Archive for January, 2012

Learning from Germany

Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and Ludwig Erhardt deserved to celebrate Germany's Wirtschaftswunder

Das Wirtschaftswunder, or economic miracle, is what Germans called the quick recovery of their economy after WWII.  After a horrible winter in 1946, Germans went to work to rebuild their country, getting off rationing even before the victorious French and British.    In the 1950’s Erhardt as Economics Minister  presided over the regeneration of the German economy as he pushed for rapid free market reforms, even surpassing the pace suggested by the allies.   Erhardt was Chancellor from 1963 to 1966 (replacing Adenauer, the first West German Chancellor who came to office in 1949), promoting both market economics and European economic unity.

Central was the concept of the Soziale Marktwirtschaft or social market economy.   In terms of economic theory this relates to the Freiburg school or Ordoliberalism.   Essentially the role of the state is to try to assure that the free market economy produces as close to possible the maximum amount it is capable of producing.   Ordoliberalism rejects the idea that markets can function ‘magically’ or efficiently without the state – the state has a key role to play.    This includes social welfare protections, collective bargaining, and state support of some industries.   However, it is a liberal theory, rejecting socialist planning and socialist goals.   The desired end result is not based on a theory of social justice or exploitation, but on having the market economy work as well as it possibly can.

(To American readers who haven’t studied political philosophy:  liberalism here means a belief in limited government and a capitalist market economy — Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were ideological liberals.  The jargony use of liberal to mean leftist in the US is idiosyncratic to US politics!)

Even when the Social Democrats were in power from 1969 – 1983 and 1998 – 2005 they did not veer from the main components of Erhardt’s vision.   The Christian Democrats never embraced a more radical form of liberalism like what Thatcher brought Great Britain or Reagan brought the US, also remaining true to the social market economy.

Social Democrat Helmut Schmidt's economic policies were pragmatic rather than ideological and earned Germany the label "Modell Deutschland," the Social Democratic slogan for the 1976 election.

Right now Germany is out performing almost every major industrialized economy, except perhaps some of the Scandinavian states.

Think about what that means.   Here in the US pundits want to tell us that higher taxes, social welfare spending, and more regulation are all “job killers” that would destroy our economic recovery.   Yet the best performing states during this recession (and Germany’s record is solid for the entire post-war history) have far higher tax rates, more social welfare spending and more regulation than ours.   Indeed, thanks to the power of Germany’s Green party the environmental regulations in Germany are among the most extensive in the world.   Germany has met and gone beyond the Kyoto protocol goals.   The first lesson from Germany is not to believe the ideological punditry!

That doesn’t mean we should emulate Germany; US culture is different, as are our strengths and weaknesses.   Germany has also done some things Republicans would admire.   The two major parties – Christian Democrats and Social Democrats – agreed on a balanced budget amendment designed to assure that German debt doesn’t increase.   That sent a clear signal to bond markets and currency traders that the Euro’s anchor is secure.   Regardless of what happens on the periphery, the underlying value of the Euro will remain strong because the German economy is stable.

A second thing we should learn from Germany is the strength of pragmatism.    Pragmatism means avoiding ideological thinking in order to figure out the best way to solve a problem.   Moreover, pragmatism for Germans is rooted in principle – the idea that the social market economy reflects support for a free market economy that operates as best as possible, with the public interest protected.   That means all citizens should have a chance to succeed, and basics such as health care, education, pensions, job training and a decent standard of living are guaranteed.   It’s not an effort to equalize out comes — there are many extremely wealthy Germans — but to assure equal opportunity and a minimum standard of living.

This pragmatism means that the two parties share a deep set of principles that unite them.   As much as they disagree on various policies and programs, they know that its most important that Germany deal with problems through compromise and avoiding either an ideological lurch to the left (massive debt, redistribution and spending) or to the liberal right (deregulation, massive tax cuts, leaving the poor to their own devices).    Moreover, the social market economy is based in part on understanding the power of incentives — all policies from the tax code to social welfare programs should be structured in a way that does not create incentives to cheat the system or avoid work.   Germany’s balanced all this better than most advanced industrialized states.

It works.   It’s not perfect.  The budget contains inefficiencies, there have been recessions and economic problems, but looking at Germany’s economy today one can’t help but be impressed.   If it weren’t for Germany, the situation in Europe would be far bleaker.

Those reading this blog over the past couple years recall that I’ve started rather bold research programs involving the media, consumerism, and the construction of values.    These questions have intrigued me and helped guide my teaching.   But ultimately I found myself unable to push the research along, it was too daunting to really shift my focus.

Will my 2003 book finally get a sibling?

So I’m back to what I’ve published on, wrote my dissertation about, and remain keenly interested in: German politics, and by extension, the European Union.    My focus is going to be to write a book that gives an accessible history of German economic policy and the keys to on going success, and then investigate what we can learn from Germany’s experience.    Does Germany’s success mean we have to rethink the theoretical and ideological arguments so common from both the right and the left in the US?    Does Germany have the capacity to help guide the EU into a much brighter future?   Moreover, might this be a complete metamorphosis of Germany from a state that wanted to dominate Europe to one that embodies the best European values, building a European Union based on cooperation, markets, and values?  I’ll keep you informed of my progress!


Nothing Matters and What if it Did?

Only once have I bought a record album or CD solely on the basis of the title: John Cougar’s Nothing Matters and What if it Did?  It is a great album.    Ain’t Even Done with the Night is a classic, and To M.G.  and This Time are also excellent — a spur of the moment purchase that I never regretted.

But why would that album title cause me at age 20 to pick the album off the rack and buy it?   John Cougar was not that well known yet (though this album helped push him to the next level), I just liked the title.

One question I think about when I want to tie my mind up a bit is “why is there something and not nothing?”   The idea that a universe exists is far more outrageous than the notion of complete nothingness.    Something can’t come from nothing, at least according to the laws of physics (well, particles can zip in and out of existence borrowing energy from the universe, but quantum physics covers that).  Positing a God is a logical but incomplete conclusion.   Why is there a God and not no God is just as puzzling a question!

