Archive for June, 2012

New Blog Comment Rules

One problem in this country is that political discourse has become hyper partisan and personalized.   Discussions are to yield insight and to often they become personalized and create more noise than light.

Therefore comments on this blog must follow a few rules:

1) Ad hominems are not tolerated.   An attack on the person (name calling, ridicule, labeling, etc.) is a logical fallacy.   One can say “your argument is absurd” or “you have ignored my points and pretended I didn’t make them, which indicates intellectual dishonesty.”   So it’s not like personal criticism is not allowed – heated debates are fine.   But when it becomes name calling and personal attacks, it’s not worthy of this blog.

2) Keep comments cogent and clear.   Long, verbose rambling comments create a kind of comment pollution that hides shorter, thoughtful comments and takes over a discussion.

3)  There will be less patience with anonymous posters than those who put their own identity out there and take responsibility for what they write.   While I recognize and respect the legitimate need/desire of some to remain anonymous, for a minority that anonymity makes it easier to undertake behaviors they would not engage in if their names were attached to their words or actions.

4) Repetitive posting is strongly discouraged – discussion involves an evolution of an argument, not simply restatements.

5) I will take these rules seriously.    I’ve contributed to the breakdown of discussions by allowing myself to be egged on by someone with no desire for a real conversation.   Given that, I do not plan any bans on anyone.   If the above rules are adhered to, everyone can say their piece.

Walter Lippmann noted that democracy requires opposition, and that people listen to each other.    That’s what I hope my commentators will do, and what I aspire to do.


The GOP’s Epic Fail

Since the Republicans took the majority in 2011 House Oversight Committee Chair Darrell Issa has been investigating everything he could, hoping to find corruption or a scandal in the Obama Administration.    So far, they have found little to nothing.

However, they’ve been seduced by wishful thinking about a botched Justice Department investigation called “Fast and Furious.”    Programs to track guns (so called gun walking) started back during the Bush Administration and were designed to generate information about Mexican drug cartels.     It ended when it became clear that some of the guns had found their way into criminal hands and had been used in crimes against innocents, perhaps even a US border guard.

That’s it.   Fortune magazine has investigated this extensively and concluded there was never any intent to have the guns fall into the wrong hands.   The Justice Department is conducting a thorough internal investigation.  Congress has also found no evidence of wrong doing.   But conspiracy theories on the far right came up with truly absurd claims — that this was an attempt to promote gun control by increasing violent crime, or that somehow the Justice Department was in collusion with Mexican drug cartels.

There is no evidence for any of those claims.   When the problems in the program came to light it was ended and ultimately thousands of documents were given the House Oversight committee.    It should have been enough; in fact, when the Committee Chair Darrell Issa said he wanted more, Attorney General Eric Holder obliged.   When it became clear that Issa was simply fishing, Holder refused to give over documents that deal with internal White House discussions, likely between Obama and Holder.  As President Bush (and all recent Presidents) have done in similar circumstances, President Obama declared executive privilege.

So why hold Holder in contempt – President Obama is the one declaring executive privilege?    It’s pure political theater.   The NRA and others who want a conspiracy theory to be true kept putting pressure on Issa to dig more, even though nothing, absolutely nothing, had been found to indicate deeper problems.   Beyond that, the GOP’s political wing hopes to at least create the illusion of scandal to help diminish President Obama’s reputation and increase their chances of defeating him.    The NRA even announced they would be “scoring” the contempt vote, pressuring a small number of moderate Democrats in conservative districts to join in the contempt vote.

I believe this was part of a clear GOP strategy to use Thursday as the start of a major assault on President Obama, with the ambitious goal of completely redefining his Presidency.   Consider the tiing:

At 10:00 Thursday the Supreme Court was set to rule on the Affordable Care Act.   Intrade gave it a 75% chance of being overturned, and pundits left and right seemed resigned to or energized by the fact it seemed almost certain that the court would reject the law.   It became entrenched conventional wisdom that the law was all but dead.  Rush Limbaugh said that Republicans should “spike the football” when it’s overturned, and a lot of conservatives were eager to hear the ruling.

Here’s how the GOP plan was supposed to operate:

1.  The Court would announce that the individual mandate was unconstitutional, thereby dooming the entire law because without the mandate it could not be funded.   They’d quickly seize on this as a failure of the President on his keystone issue, arguing that Obama can now claim no lasting accomplishment and making his first term a failure.

