nature, being from humans is good enough.
The problem with the “from nature” argument is that people with different views try to use that as a way to dismiss all other perspectives and rationalize not doing the hard work of actually making arguments and defending their beliefs. “It’s nature, yada yada yada,” hands over the ears.
The other problem is that we shouldn’t see it as a cheapening of rights to take credit for them as human constructs. Heck, we’ve constructed all sorts of things, nature didn’t give me this computer or a Boeing 747. We built them, using the raw materials of nature. Using the raw materials of human existence in a social context we’ve constructed systems of rights. Let’s be proud of them as our creation, not some kind of gift from nature! This also makes it easier to deal with context, we’re not trying to impose as perfectly as possible an abstract rational dogmatic ideology — we’re deciding how we want our world to operate. We can choose the terms, limits and contextual impact.
Those who point to nature as the source often claim they support liberty, but what can be more limiting of human freedom than to say we’re not free to construct our own systems of rights? Why should I slavishly devote myself to some set of rights “from nature” rather than use my imagination to develop what I think should be considered rights, and then work with others to persuade them and actualize those rights? The only reason anybody would want to limit that freedom is authoritarian- they want to impose their view of rights on everyone. The imposition may be intellectual rather than political, but such dogmatism is inherently anti-intellectual.
So do we have rights to life, liberty, property and a host of other human rights that most of us view fundamental? To the extent we’ve built political systems to protect these rights we have them; to the extent we believe those rights should exist we are free to act politically to build them!
Today there is snow on the ground. Normally that would be a matter of course statement in the foothills of western Maine this late in December. The local ski slope would be gearing up for winter break skiers and we’d pity all those in the south who don’t enjoy a white Christmas. Alas, yesterday the ground was still dry, a small dash of snow over Thanksgiving weekend long forgotten. But now it is looking like Christmas! It won’t be enough for skiing, but it’s a start.
I want to wish everyone who stops by this site a wonderful Christmas. Yet as we settle in to celebrate, there is a nagging question of what Christmas is really about. The easy answer is that it is a Christian holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. That’s partially true. Early Christians choose this as their holiday in order to coopt the traditional Winter Solstice holidays everyone else was celebrating. Even traditions ranging from Christmas trees to mistletoe pre-existed the holiday’s Christian identity.
Therefore, while Christians are on solid ground proclaiming Jesus is the “reason for the season” in their eyes, non-Christians don’t have to wash their hands of the holiday, or even phrases like “Merry Christmas.” This time of the year remains a kind of universal holiday, celebrating as days start to grow longer and humans find joy in the depths of winter.
Moreover, the Christian/Christmas values of love, peace, joy, forgiveness are universal. The magic of the season transcends theological dogma and even whether or not one believes in Jesus, Muhammad, Hussein, Buddha, the Brahman of Hinduism, or a personal sense of spirituality that defies organized belief.
I put myself in that last category. I’ve long believed that human religions tell more about the cultural state of a society than about God and the meaning of life. Individual beliefs about God usually reflect that person’s temperment. Humans create God in their own image, a strict stern man sees a judgmental, harsh God. A loving caring man sees God as being primarily about forgiveness and inclusivity. A woman focused on the material world sees God helping those who help themselves. A woman immersed in charity work sees God as wanting us to care for the least in disregard of material success.
That doesn’t mean religion is meaningless. There are reasons why books like the Koran, the Bible, the sayings of Buddha, and the Upanishads are compelling across time. The same is true for philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, or great poets such as Petrarch and Dante. In various ways ideas that cut to the core of who and what we are as humans have staying power. They touch something inside our souls and remind us that we are part of a world far more mysterious and meaningful than our senses and minds can comprehend.
As we trudge through our daily routine who cannot help but be inspired by the parables of Jesus Christ, the wisdom of the Buddha, and the power of ideas of love, faith and joy? Anyone who has chosen to forgive rather than hold a grudge, or show friendship rather than disdain to an adversary, cannot help but attest to the power of forgiveness. One even pities a person locked in negative, mean spirited behavior. The co-worker that stabbed you in the back becomes less someone whose actions arouse anger and drive you to revenge than a poor pathetic fool sacrificing principle for short term temporary gain.