Speculation about that question leads me to believe that material reality as we experience it must be a secondary form of experience.   While my description and reflections on reality now are much more sophisticated than they were when I was twenty, I think my gut intuition remains the same – this world is not the true world.

Hence the appeal of the question: Nothing matters, and what if it did?  The 20 year old Scott liked the rebelliousness of that question.   How dare someone say that poverty, war, child abuse, rape, genocide and murder don’t matter!   The suggestion seems disrespectful of the experience of millions of humans.   The 20 year old Scott rather liked creating discomfort in that sort of way; thirty years later, though, I still find the question appealing.

…and what if it did?   What if it did matter, what happens?   Would that make reality any different?

Even at 20 I saw the impossibility of truly embracing the idea that ‘nothing matters.’    Of course things matter to me, and to everyone else.   My children matter to me, my students matter to me, even my blog matters to me – it’s a recording of my ideas as they develop over time.

But let’s be honest.   Nothing we do here will be remembered or make a difference far into the future, except as a minuscule part of creating the world that will be — any of us might never have been born and the world would have gone on just fine.   Others would have filled our life roles, be it as a hero, a parent, or worker.    In a “real” materialist sense, our lives are meaningless.   Nothing material matters.   The sun will eventually go nova, humanity will die out, the vanity and arrogance of our brief dance on this planet represent nothing but impotent egos trying to assert that they have value.    The value is subjective and transient.

Yet what if it did matter?   Consider: all we experience is sensation.   That is a product of our brain.   It interprets the world and that interpretation is what we experience as reality.   It’s based on a small bit of reality that our senses can perceive.   Even though most “solid material” is made up of empty space — atoms are almost all empty space, the nucleus 1/100,000 of the atom’s size, yet containing all its mass — we experience solids as, well, SOLID!  It’s what our brain creates for our experience.

And while we might be real bodies walking and moving around through a universe that has three dimensions, we could also be receptors, taking in data and turning it into experience that simply seems like it takes up space and time.    That’s an old meditation, be it from Plato’s cave or more recently The Matrix, but there is nothing about human experience that gives cause to believe that reality is as we experience it.   We only know experience.

If that were the case, what matters would not be the physical world we believe exists.   What matters might be the emotions, connections, and what we learn in our hearts through living.    A person who struggles through difficulties to develop true happiness and a capacity to link meaningfully with others may be far more successful discovering useful knowledge than the most brilliant scientist or inventor.   One who lives in a state of engagement with the world of emotion, intuition and social connection may be far more better at life’s challenge than one who amasses a material fortune.   We know the material stuff perishes and may not even exist as we experience it.   But that spark of consciousness and life, that sense of spirit — that seems real, and it seems untethered to matter.

But why — what would the point of such an existence be.    Why is there something and not nothing?

“Oh yeah, life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone” – John Cougar Mellencamp, from Jack and Diane.

John Cougar Mellencamp’s next album, American Fool, put his career into the stratosphere with songs like Jack and Diane and Hurts so Good.    He also reclaimed the last name his record company thought too boring for a rock star.

But think about – life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone.   To me, that’s a key idea.   At some point living is a thrill, a joy, there  is excitement, anticipation, plans and goals.   One dreams, explores ideas, and the horizons seem limitless.   Then the routine kicks in, and at some point the future seems short with limited possibilities — one might be stuck in a job, stuck in a marriage, dealing with commitments, and unable to achieve earlier dreams.

But that’s true only if life is about the material.   Life becomes limited and the future more narrow if one looks only at material ideals — those do get limited over time as one lives and makes choices.  But if the spiritual and emotional matter; if connections with others are more important than individual material achievement, then life can be thrilling up until the last moment; the thrill of living need never fade.

The more I reflect on it the more real those ephemeral aspects of life and my existence become, and the more illusory the material world I experience seems to be.   I find that thrilling!


Can Angry Win?

When Ronald Reagan won the Presidency in 1980, he charmed Americans as a man of character who was inherently good natured and calmly confident.   When Jimmy Carter tried to jab him in debates he said “there you go again,” with a smile.  No anger, no bile.

The one time Reagan did get angry was when George H.W. Bush tried to keep a New Hampshire debate to two people.  Reagan’s ire was not at Bush but at the moderator who was ordering “Turn off Governor Reagan’s microphone.”   A visibly agitated Reagan stood up, and said with steely resolve “I am paying for this microphone,” and got thunderous applause.

Reagan was elected, however, for his optimism and character more than his ideology.   Since Reagan it’s hard to find a successful candidate who ran on anger.     Bill Clinton was charisma and hope, George W. Bush espoused a “compassionate conservatism,” with a vow to unite.   Barack Obama promised “change we can believe in.”    That last angry candidate was Richard Nixon, though most of the anger we know about now was hidden from the public.    In the history of media intensive US elections (the last sixty years or so) there has never been someone with an angry and volatile persona like Newt Gingrich who has won the White House.

Add to that his ethical failures — serving divorce papers to his wife while she’s in bed with cancer, having to leave the House Speaker position and being fined $300,000 for ethics violations in Congress, and numerous stories that show him to be arrogant and extremely self-centered only accentuate the unlikelihood that he could be elected President.

So what the heck are the Republicans in South Carolina thinking?    Is the GOP really going to ditch Romney not for a new visionary to lead the party into the future, but an angry ‘blast from the past’ with a blemished character and lack of appeal beyond the GOP base?

Probably not.  Gingrich plays better in the south and in the more conservative states.   The GOP primary battle will be a slog, and the party establishment fears he could not only fail to defeat President Obama, but could perhaps endanger Republican efforts to take the Senate or keep its House majority.   Still, this says something about the state of the Republican party.

Many Republicans are driven by nostalgia, seeing a 21st Century America that looks far different than the country they grew up in.    That is also much of what drives the tea party – nostalgia for the loss of an America they remember from the past.    The white middle class ethos and life style of the late 20th Century have given way to a new cultural landscape.  From the shining city on the hill with a vibrant economy and unquestioned world leadership to economic collapse and international decline, everything about the country has changed.