2.   The House would then hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt, the first time ever that the House and an Attorney General could not negotiate to settle an issue like this.    On top of the health care ruling, it would appear as if the Obama Administration was imploding.   This double whammy would be a stepping stone to an all out attack on the President, heaping ridicule, scorn and faux pity on Obama who would be painted as having not been up to the task of being leading the country.

3.   This day would mark the beginning of a redefinition of the Obama Presidency from being an historic activist one to a failed and incompetent one, setting up a victory for Mitt Romney and the GOP in the fall.

Since January 20, 2009 the goal of the GOP has been, as Senator Mitch McConnell said, to deny President Obama re-election.   They’ve refused to cooperate on major issues, pushed the country to the brink over a debt ceiling increase, and have increased the scope of partisanship in Washington.    This isn’t to say the Democrats weren’t often doing the sae thing, but compare how often the Democrats had been willing to work with President Bush to the way the GOP has dealt with Obama.    The difference is striking.  The Republicans in Washington had power and they lost it.   They want it back.    They can taste it.

McConnell explicitly stated that the number one goal of the GOP was to deny Obama re-election. Rather than work with him, they hoped to deny him accomplishments and then defeat him.

No doubt the talking points had been handed out; the assault on the President was about to begin.    Then incredibly one conservative Washington insider proved above politics: Chief Justice John Roberts.   Suddenly the joy on the right turned to anger, depression and shock as so-called Obamacare was ruled constitutional.    Obama emerged triumphant.

The contempt vote against Holder took place in this context but it was nothing like they had imagined it would be.   The Democrats staged a major walk out, and pundits decried the politicization of the issue and the grandstanding of Chairman Issa, who achieves nothing real by this vote.   At best it could make it to the courts and take months to get resolved, but most likely it just goes nowhere.   Rather than make the Obama administration look incompetent, the result was self-inflicted damage to the GOP.

Democrats walk out rather than vote on the contempt charges against Holder, reinforcing the idea it was a purely political vote.

The events of June 28th represent a defeat for the GOP.   Their efforts to paint Obama as a failed or ineffective President have so far fallen short.   Obama remains the favorite, is ahead in the polls, and has solid leads in important swing states.    This was to be their shot at seriously wounding the President before the campaign starts in earnest.     Few think Mitt Romney can win by enticing people to vote for Romney; they hope to convince people to vote against Obama.

The election is still months away and much can happen.    But the way events Thursday played themselves out had to be very depressing for Romney camp insiders and gives the President a tailwind going into July.


The Right Ruling

Thursday the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the Affordable Care Act, nicknamed “Obamacare” is indeed constitutional.   In so doing, they rejected  a judicial activism that would severely limit the democratic power of the people.

The ruling is causing confusion.   Because the individual mandate (everyone has to buy insurance) is permissible due to the ability of the government to tax, some are claiming that this amounts to a huge tax increase.    That’s false – people will be buying insurance, not paying a tax.   Those who refuse to buy insurance will pay penalties.   However for many Republicans, convinced by oral arguments that overturning the act was an almost sure thing (intrade had the likelihood at 75%), it’s an attempt to walk back the celebratory tone they’d been taking.

This also ensures that the debate in the run up to the 2012 election will be more serious than it has been.   Until now the GOP has been simply opposing the law, saying they had ‘free market’ alternatives that will ‘increase choice.’    A close look shows that they evade most of the controversial issues.   The emphasis has been on creating ire over Obamacare and hoping the Supreme Court would do the dirty work and strike down what will be very difficult for them to repeal.

House Speaker John Boehner will have to confront difficult issues in the health care debate.

With the Supreme Court saying that this is for Congress and the President to work out – Justice Roberts correctly noted that it is not the job of the Court to rule on the wisdom of the law – the politicians will ultimately have to get into the nitty gritty of the law.   The Democrats will point out all of the positive aspects of the law and force Republicans to embrace some aspects of it.   Republicans will have to confront the health care problems that face the country and offer plausible solutions.

In a perfect world, one could hope that such debate would yield good ideas from both sides of the aisle and a mutual willingness to improve the law.   In the world we have that’s unlikely.   The worst result is that a massive amount of money is spent to manipulate public opinion and drown out the serious side of the debate, saving politicians from having to deal with reality.