Moreover, the longer I live the more I believe in some form of karma. What comes around seems to go around, though in ways that aren’t materially obvious. Someone who steals $100 may not lose $100 later, but at some level the spiritual cost of the act is extracted. I also am a firm believer in the power and ubiquity of coincidence. Often small, sometimes dramatic, I do not believe they are random. There is a greater force at work in our lives than material cause and effect or quantum probability.
And this brings me back to Christmas. If “Christian” was something one could be by believing the basic principles of ethical behavior, I could be called one. If it means someone who believes that Jesus was the son of God who died for my sins and by believing in him I’d be saved, I’m not one. But I still claim the right to regard Christmas as my holiday too, including religious carols, long standing traditions, and the core values of peace, joy, love, tranquility, forgiveness, and a sense of awe at the majesty of a world whose true depth and meaning I cannot more than slightly glimpse.
In so doing I respect Christians, Jews, Muslims and others who celebrate their holidays with religious reverence. I say “Merry Christmas” to a Christian with knowledge of what it means to them, just as saying “Happy Hanukkah” has particular meaning to a Jew. But I also recognize that Christmas has become more than just a religious holiday, but a part of our culture, with values that transcend religion.
To the business woman it may be a secular holiday where as much as 90% of a year’s profits are earned in some businesses. To the atheist it might be a time to fight organized religion, battling nativity scenes on public property and religious songs in schools. I disagree with each; this isn’t a time to either fight against or be threatened by religion. One can acknowledge the role of Christianity in our history and culture even if one doesn’t believe. The nativity scene is still beautiful and powerful.
And yes, this is an important season for the economy and for material prosperity. But to the extent that drowns out the values being celebrated, as shoppers fight each other for the last of an item or keep lists of who and what they received in order to reward the generous and punish the stingy, it cheapens the holiday. People getting up in arms over the innocuous greeting of “happy holidays” should focus on how materialism undercuts the spirit of the season.
So Merry Christmas! I wish everyone love, peace, joy, and happiness this week and beyond!
Love is Beautiful
A naval tradition has a crew member being chosen to be the first off a ship returning to home port and get the “first kiss,” marking the safe return and homecoming of the crew. Petty Officer 2nd Class Marissa Gaeta (23) and her partner, Petty Officer 3rd Class Citlalic Snell (22) had the first kiss on the return of the USS Oak Hill from 80 days at sea. It’s the first time a same sex couple has been granted the honor of the “first kiss” — before repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” such action would have had them kicked out of the Navy.
It was in many ways what Commanding Officer David Bauer called a ‘non-event.’ The crew’s reaction was positive, their kiss was greeted with flag waving and cheers, and otherwise it was a normal return. Normal. No protests, no public debates, just a couple in love returning home from serving their country. Even the choice to have them get the first kiss was not some kind of effort for historic symbolism — they simply won a raffle to determine the first kiss.
A year ago when DADT was repealed there were numerous efforts by social conservatives to stop the action. Senators pointed to Marine Commandant James F. Amos who opposed repeal, as a sign that military preparedness was being sacrificed for political correctness. Now even Amos is convinced that repeal was a good thing, and the Marines are actively recruiting gays.
As 2011 nears an end there is a lot to be concerned about. The economic recovery is slow and the global financial system is still tottering with more uncertainty than most people realize. Change in the Arab world, while good in the long run, brings real short term uncertainty and danger. Political fights seem as partisan and bitter as ever.
But as a culture we are progressing. A story like this would have been impossible just a few years ago. Same sex marriage is slowly expanding, with a majority of Americans now approving of it. Here in Maine there is a good chance a public referendum will approve it next fall (a state law approving it was very narrowly repealed by referendum in 2009). On many levels freedom is expanding and old prejudices are giving way.
In this season of joy, love and faith this simple “first kiss” reminds us that despite all the political turmoil, progress is being made in the fight against ignorance, bigotry and prejudice! There is still a long way to go on a variety of issues, but this kiss should cause us to pause and celebrate the progress so far.