This has happened before.  Nixon and the “silent majority” was a response to the changes brought by the sixties counter culture.    Rock music, women’s liberation, the civil rights movement, a growing social welfare system all caused a yearning for the America of the 50s.   Not that the fifties were all that great in objective terms, but change yields an idolized view of the past.   That was the real America, somehow we lost it.

Of course, the cultural changes of the sixties and seventies took root.   Cultural change is inevitable and real.  America’s future will never be from its past.

Nonetheless, with a black President with foreign roots, an Occupy Wall Street movement that challenges the status quo, and international crises that call into question our faith in the economy and the US role in the world, it’s possible that Gingrich can pull a Nixon – perhaps anger can win.   I doubt it.   Nixon may have ultimately been more flawed a human than Gingrich, but he constructed an effective public persona.   Gingrich’s problems are well documented and should he get the nomination the ad hominems will be intense, and almost certainly effective.

Can he pivot?   Right now he has to play to the right wing of the GOP now to get the nomination.   But his past work with Nancy Pelosi on climate change and other clearly moderate positions also define his record.   His recent attacks on Romney at Bain Capital have echoed some of the concerns of Occupy Wall Street about capitalist excess.   Might the anger and venom of the primary season give way to reason and calm vision?   Will a “new Gingrich” bury the old one, with the public forgiving or shrugging at his personal problems in order to express the view of the new “silent majority” that change is coming in a too fast and too scary manner?

Perhaps.    Gingrich has proven as malleable in his politics as Romney, but his angry forceful manner makes it appear he’s sticking to a principled script.     Yet just as the cultural changes of the 60s were real and did not go away at all with the elections of Nixon or Reagan, the changes that the tea party and the right decry are likely to remain a part of what America is becoming regardless who wins.   And perhaps in 2044 we’ll see a candidate running on the notion that we need to get back  “America as it once was” – back in the old fashioned era of circa 2012.


An Obama Landslide?

While eyes are on the Republican nomination fight, I’m getting the impression that 2012 could not only see President Obama staying in office, but perhaps winning big.

Here are the electoral vote totals from each year since 1960:

1960 – John F. Kennedy (D) – 303
1964 – Lyndon B. Johnson (D) – 486
1968 – Richard M. Nixon (R)  – 301
1972 – Richard M. Nixon (R)  – 520
1976 – Jimmy Carter (D) – 297
1980 – Ronald Reagan (R) – 489
1984 – Ronald Reagan (R) – 525
1988 – George H.W. Bush (R) – 426
1992 – William J. Clinton (D) – 370
1996 – William J. Clinton (D) – 379
2000 – George W. Bush (R) – 271
2004 – George W. Bush (R) – 286
2008 – Barack H. Obama (D) – 365

Right now President Obama’s approval ratings are still below 50%, and coming off big electoral victories in the 2010 off year election many Republicans have been eager for 2012, believing they can retire President Obama early.  He was an inexperienced Senator elected in part as a fluke, they believe, thanks to the 2008 economic crisis and President Bush’s extreme unpopularity.  In 2010 as “tea party” Republicans espoused more extreme version of anti-government sentiment, they added that in 2008 John McCain didn’t really represent the values the GOP stood for.  He had been in favor of immigration reform and too much a moderate maverick.   They hoped for a Reaganesque figure to do in 2012 what Reagan did in 1980 – demolish an incumbent deemed ineffective.   2012 was to be 1980 redux.

It may be more like 1984 or 1996.    In 1982 the Democrats had strong off year elections and President Reagan’s approval was low.   In 1994 Newt Gingrich led the Republican “Contract with America” campaign that surprisingly took control of the House away from the Democrats.   Two short years after the ‘man from Hope’ had inspired the country it looked like Clinton was on his way out.

I noted before that Mitt Romney is sometimes eerily reminiscent of Walter Mondale, who Reagan easily defeated in 1984.      Like Bob Dole, who had the 1996 candidacy against Clinton, Romney is an insider who is coming to the nomination by strength of endorsement and inside the beltway politics.

Can Obama emulate the feats of Reagan and Clinton, overcoming economic woes and low approval in their first term to win easy re-election?

Ronald Reagan’s low was 35% in January 1983.   It stayed low through August, when he stood at 43%.   By the start of 1984 it had risen to 52%.   1984 was a recovery year.   President Reagan had a state of the art campaign and image machine, and he could deliver brilliant speeches.   By the middle of the year he was at 55%, and up to 60% approval when he defeated Walter Mondale.

Bill Clinton was down at about 40% in mid 1995.    When 1996 started he, like Reagan in 1984, was hovering around 52%, making Republicans optimistic that they could make Clinton a “one termer.”    But like Reagan, he was running in a year of economic recovery and was a superb campaigner.    His approval numbers rose steadily in 1996 to 57% approval on election day.

Barack Obama’s low was 43% in early 2011.   Now he sits at 46%.   That’s six points below where Reagan and Clinton were at the same time.   Though his trend has shown improvement, it’s coming later.   This is one reason to think that this isn’t like 1996, Obama’s not had the uptick at the end of the year Clinton had.

Nonetheless economic statistics show a recovery has started, President Obama is a great campaigner, has a superb campaign team, and the Republicans appear unenthusiastic about their likely candidate Mitt Romney.    If Obama’s approval ratings start to rise early this year, he could be on his way to easy re-election.

Obama is more like Reagan and Clinton than like one termers Carter and Bush I.   Like Reagan and Clinton, Obama is seen as inspiring and ‘larger than life,’ having run with the goal of changing Washington.   Those themes also inspired Reagan and Clinton.   None of Obama’s opponents espouse an optimistic visionary effort to change America.   Mitt Romney is an insider talking about his competence and experience, while the most visionary challenger is Newt Gingrich, who is more a blast from the past with baggage than a new voice and vision.   Where Reagan was optimistic and exuded hope, Gingrich exudes anger and arrogance.

President Carter had also won with a vision of change, and up through the 1980 campaign it appeared that Carter would likely eek out a narrow victory.   Bad news cycles, a late debate won by Reagan, and  continued economic woes turned the election south for Carter at the very end.    Reagan won by a landslide.