While that is certainly possible, this issue might defy that trend.   If President Obama is re-elected, the Republicans will have to accept that a repeal is unlikely, and shift towards trying to make it work better.  If Governor Romney is elected then his job will be more difficult.   The Senate is likely to block an all out rejection of the law, and those helped by the popular provisions will put immense pressure on the GOP not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

I suspect that in either case we’ll have a similar result.   The two parties will recognize that the US now has a health care system that aspires to universal coverage and tries to contain costs.   Information about what works and what isn’t working will guide reforms to the act.    As with social security and medicare, over time it will be taken as natural to have a health care system; the biggest hurdle was the Supreme Court.

CNN’s initial coverage took a tidbit they heard early in the opinion – that the individual mandate was not allowed by the Commerce Clause – and mistakenly informed the world that the mandate was struck down, causing people to compare this with the early headline saying “Dewey defeats Truman.”

CNN’s “oops” moment pictured above was caused in part by the widespread belief that the act would be ruled unconstitutional.   Most pundits were almost certain of the result, especially after the government seemed to do very poorly in oral arguments.   But oral arguments rarely give a good glimpse of what the result will be, and on an issue like this oral arguments can be virtually irrelevant.    The Justices have intense discussions to try to get the law right.

The most important aspect of this ruling is that the Supreme Court refused to interpose itself into an important political decision that should be left to the people and their representatives.   This is the kind of issue that we as a society have to work through politically, and the Court should allow that.    I’ve often agreed with conservatives who oppose judicial activism from the left; judicial activism is also wrong from the right.

Justice Roberts sent a signal today that while he has a conservative ideology, he wants to protect the Supreme Court’s integrity and reputation.   I hope that this means that his court will refrain from judicial activism and leave most issues in the hands of the democratic institutions.    There are important exceptions, of course, involving fundamental rights and equality under the law.    But today Justice Roberts rose above politics and proved that he understands his role as Chief Justice.


Greece Steps Back from the Abyss

New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras became Premier on Wednesday, heading a three party pro-European government.

Last weekend the Greek people faced a decision on their future with their second election in as many months.   The first election, held May 6th, was a shocker.   Greek austerity, forced upon the country by the European Union, led to a massive deepening of the Greek recession and a significant drop in the standard of living and quality of life in Greece.   Few countries have seen such a dramatic and unexpected decline as Greece has.

The people felt humiliated.   They realized that their leaders had been lying and gambling with their country’s future, putting the country in tremendous debt, fostering corruption, and then leaving the Greek people holding the bag when everything fell apart.    On top of that the Germans and the rest of the EU needed to bail them out, helping not average Greeks, but the politicians and banks that created the mess.   That anger came out in the election results.

New Democracy, the conservative party, had the most votes with 18.85%.  That won them 108 seats, thanks to the bonus of the largest party getting 50 more seats than the percentage should earn them.   That was down from 33% in the previous election, though they gained 17 seats since in 2009 they were not the largest party.

The ruling party, PASOK (left of center) fell from 43% to 13.18%, losing 119 seat (and ending with 41).    The surprise winner was the radical left wing party Syriza, led by Alexis Tsipras.   Tsipras tapped into the anger and humiliation to rise from 4% to 16.8%, passing PASOK.   The result took Europe by surprise.   In a 300 seat parliament, even PASOK and New Democracy together couldn’t form a ruling coalition, as they controlled only 149 seats.   Talks with other parties made it clear that any government that they formed would be shaky and could easily fall, which is not a good thing when the country has to make very difficult decisions.

37 year old Tsipras signals a left wing challenge to Euro-orthodoxy. If the main parties can’t show real progress, he could emerge stronger in the next election.

In the uncertainty of the moment they decided that the most prudent course of action was to ask the voters if they really meant it.   A new election was planned for June 18.   As the campaigning grew it was clear that Greeks were reading the election as a referendum on the Euro and to some extent the EU.    Should Greece remain in the Eurozone?

Tsipras made a confident, powerful and emotional argument that they should not, unless they get real concessions from the EU.   Do the Greeks really want to have their sovereign decisions made according to German dictates?   Should the Greeks accept an austerity that requires them to see the recession cascading inward and causing more pain for average folk?   Shouldn’t the politicians of PASOK and ND (New Democracy) be punished for their corruption and willingness to drive up such debt with horrific fiscal policies? Shouldn’t the Greeks be in charge of their own destiny?   After all, the Europeans want to “save” Greece to save their own banks — doesn’t that mean Greece has more bargaining power than they realize?