John Boehner Loses Control
Posted by Scott Erb in 2012 Election, Barack Obama, Debt ceiling, Democrats, Harry Reid, John Boehner, Taxes, Tea Party, US Politics on December 21, 2011
The Republicans in the Senate were getting nervous. The House had passed an extension of the payroll tax holiday for a year in a bill so overly partisan that it had no chance to pass in the Senate. They believed the Democrats were engaging in demagoguery by saying that the Republicans refuse to raise taxes on the very wealthy but don’t mind the working middle class paying more.
Nobody liked the idea of a two month extension, but intense negotiations between both parties, which included John Boehner, yielded that compromise. It would buy time for them to reach broader agreement on a year extension after the holidays. The deal sailed through the Senate 89-10, with overwhelming bipartisan support. Speaker Boehner indicated the House would vote the deal through as well, and it appeared that the two sides managed to avoid giving the middle class a higher tax bill in January.
Then the rumbling started. Republicans in the House complained that they shouldn’t yield again to the Senate, and that a two month extension was meaningless. Lead by the tea party freshman, the House GOP revolted against Boehner and soon he was backtracking. The House turned down the extension and called for a Conference Committee to come together to patch up the differences between the Senate and House bills.
For Democrats, that’s a non-starter. First, the Senate bill was a compromise, negotiated between the two parties with Boehner indicating he approved of the agreement. Given that, a conference committee would not only be inappropriate, but if they couldn’t quickly come to agreement then both parties would share blame for not being able to extend the tax break. Why should the Democrats risk that? This way the onus is solely on the GOP.
If the Senate GOP hadn’t sided with the Democrats (with many Republican Senators urging the House to pass the two month extension) then the Republicans in the House would have some political wiggle room. As it is, they are finding it impossible to spin this as a failure of both parties — it’s a failure of the House Republicans.
Republicans who supported the measure in the Senate include budget hawk Tom Coburn, tea party stalwarts Pat Toomey and Marco Rubio, and of course Mitch McConnell (who was reportedly convinced Boehner would be able to get the measure through). Only seven Republicans voted “no.” This was a done deal.
Perhaps the House GOP thought that they could play Russian roulette with this issue like they did with the debt ceiling earlier this year, forcing the Senate and President to cave to some of their demands so they could claim victory and make the President look weak. Yet the debt ceiling was a serious issue. If it hadn’t been raised there would have been global economic turmoil and havoc for the US economy.
On this issue Democrats see themselves as having little at risk. They’re the ones who are calling for an extension, they worked out a bipartisan compromise, President Obama was ready to sign it, and the Republicans in the House moved the goalposts. Many Democrats see this as the first pivotal moment in the 2012 election cycle, whereby the Democrats nail home the argument that it’s GOP obstruction and extremism that is causing dysfunction in Washington politics.
Moreover the symbolism of the Republicans caring more about avoiding tax increases on the wealthy than imposing them on the middle class make this a dream issue for the Democrats going into 2012. If class war is being waged, it looks like the Republicans in the House want to wage it on the middle class. Exasperated Senate Republicans are furious, both at the tea party wing in the House, but also at Boehner for breaking another promise. It’s not that Boehner wants to break promises, it’s just that his caucus won’t follow him. The result is a Christmas gift for the Democrats.
John Boehner is proving to be a weak Speaker of the House. He got lucky with the debt ceiling debacle because even though he had indicated to the President he wanted a grand deal that could include closing tax loopholes, the President got punished in public opinion polls when Boehner couldn’t deliver. This time he’s not going to be that lucky. If he can manage to pass an extension early next year and make the issue go away as soon as possible he might limit damage. Otherwise, 2011 ends with the House GOP delivering a self-inflicted wound that could have profound ramifications for the 2012 election.
Posted by Scott Erb in Democrats, Economic crisis, Globalization, Markets, Media, Political Science, US Politics on December 20, 2011
As I reflect on the last four years of economic crisis and the current stalemate in Washington over the payroll tax, a couple points stand out about democracy and markets.
First, markets are important, but ideological free market capitalism is deeply flawed. The core reason is simple: assumptions.