If Obama has the kind of foreign policy problems Carter had (the Iranians had been holding US citizens hostage in the embassy for a year when the election occurred), if the economic recovery goes bust and things get worse rather than better in 2012,  Mitt Romney could win by a landslide.

But if the economic recovery continues, even if it’s slow, his campaign can take control of the conversation and remind voters why they liked him in 2008.    If there is a real perception that things are getting better, Obama should equal or near the electoral vote totals he got in 2008, or that Clinton got in each of his elections.  I don’t think any Democrat is likely to break the 400 barrier; too many states are firmly Republican.

In 1964 LBJ hit 486 electoral votes; today no Democrat is likely to break 400

So I’m putting my predictive abilities publicly on the line and predicting an easy win for Obama in 2012, with the fights for the House and Senate likely the big stories.   It’s not a prediction to take to the bank – the economy is still vulnerable, and war with Iran or something like that could make everything higgly piggly.   But despite what the pundits say, I think Obama enters 2012 in much better shape than most people realize.


Second Wind

Thursday was a snow day and as I did laundry, peeled carrots and potatoes for the roast I’d cook in the slow cooker, and did the dishes I felt proud of the kind of role model I was for my two sons.   Dad does the housework while mom’s out working!   I think at least once I muttered, “what would mom say about this” as I reached down to get an apple core Ryan carelessly let fall.

Unfortunately I’m often much better at “women’s work” than “men’s work.”   When I fix something around the house it arouses incredulous amazement from my wife.     An average 8th grader in shop class handles tools better than I do.   Now, when it comes to hooking up computers, stereo systems and things like that I’m good.   I do handle the lawn mower and take pride in my shovel/snow blower abilities.   When we go somewhere, I’m usually the one behind the wheel.   But beyond there the stereotypes end.  I tend to take care of the children more (my wife’s job has far more stress), get up at night when they’re sick, drive them places, and I’m the one active in the PTA — a predominately women’s world.

My inability to handle the more manly chores is obvious to everyone.   I know that because a few years ago I reluctantly bought a chain saw because of the need to clear some small trees in our back yard.   I mentioned this in class and a student looked at me with shock, “don’t do it yourself, let me come and help, it’s dangerous!”   If you’re imaging a rugged woodsman like student you’re off base.   Her name was Addie and her concern was real.

“Don’t say that,” another student started, apparently worried about my masculine pride.   I however was suddenly nervous.   “Why,” I asked, “what can happen?”

“Well,” she began, “the big problem is kick back.   You have to know what you’re doing and how to hold it…”   I got home and read the safety manual carefully and then took a hatchet and got rid of the offending trees.   I’m no Ronald Reagan with a hatchet but at least it’s not a motor driven chain threatening to rip open my head.

Of course, everyone here has chain saws and uses them.   I’ve seen people with no goggles or head gear cutting down small trees as if they were simply wiping a table.    But I took Addie’s warning to heart.   My father in law and brother in law have gotten good use out of that chain saw when they’ve visited, but all I’ve used are the goggles that came with it.

It’s not like I’m lazy.   I’ve actually kept myself in pretty good shape and exercise.    I used to run seven miles a day, in fact — but when I turned 37 I hit a barrier where my knees and feet said, “OK, we’ve let you abuse us for half your life, we need a bit less stress.”   Since then most of my exercise has been on machines…step machine, bowflex, nordic track, etc.     Now my legs are starting to rebel against the step machine, I can no longer use it in ski season!

Growing up I worked in restaurants.  I was a hard worker.  I bussed tables, did dishes, made pizzas, prepped food, stocked salad bars, and did books for years.  I also worked for a law firm running errands — an experience that pushed me away from law school.   My talents are in the kitchen, cleaning, figuring out books and research.   I’ve also always been a teacher — even at age 17 I was in charge of training at Village Inn Pizza in Sioux Falls.

My dad was handy with tools and had been a carpenter before he became a businessman.   He also was a damn tough football player who despite being small might have had a decent college career if he hadn’t flunked out of Augsburg College his first year and joined the Navy.   He renovated the house and I’d help some.    Mostly I avoided it, and he didn’t push me.   He seemed to realize I really didn’t want to learn how to do all the stuff he was doing and I’d only slow him down anyway.     No question from a child gives a parent such mixed emotions as “can I help?”    It’s so great you want to, but it’ll double the time the task takes!   So beyond  steaming off wall paper and a few small projects, I didn’t learn what I should have.    I wasn’t into playing team sports, had no interest in the navy, and when I became a ‘professional student’ he tolerated it with grace.   As the son of a German Luthern Minister, he didn’t want to put me under the pressure to conform that he grew up with.

In cities you hire people to fix your car, renovate your house, repair a leaky toilet, cut down rouge trees, landscape the yard, install flooring, and do just about everything beyond what requires a screw driver and hammer.   That made sense to me — that’s capitalism right?   You specialize in something, earn money and hire people to do the things you’re not good at!    Here in Maine, though, that sticks out.   Doing it yourself is something people take pride in.   And, I grudgingly admit, it seems to produce well rounded pragmatic people who understand life a bit better because they do more of the every day work.

I also neither hunt nor fish.   I wouldn’t mind killing the animals, mind you.   A former girlfriend told me she imagined that ground beef came packaged in plastic that you could pluck from some kind of tree — she didn’t want to think about the slaughterhouses.   I don’t harbor such illusions.  But to take a dead animal carcass, cut it up, deal with the blood, the internal organs…no way.   Same way with fish.  I wouldn’t mind pulling them out of the river, but actually handling them?   Yuck.   I’ll just get my fish wrapped up at the store, eyes, bones and internal organs long since removed.

It’s not like I couldn’t do these things.  If I were with a group of hunters and one told me, “cut into that deer,” I’d be able to handle it.  I’d probably feel proud of myself and say “that’s not so bad.”   My wife’s told me how easy it is to gut a fish.    But I set up barriers to getting to the point where I actually do such things — why leave my comfort zone?