As Tsipras’ popularity grew many assumed Syriza would end up on top in the June election, perhaps with enough votes to form a stable coalition.   The result would dramatically increase the odds of a Greek departure from the Eurozone, even though Tsipras coyly claimed he simply wanted to negotiate “fair” terms.

After early reports had Syriza as narrowly winning as the largest party, the actual results gave that honor to ND.  ND earned nearly 30%, up over 10% from a month before, now with 129 seats.  Syriza also increased its share to 27%, gaining 19 seats.   That means that compared to 2009 it rose in popularity by 23%.    Although they didn’t come out on top, it was still a remarkable performance for a radical party once seen as too extreme to be taken seriously.    PASOK fell further, losing 8 more seats and down to 12.3% of the vote.     The former ruling party was clearly being punished.

Yet PASOK and ND could combine for 162 seats for a clear majority in government.   To provide added stability they added the pro-EU Democratic Left, whose 17 seats gives the coalition 179 out of 300.

The first recorded moves towards democracy came in Athens; it was messy but voters show democracy still works.

So what does this mean?  The Greeks took a hard look at what Syriza represented and found it scary.   The party is Euro-communist, and its radicalism would put it in opposition to the rest of Europe.  Many fear that it would drift towards dictatorship, like past Communist parties did.   That seems unlikely, but many Greeks angry about the situation didn’t want to leap to the far left or the far right — those ideologies have a poor track record.

They also had time to digest what would happen if they brought back the drachma.   First, they’d see the value of their currency plummet, which would force them to default on loans.   Second, they’d not be able to get new loans, people would trust neither the Drachma nor Greece’s ability to pay them back.    That would either mean a fall into near third world status or, should Greece try to use monetary policy to stimulate the economy, a risk of hyper-inflation.

More importantly, they wouldn’t be part of Europe any more, at least not the civilized united and progressive Europe that the EU represents.   The Greeks know that a small backwards troubled economy south of the Balkans could drift farther from the prosperity and stability that northern Europe represents.   Independence and sovereignty sound good in theory but in practice they represent a fading era.  Greece without Europe would be a Greek failure.

The problems have not been solved.   The austerity program as currently structured is too harsh and has no growth aspect designed to help Greece truly restructure its economy.    With the rise of French President Francois Hollande as a foil and potential partner to Germany’s Angela Merkel, the EU has the hard task of formulating a new approach that isn’t so harsh on Greece in exchange for stricter monetary policy controls.    The banks are going to have to take loses – the problem can’t be solved by governments alone.

Tsipras (center) has allies in Germany in “die Linke” (the left), a party to the left of the Social Democrats. Here is talks with Klaus Ernst and Gregor Gysi in Berlin.

But some of the urgency has gone away.   They have time, and in Germany, Greece and elsewhere there is growing recognition that a contraction of the Euro to an inner core of wealthy countries would damage everyone.  And the longer this drags out, the less likely it is that things will fall apart.  The EU and the Euro are revolutionary, they are redefining what a “state” is, what “sovereignty” means and how economies are structured.   Such transformations are never easy, but most Europeans realize there is no turning back.


My Father and Me by Ryan Erb

My son Ryan is in the third grade, and as an assignment he had to write something about his father to give me for Father’s Day.   Needless to say, it made me feel real good, even if he does emphasize buying things a bit much!  This is what he wrote:

My Father and Me by Ryan Erb (for Father’s Day)

My father has (many times) gone out of his way to help me.  Most recent of all, he spent FIFTY dollars to fix my favorite video game.  Also, he is understanding when I can’t go ghost hunting (new hobby) and I get mad.  He listens to me when I have something to say.  He helps me on everything.  And he never gives up (except homework).  He has bought a lot of stuff for me and he’s still buying more.  Like ghost hunting equipment.  Life is good.

I think my father (Scott Erb) is the best father ever.  It’s like he knows the future of what will happen and what I want to happen.  I also love that if I fail, he doesn’t regret having me as a son.   He taught me a lot of things over the years, like riding a bike or using a video camera.  There ain’t nothing he can’t do!  His attitude is so strong that if he were falling out of an airplane to his death he’ll say “Wow, it’s a nice view up here.”   Life is good.

So I thank him for all that and much, much more.  It’s like I was given super luck or something to have him.  He’s so nice.  He is going to take me ghost hunting at Nordica!  Yes.  He literally reserved Nordica for me to ghost hunt.  Yes, a real haunted location.  He’s even letting me drive his car!  And we use ghost hunting equipment!  (You already know).  He tries everything to make me happy!  He took me (when I was five) to Chucky Cheese when our cat died.  Life is good.