There’s an old joke – a physicist, chemist, and economist are trapped on an island with a crate of canned goods but no can opener. “I think I can get these cans open,” says the physicist, arguing that coconuts dropped from the top of a tree would be powerful enough to rip the can open. “That’s too risky, the food could splatter all over,” says the chemist, noting that a few choice chemicals available might help weaken the metal and make it easier to open. “You guys are making this far too difficult,” laughed the economist.
“OK,” the other two said, “what’s your solution.”
“Easy,” said the economist, “first, assume a can opener….”
The most powerful assumptions in crude ‘ideological’ economic theory involve the distribution of information and the inability of people with resources to game the system, rigging it in their favor. In any capitalist system those assumptions fall apart. Some people know more, have access to better information and analysis, and can use their resources to reinforce their position. This means that class divisions are inevitable and aren’t based primarily on who works harder or shows more initiative. Ironically the more truly “free” the market is, the more such abuses can become standard, yielding a starkly bifurcated society lacking a true middle class.
Second, democracy has real flaws.
What keeps democracy viable is the activity of the elites. Elites have to be able to work behind the scenes to forge compromises based on their understanding of very complex issues, often issues far beyond the understanding of the average voter. If elites become trapped in ideological combat and lose the capacity to see that their main task is to work together to deal with real problems, democracy can fail. If the elite focus focus so much on politics over pragmatic problem solving, democracy can fail.
One reason Americans tend to overstate the value of democracy is that they are in denial of its need for elite guidance. Without elite cooperation and problem solving, poor decision making can harm a polity. Conversely, a non-democratic state can be run very well if the elite are focused on the good of society.
Perhaps the most dangerous problem a democracy can face is if its elites not only cannot compromise but if the economic elites trump the political elites. Remember, capitalism produces an elite economic class which can use its clout to reinforce its own position. When those elites are countered by a political elite who have a sense of what’s best for the state as a whole, the capacity of this economic elite to truly control things is limited. That’s good, because they operate out of self-interest and distrust even the notion of collective interest.
But when the economic elites eclipse the political elites, democracy becomes a handmaiden for what some have called “crony capitalism” or “government of the corporations, by the corporations and for the corporations.” In the US where elections have become exceedingly costly, the ability of the economic elite to manipulate and even control the political elite has become profound. Add to this ideological gridlock, and a downward spiral of dysfunctional government could threaten both prosperity and democratic stability.
That’s at the root of our current dilemmas, and while we may emotionally invest in Presidential and Congressional contests, when the system is sick, no one person can fix things. The President is doomed to become a part of the machine. Add to that the power-mania of Washington — what Lloyd Etheredge called “hard ball politics” — and the US is facing a political crisis of our own making.
Etheredge’s solution to ‘hard ball politics’ was a stronger press to report the truth of what’s happening, and a better informed and educated public. Back in the 1980s when his book Can Governments Learn (focusing on US foreign policy towards Latin America) appeared, that seemed a pipe dream. You can reform institutions, but you can’t make people smarter or the press more motivated.
It seems to me, though, he was on the right track. The information revolution gives us the internet and the capacity to get information from a variety of sources, thereby making a stronger “press” feasible. The public is using it to organize and learn more — it may not be obvious yet, but in talking to students I realize that on so many levels even “average” students are generally more informed about a variety of issues than was common even among very good students when I was in college.
Ultimately, unless our laws our changed limiting corporate influence on politics, or our political parties forego politics as marketing and start finding ways to both solve problems and focus on the general welfare and not corporate welfare, the only solution to our crisis comes from the people. We have relied on the elites to make democracy work for two centuries; now we have to actually start relying on the people — we have to save our democracy.
Posted by Scott Erb in Culture, Entertainment, Life, Philosophy, Science and philosophy on December 18, 2011
For a moment everything was clear, and when that happens you see the world is barely there at all. Don’t we all secretly know this? It’s a perfectly balanced mechanism of shouts and echoes pretending to be wheels and cogs, a dreamclock chiming beneath a mystery-glass we call life. Below it and around it? Chaos, storms. Men with hammers, men with knives, men with guns. Women who twist what they cannot dominate and belittle what they cannot understand. A universe of horror and loss surrounding a single lighted stage where mortals dance in defiance of the dark.