And that’s the problem: I’m stuck in my comfort zone.    I work on my classes, read blogs and books, follow the news, play with the kids, struggle with my research and do housework.   When looked at that way, I come to the awful conclusion that I’ve become a boring person.   I do participate in travel courses almost yearly to Germany or Italy — nice, comfortable destinations that I know well.  Even my global travel is solidly in my comfort zone!    When the semester is not in session I’m teaching overload classes and my hobby is this blog.   It’s not that the comfort zone is bad, but it’s become too, well, comfortable!

So this year one resolution is going to be do force myself to engage in new activities.   I may not skin a bear, but perhaps I’ll go out and fish, build something or even use my chain saw.   I need to get back in the mood I was in graduate school, exploring new ideas and ways of doing things; I need to find my second wind.

When I was younger spending some time in my comfort zone was a luxurious break from building a life.   Now that I’m over 50 it’s a dangerous addiction that could cause me to miss out on the things I’ve not yet done.   That has to change!


The Materialist Illusion

We live in a world of matter and energy (though as Einstein demonstrated, the two are really the same).  Matter and energy are at base particles, though the term particle is a bit misleading.   It isn’t like there are minuscule chunks of stuff out there, it’s more like there are ripples in various fields, and those ripples create what we experience as reality.   The current thinking is that the only reason our material world has weight is because of ripples in what is called the Higgs field.  The Large Hadron Collider at CERN is trying to find a Higgs boson (particle) that would prove the existence of this field.

So right at the start the material world isn’t what it seems to be; we’re clearly perceiving it because we’re made of the same stuff and experiencing it with brains that translate how we interact with the ripples in various fields into sensations.

All of this is to foreshadow my real topic: the importance of education.   In discussion on yesterday’s post it was suggested that students forgo college and work hard in order to make money.  I noted that on average college grads earn $1 million more during their life than non-grads, and usually at jobs that are more comfortable.   One person pointed out that students can amass debt during college.   I’ve long thought that unless you get into a really top name school where contacts and connections are abundant, it’s not worth paying a lot to go to a fancy private college.   In fact, at the top schools well qualified applicants will always get substantial scholarships if they have need (and often even if they don’t).  It’s the second and third tier privates where can cause you to amass over $100,000 of debt in four years.

That’s one reason I choose to teach at a public liberal arts school.   The goal is to provide a quality liberal arts education rivaling the expensive private schools at a much lower price.   Kiplinger’s put us in their top 100 colleges in terms of value — you get a good liberal arts education without high debt.   Even out of state tuition is manageable.

That gets harder as state funding gets cut (it now pays about 40% of the costs, so we’re more private than public).  And we lack the resources, pay rates, beautiful grounds and sofas in the hallways with state of the art classroom equipment that nearby privates like Colby, Bowdoin or Bates enjoy.    I don’t get resources and time to do much research, teaching is the focus.    Yet that is gratifying, I’d much rather teach than research.

However, my goal in teaching is only partially to get students to understand how political scientists analyze world affairs and comparative politics.   Only a small number of students will go on to graduate school, a few will work in fields involving foreign affairs, but many will end up with a degree designed to get their foot in the door and be able to advance in fields outside of political science or international relations.   Where once college was an elitist institution where you groomed students to follow in your disciplinary field, now it’s mass education designed to give students the capacity to better understand the world, develop critical skills, learn to read and write more effectively and be prepared for how fast jobs and opportunities shift.

The stated goal is to promote “life long learning.”   Practically that means to help students learn to break out of the cultural hypnosis that so often captures people.   One of those spells is the idea that somehow happiness comes from material prosperity.   That if you can get rich, you’ve succeeded.    Or as Dennis DeYoung put it with Styx in 1977: “Don’t be fooled by the radio, the TV or the magazine; they’ll show you photographs of how your life should be, but they’re just someone else’s fantasy.”

Pressure is put on students by parents, peers and themselves to look at life in starkly materialist terms: how much money will I make, what will I own?   One student back in Minnesota came to me when I was a TA and said her dad didn’t want her to go to Spain for a year because of what it would mean for her earning potential in her prime years (apparently he charted out what missing a year would mean).   I told her that was insane, that what she’d gain from going to Spain would be invaluable for her life, and now she can afford to do it.    She told her dad what I said (though she promoted me to professor in her story) and surprisingly he backed down, “well, if your professor says its worthwhile, then go.”

Now one could argue that one doesn’t need college to become a life long learner.  Indeed, no matter what you think of the politics of Malcolm X, the story of how he educated himself — learning words and history while in prison — is powerful.   If one truly wants to learn, one can.   My experience is that most people don’t.   It’s not that they don’t like learning, but they don’t know how much knowledge and understanding enriches a life.  Even Malcolm probably wouldn’t have taken the time if he hadn’t been in prison, cut away from his life of what had been petty crime to that point.

Part of teaching is to get students to see that.   One time after a unit on the Cambodian genocide a student was so shocked by what happened that he took a job the next summer to teach English in Cambodia.   More often students talk about how what they learned changed how they look at the world, causing them to see both their future and their goals in a different light.   That’s what college should be about —  four years where your main job is to learn about the world and its mysteries from science, literature, how societies function, philosophy, world religions, and diverse cultures and countries.   You can’t do all of that in four years, but if you get students on the right track they’ll want to keep learning as they go on — that’s the goal.

Ultimately if this world is made up of nothing but ripples in fields, life is transient and brief.  Moreover, we don’t know what it is – it takes as much a leap of faith to say that the material stuff is all that is and once dead we’re simply gone as it does to say that something spiritual carries on.   Our lack of knowledge makes both claims equally plausible.   The fact that there is something rather than nothing causes me to think it likely there is something beyond this brief material existence, but who knows?

And if there is something important about living, it can’t just be acquiring material stuff.   We need it, but at some level once we are able to survive that isn’t the sole meaning of existence, nor does it seem to bring growing pleasure.    Someone who gets used to the luxuries of a millionaire’s life style probably enjoys them no more than how a middle class worker enjoys his or her material pleasures.   Once you get most of the hotels playing monopoly the game gets boring.

People choose distractions – television, sports, celebrity gossip, the lifestyles of the rich and famous, religious fervor, ideological fervor, anything to help push aside the emptiness that an unexamined life yields.    Education and exploring the richness of the world’s art, music, literature, science, cultures, etc. opens up avenues that enhance ones’ personal journey and spiritual reflections.   We may not end up with the answers, but the journey becomes exciting and exhilarating on a deeper level.   And isn’t the journey what it’s all about?   After all, the final destination is the same for all of us.


Let Them Eat Cake

Mitt Romney repeated one of the most malicious and misguided political lies of recent years: that people who criticize Wall Street and inequity in America are driven by “envy.”

Besides the fact that one has to wonder who Warren Buffett envies — he’s one of the richest men in America and he’s been a critique of inequity, as has George Soros, a wealthy international capitalist tycoon — the claim is not only absurd, but fundamentally dishonest.

Rather than look at real issues of power, wealth and opportunity, those who question whether it is good for society to have extreme wealth alongside extreme poverty are dismissed via insult — it’s “envy.”    Occupy Wall Street, nothing but envy.   President Obama’s effort to curb Wall Street excesses – just envy.   Any criticism of the wealth gap and lack of opportunity gets brushed aside as “envy.”

This is a point that President Obama and the Democrats need to turn around on Romney.    It’s best to do it with real stories.  A family who lost health care and couldn’t afford an operation for a child, thereby leaving the child crippled or handicapped, for instance.   Is their problem simply that they envy the rich?   It’s not wrong that the wealthy have excellent insurance as a matter of course and the poor often see their children suffer.   They’re just envious of the health care the rich take for granted.

A worker that lost his job and has nowhere to turn as they can’t afford college for their children or to keep their house thanks to the recession.   They shouldn’t be upset about the shenanigans on Wall Street or how the wealthy have gained nearly 300% in the last thirty years while the poorest have barely stayed ahead of  inflation.   No, it’s just envy.

The message should be clear:  It’s not envy to want real opportunity for Americans.  It’s patriotism.  It’s the values of our constitution, it’s the key to the future of the country.   If we allow these inequities to continue in the false belief that somehow wealth and opportunity will trickle down and the wealthy are all “job creators,” then our country will continue to decline and we’ll find that America’s day in the sun is over.   We need to fight for real opportunity and against a new aristocracy, because that’s a fight for America’s values and future.   That’s got to be the message that the President runs on this year.

And soundbites of Romney muttering “it’s envy” should be ubiquitous on Obama commercials.   An elitist Wall Street insider who has lived of life of privilege sneers down his nose and says the poor unemployed and struggling are just envious of people like him.

“Let them eat cake,” he may as well add.

Don’t get me wrong.   I actually think Mitt Romney isn’t a bad candidate and would probably do well as President.   But as you can probably tell, this claim that “it’s envy” to be concerned about poverty, equal opportunity and wealth disparity has gotten under my skin.

Moreover, if I compare my household income with the rest of the country’s, I’m not in the 1%, but I’m not that far away.   My wife and I work very hard, make good money and are living the American dream.    We’ll be able to provide the best for our kids, help them if they ever have difficulties in school, and get them a good education.    But if I were to say “well, we’re smart and got ahead, those poor blokes down the road who are having a rough go are just envious,” well — what kind of arrogant slime ball would I be?

The second fallacy is the dodge, “oh we should be concerned and help, but government shouldn’t do it, it should be done by individuals.”   Sure.   We should all be concerned about murder, rape and arson, but government shouldn’t handle those protections, let individuals do it.    The fact of the matter is that the collective action problem is real, well documented, and undeniable.   If you leave it to the private sector problems get worse.   You need government to do so because nobody else can do it.   You might get food shelves to keep the poor from starving, but you won’t get real opportunity.

And that is where Obama has the rhetorical upper hand.   He can say “the American dream is that every American has access to the education and opportunity to go into the market, work hard, innovate and be rewarded for the fruits of his or her labor.   We reject socialism and efforts to equalize all outcomes because that makes everyone worse off and undercuts innovation and ambition.  If you doubt that, look at the former Communist world.   But to work capitalism needs to make sure that the elites aren’t rigging the game in a way that denies liberty, opportunity a fair shot to the middle class and poor.

“If we unleash America’s potential of ingenious experimentation, a willingness to work hard and take risks, and freedom to break with the past and try new things, we can achieve anything, we can maintain the American dream for generations.   When a small group of elites rig the game with insider trading, schemes to rob pension funds and retirement accounts, predatory lending practices aimed at the poor and a tax system that gives them advantages that most people don’t have, it’s undercutting the American dream.  It’s contrary to American values.   It’s risking our future.

“It’s not envy to want a fair chance for everyone.   Let those who work hard and innovate well succeed and become wealthy.   Let those who choose to do the minimum and refuse to take the opportunities that exist suffer the consequences.   Let it be the actions of the individual that determines the outcome, not the structure of a rigged game.   It’s not envy to want fair play, it’s a sense of justice.”


Everything Is About to Change

A 20 year old northern California blogger named Kristen Wolfe had one of her posts noticed by the Huffington Post, which reposted it.  It was entitled “Dear Customer Who Stuck Up for His Little Brother,” and recounted an experience at her place of employment (video game sales) where an athletic elder brother stood up for his younger brother against an aggressive and mean father.   The younger brother wanted to buy a video game with a female character, along with a purple controller.   The father was incensed and tried to get the boy to get a game with guns and violence — something manly.   Anyway, click the link and read the story, it was touching and brought a tear to my eye.

But this blog entry isn’t about that, but how the story spread.   Once reposted on Huffington Post it quickly became one of their most popular stories.  I came about it via Facebook.   A facebook friend named Kristine posted the link.   I read it, was moved by the story and shared it on my facebook page.   Already a number of people have shared my link, and others have shared their links.   Whether its called ‘going viral’ or spreading like wildfire, that’s how a story that 20 years ago would maybe have been told to a few friends becomes a sensation.

This is an example of what is the biggest revolution in human history so far — an information and communications revolution wider in scope and power than even the industrial revolution of Europe or the invention of the printing press.   It is the reason protests arose in Egypt a year ago, why both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street rocked American politics, and why the world is about to change in profound and fundamental ways.   We are living in an era of history that is blessed or perhaps cursed to be one of the most dramatic and profound.    It’s only just beginning;  everything is about to change.