– Stephen King, from 11/22/63, pp. 615-16
Finals week when I have stacks of papers and exams is usually not the time to start a nearly 850 page novel, the first Stephen King book I’ve ever read. I found his style engaging, the story riveting, and the gentle weaving of drama, deep philosophical ideas and social commentary to be subtle and effective. However, this is not a book review, and except for obvious bits you’ll get from any description, there are no spoilers. Instead this is a stream of consciousness reaction to a powerful and intriguing novel.
First, the length. Someone wanting a fun read may be put off by 843 pages and a book which will build your arm muscles just by holding it while you read. It has to be that long; the reader has to feel like years have past, that the man from 2011 is fully living a life from 1958 to 1962. You lose yourself in that era, his identity there is real. Second, it’s definitely not a horror novel; it provokes thoughts and theories, ties up the loose ends enough for the story, but leaves enough open for one to contemplate — especially the larger issues of time, life, reality and love.
I’m left contemplating the nature of existence on this planet. There is a truth that most people neither mention or spend much time thinking about. Every life is full of twists and turns whereby chance decides whether one dies early, finds love, gets a lucky break, or has everything fall apart. Moreover in the grand scheme of things most lives are forgotten not long after death. The daily dramas and emotions we perceive are part of a tapestry that lingers forever as a moment — a fleeting, ever changing moment.
Therein is the part hard to grasp. Now lasts forever, we’re always “now,” even though we categorize experience as past, present and future. If you believe modern physics, space-time is an entity whereby past, present and future are mere illusions caused by how we experience the world in which we find ourselves. At the very least each moment is nothing but a series of sensations that we somehow make sense of as we move through them.
Life is therefore ephemeral and fleeting. It feels real enough as we experience it, though even our most intense experiences are gone as soon as they happen. The world changes slowly, but completely. Each individual life seems meaningless along the current of time, yet all we have are individual lives and moments. We contribute what we can, and never really know the impacts it has, the “butterfly effect,” as King calls it, as each choice we make sends ripples that ultimately touch multiple lives, imperceptibly yet fundamentally changing reality.
I think about this as I watch some of the TV shows I’ve mentioned in this blog, including Pan Am, which takes place during the very era King describes, or Banacek, whose early 70s perspective shows the start of change, as chauvinism, ubiquitous smoking and conservative social norms start giving way to the impact of the counter culture movement. I think about it as I watch my children get irritated at a hotel when the TV won’t pause. To them, TV is DVR. A show not being able to pause or be recorded, well, they haven’t heard of such a thing!
And why not? My five year old has never wound a watch, but he can go into “Gameboy” and get on a display XBOX 360 and figure out a game that stumps me. And we don’t even have an XBOX! I see students connected to friends and parents on facebook, e-mail getting dismissed as old fashioned while texting while driving surpassing drinking while driving as a main concern for teens, and I realize how quickly one era has folded into another. The streaking, disco and concept album period of the seventies is gone.
Life, existence and reality feel fleeting and unreal. Reality isn’t hard matter blasting its way through time with Newtonian certainty, but complex ideas uniting and igniting change with quantum complexity. Unlived pasts exist in some portion of the universal mind; at some level of reality all possible choices have been and are being explored. The idea of past, present and future is a psychological orientation to allow us to navigate the world in which we find ourselves.
That’s both humbling and inspiring. For while each individual life or moment of existence is not as important or central as we experience it to be, we are all an integral part of a reality weaving through and around us, with birth and death just moments in this vast experience. Those moments my bind the experience each of us has in an individual existence, but probably don’t delineate our entire being.
After finishing the novel I was exercising to the Moody Blues, and the following stuck with me:
“Isn’t life strange
A turn of the page
A book without light
Unless with love we write;
To throw it away
To lose just a day
The quicksand of time
You know it makes me want to cry, cry, cry –
Wished I could be in your heart
To be one with your love
Wished I could be in your eyes
Looking back there you were
And here we are” – The Moody Blues