We’ve seen the first inklings of change as protests swept the Mideast and even Russia.   We’ve seen power shift from states and governments first to businesses and financial institutions and likely next to NGOs and citizen movements.   This will someday spawn a fundamental political restructuring whereby the bureaucratic sovereign state will be replaced by a new political order.   Civil society will be global and connected, sharing information and undercutting local corruption.

Developing countries will be able to redefine development away from the unsustainable neo-liberal dream of constant industrial growth and materialism towards a bottom up sustainable future, connected with the world not as a periphery pawn in the global economic structure but as autonomous citizens and communities.     Markets and big money will be forced to democratize and become transparent, and the current economic crisis will demand a rethinking of the idea that consumption should be ones’ primary life goal even in the industrialized West.

States, companies and even intelligence agencies will find it ever harder to keep anything ‘top secret,’ or any operation truly covert.   The cure to global warming and our environmental crises will be a mix of technology and a new way of thinking.   Once economic growth at all costs is rejected as the primary goal in life, a sustainable future can be imagined and built.

Yes, I know.  That all sounds very utopian.   Historians out there  might point out that every major systemic change breeds war and crisis, in part because people don’t know what change is bringing and thus try desperately to hold on to the anachronistic system they’ve inherited.    I have no doubt that will happen to some extent, this is an era of both crisis and transformation – the world is in motion!

Yet a positive trend is that attitudes are changing at a scope and pace that matches technological change.   I bet if you described that scene in Kristen Wolfe’s blog to a large number of people, you’d find many siding with the father and thinking the sons were out of line.   I also bet that almost everyone who would think that is over 45 years old.    The Facebook generation is more tolerant, open minded and willing to share ideas and information.     How often do parents warn kids about posting on Facebook and decry the idea of having 300 friends and sharing life details?   The fetish for privacy of the older generation is giving way to a new openness.

Whereas my generation – the older one – tends to want a stable protected home and life-space, the younger generation is wired, connected and involved.   My generation had yuppies cocooning in the suburbs, the new generation can’t imagine going a full day without their smart phones.   It’s a new attitude which, combined with the new technology is putting us on the precipice of major cultural, global and technological change.   Enjoy the ride!


Finding and Seeking

I am good at finding things.   When the remote is missing, my wife can’t find a book she’s been reading or one of my sons is missing his left shoe, they ask me where it is.   They often don’t bother looking for things themselves, I’ve heard my eldest say “dad where is the remote” as he walked down the hall to the living room.

The reason I am good at finding things is that I’m even better at misplacing things.   I’d like to blame getting older, but I’ve always been this way.   When I was 16 I would lose my car keys at least once a day.    I am absent minded and always have been.   That simply means that my mind tends to be thinking about ‘what’s coming’ while I’m finishing whatever I’m doing.

My wife is not that way.   This was made clear to me the other day while we were looking for part of a defective video game we needed to return.    As I was looking for it I started opening a drawer on the entertainment center.   “Why would it be there,” she demanded.    The question left me speechless.   She repeated it, not without some irritation.

You see, she’s not absent minded.   When she’s done with something she puts it where it is supposed to be and double checks to make sure it’s there.   She’s orderly, she knows where each object should be and can tell if it’s even slightly out of place.   “Why is the salt shaker on this said of the oven?” she might ask.   Oh yeah, I think, we do have a salt shaker, don’t we!

The question “why would it be there” struck me as absurd.   One thing you learn when you misplace things often is that you almost never will know why something is where it is until you find it.   “Oh yeah, I walked into the boiler room while talking on the phone, that’s why the phone’s in there.”   Once you’ve checked the places you think an item should be, all you have left is places in which you have no clue why they might be there.

One time I was finishing up an egg and cheese sandwich when I walked to the refrigerator, sandwich in hand, to refill my water.   The phone rang.   I put what was left of my sandwich on top of the refrigerator as I walked over to the phone.   After a nice 10 minute conversation I went back to the table with my glass of water and saw my plate was empty.   Odd, I thought, didn’t I have some sandwich left?   Looking around the kitchen there was not a trace of an egg and cheese sandwich so I figured I must have downed the last piece before answering the phone.

Two days later I hear “what the heck is THIS doing on the refrigerator.”   My wife is giving me an accusatory look, holding a small bit of an old egg and cheese sandwich.

“What’s that, that’s not mine,” I protested.

“Really,” she said, obviously not believing me.   “It was on the top of the fridge, did the boys put it ther?.”   This was a few years ago when the oldest was probably about 4 so I did find it unlikely that they would have stored a sandwich there.

“Well, I didn’t…” I started indignantly, irritated about being falsely accused.    Suddenly I stopped and sheepishly added, “oh wait, that is mine.”

My wife didn’t congratulate me for acknowledging the obvious.   Instead her face said “why would someone put a sandwich up on the fridge and if they did choose to do such a strange thing, why wouldn’t someone remember?!?”

Like I said she’s not absent minded.

Yet on those rare occasions where she’s distracted enough to actually not put something in the right place, I’m usually the one to find it.   I’ve had practice finding things.   The first rule is “it’s probably under something.”   Most people look for things by looking around the room.   Many times a sheet of paper or a napkin might cover a set of car keys.    The second rule is to check out the ‘usual suspects.’   For instance, I misplace my glasses about twice a week.  OK, twice a day. Sigh, to be honest, twice an hour.    So I check – by my computer, downstairs at my desk, on the dresser, on the telephone table near the entrance…90% of the time it’ll be at one of those places, often under something.

Another rule — and this is something that orderly people don’t get — is that getting irritated about not finding something only makes it harder to find.   I think it’s up there with the law of karma in cosmic importance.   When my son angrily stomps around looking for his DSi he fails to notice that it’s on the edge of the table he’s standing beside.   Not that my son is orderly — he has my absent mindedness along with the temperament about misplacing things as an orderly person.   But  he’ll learn — we absent minded people do, in time.

In the end this means that if something is missing, I’m usually the one to find it, and I’ll often be working downstairs and hear “dad, where’s my DSi Pokemon game” screamed out.   I run up and find it.  That’s my role in the family.  I’ll mutter the fatherly, “you really need to learn to look for and find things yourself,” but I like feeling useful.

Yet sometimes even as a finder I fail.   Last August I finally went in and had spare car keys made — two sets.  I had lost my spare and had gone three months with just one set of keys.   That’s dangerous for an absent minded misplacer of things.   It cost $100 to get the new set ($25 for a third), and it didn’t even have the buttons to unlock the doors or open the trunk.    That’s a scandal in and of itself; when I was first driving I could go to Ace Hardware and have a new key made for 75 cents!

So I now had three sets of keys, one with the buttons and two new ones without.     I decided to use a key without the buttons as my main key, just in case.   Now I cannot find the FOB – the key with the buttons.  I only have my two spares.   That means I’ve now lost two FOBs and I have no idea where they are.   Moreover, it seems I lost the second shortly after I had the new spares made, a weird coincidence.  I believe with slight confidence that somewhere in this house two of those key FOBs are hiding from me.   I believe with a tad more confidence that they are somewhere in this universe.

I could ask my family to help me find them, but I suspect the response would be “where did you put them” or “why aren’t they where they’re supposed to be?”   Meanwhile, I’d best get a couple extras made, just in case.


The American Myth?

A lot of Americans believe that the US offers unique opportunities for people to rise to the top if they work hard and show innovation.  It’s the American dream – the idea anyone can grow up to be rich, anyone can be President.  After all, look where success stories like Barack Obama and Bill Clinton came from; neither were from the ranks of the rich and famous.

Yet as the New York Times reports, that dream is quickly becoming a myth.   If you’re poor in America, you’re likely stay poor.   It’s no longer the land of opportunity.   Canada and most of Europe offer a better chance for the poor to succeed.   The findings are sometimes stark.   In Demark about 25% of men in born in the bottom fifth end up there, in the US it’s well over 40%.    Even Great Britain’s level is 30%, much lower than that of the US.   Two thirds of those born in the bottom 20% stay in the bottom 40%.

The top fifth is also “sticky” as the article notes.  If you’re born in the top 20% of the population in terms of wealth, you’re very likely to stay there.   It’s hard for those on lower levels to move into the top fifth.

The good news is that in the middle things are more fluid.   About 36% born in the middle fifth move up, while 41% move down.     It’s the very rich and the very poor who appear stuck.

What do we make of this?   First, you can’t deny the role of economic and social structure in creating opportunities and constraints.   Being born into wealth assures you opportunities that others do not get — that’s why so many people stay there.     Being born into poverty means a lack of opportunity and a series of constraints:  poor health care, poor schooling, bad neighborhoods, etc.

This is not something that Republicans deny.   The article points out that Rick Santorum and other conservative voices are pointing out the lack of mobility from the bottom.

Second, the US does not fare any better than other advanced industrialized states in any measure of mobility.    The inability for the poorest to rise is stark, but at other levels countries fare similarly.   The American dream and the ability to achieve it for those outside the bottom 20% is about the same as the Canadian dream, Danish dream, etc.

Why, though, do our poor have more difficulty than those in other states?    The answer is obvious: social welfare programs.   For all their faults, social welfare programs assuring health care, basic housing and nutrition to all citizens make a difference.   That’s why a Dane born at the bottom finds more opportunity to rise up than an American born in similar circumstances.    It simply is not true that social welfare programs only create a sense of entitlement and dependency; they actually get people motivated to pursue opportunities and move forward.

This also suggests that it does the top fifth little or no harm to increase taxes to create social welfare programs to help the bottom fifth.   This isn’t unfair since the top fifth already has so many more opportunities and chances for success.   They don’t earn these opportunities through their own choices and work, they achieve it by dint of where they are in the social structure.   A major causal aspect of their success is from outside their individual efforts.

That doesn’t mean that individual choices don’t matter — people have to take the opportunity that they receive and not waste it.    Still, somewhat higher taxes won’t change that fundamental social structure.   Moreover, one could make a strong argument that it is a denial of liberty to those down the ladder by allowing so many individuals to be given such greater opportunity and fewer constraints because of position of birth.   It’s not much different than the old aristocracy.

However, how such money is spent still is debatable.   I don’t think a Danish social welfare system would necessarily work the same in the US because the social divisions, size of the country, and the impact of years of neglect will make it more difficult to get real opportunity to the poor.   Also, while it’s clear that social welfare programs can work – they help people move up the ladder, they don’t necessarily create dependency – not every program is equal.   Some programs do create dependencies, especially if like in the US the programs are meager transfers that don’t really create opportunity.  If you’re not going to be able to move up, why bother?   Just take what you can!

For the US to create opportunity we need to focus on helping people help themselves, providing education, health care, and the basics that children need to be in a position to let their effort and innovation actually determine what they achieve in life, not their position of birth.   Perhaps the kind of welfare programs we have is part of the problem

To be sure, 8% of Americans (still the lowest compared to other countries) born in the bottom fifth make it to the top fifth.   It’s not that there is no opportunity or that the constraints are insurmountable.    But Americans tend to over estimate how likely it is for one to be able to do that, and under estimate the impact of social structure on opportunity.

This also vindicates at least one message from Occupy Wall Street.   The 1% are almost certain to stay at the top, the game is structured in their favor.   The poorest have real constraints, and even the middle class have limited means.   That doesn’t mean that the radical solutions the protesters sometimes suggest are right — there is huge room for debate amongst conservatives, liberals, free marketeers and social democrats about the best ways to move forward.  What we have to do, though, is accept the fact the class mobility in the US is low, especially for the top and bottom 20%.

Finally, the article points out that some skeptics note that 81% of Americans earn more in absolute terms than their parents.   While that is a sign that as a society we’ve become more prosperous, the American dream is not simply about making more money, but real opportunity.   A trash collector today earns more than a trash collector did 20 years ago.  But the children of trash collectors should have the same opportunity to become doctors as the children of doctors.