I am like way too lucky to have him as my guardian.  I appreciate everything that he did for me.  Our bond is UNBREAKABLE.  I mean literally.  Thank you so much Father.  Life is good.

You comfort me Dad and when I need it, you do everything you can.  Sometimes I feel like you’re magic, you’re so good.  Life is good.


You comfort when I need it.

You help me when it happens.

You bring joy and happiness right into me.

You come under, and over obstacles for me.

You are more than just a father.

You are mine.


Obama the Bold

President Obama lays out immigration policy changes in a Rose Garden statement on June 15, 2012.

Friday President Obama announced a long overdue decision to allow “dreamers” – young Latinos who were brought to the country at a very young age, have grown up and lived in the US most of their lives and do not know any country but the US – to avoid deportation, even if they are here illegally or without documents.

As President Obama put it:

“Put yourself in their shoes. Imagine you’ve done everything right your entire life, studied hard, worked hard, maybe even graduated at the top of your class, only to suddenly face the threat of deportation to a country that you know nothing about, with a language that you may not even speak….And I believe that it’s the right thing to do because I’ve been with groups of young people who work so hard and speak with so much heart about what’s best in America, even though I knew some of them must have lived under the fear of deportation. I know some have come forward at great risks to themselves and their futures in hopes it would spur the rest of us to live up to our own most cherished values. And I’ve seen the stories of Americans in schools and churches and communities across the country who stood up for them and rallied behind them, and pushed us to give them a better path and freedom from fear, because we are a better nation than one that expels innocent young kids.”

Young Latinos cheer and show joy on hearing of the policy change

In the short term, this clearly has knocked the Republicans for a loop.   Uncertain of how to react they are going to bizarre lengths, even criticizing the President for appearing irritated (and only slightly irritated) at his press conference when heckled by a reporter!   They realize he’s just made it harder for Romney to win the election.

Romney is in a tough position.   To win he has to try to either earn a higher share of the Hispanic vote (unlikely) or hope that Latinos are unenthused and don’t turn out in large numbers at the polls.   Obama’s decision just made it more likely that especially young Latinos will be motivated come November.   It became harder for Romney to bridge the demographic gap I discussed earlier in the week.

In a bizarre move, many Republicans criticized the President for showing slight irritation at being interrupted mid-speech by a conservative reporter in what appeared to be heckling (perhaps designed to provoke a reaction?)

While this was at least in part politically motivated, it also reflects views Obama has been promoting for years.   Most of the public supports this, the Senate tried to pass it with 55 votes but the Republicans filibustered.   The House passed it when under Democratic control.    Simply, Obama is right to note this is the right thing to do.  It doesn’t solve the problem – the policy could be rescinded by a President Romney – but is clearly a popular and positive move.

This is the second big political headline Obama has created in recent weeks.   Last month he publicly came out in support of gay marriage, an historic move that energized his base.   Many thought that blacks, traditionally opposed to gay marriage, would balk.  However, most profess not to care — it’s not like that issue is going to get them not to support the first black President!    Others thought it might make it easier for Romney to chip off some Latino votes, but today’s move and the Romney campaign’s own clumsiness on the issue make that less likely.

Rallies of support for the change quickly spread, even as Republicans were left complaining that Congress (which has refused to act) had been left out.

I sense a pattern here.   First, Obama has decided that to win this election Obama the pragmatist would have to give way to Obama the bold.    I would not be surprised to see a few more major policy decisions in the coming months as Obama positions himself for a re-election campaign that could be tight.

One thing an incumbent President has that a challenger lacks is power.   He can make headlines, change policy and shift the national conversation.   When this power is wielded deftly, it gives an incumbent a built in advantage, which is why it’s rare for a President not to win a second term.

Team Romney feels like they’ve had a good couple weeks in June, but the polls are staying pretty steady.   The main reason team Romney’s positive mood is that massive amounts of money  is being raised by “super PACs” likely to amount an extremely well funded negative campaign against the President.  It is unlikely the Democrats can counter that, especially as Romney has Wall Street in his corner.

That makes “Obama the Bold’s” next move clear: to find a way to directly take on Wall Street.    With headlines saying Wall Street is firmly behind Romney and most citizens still angry about large bailouts and obscene bonuses being paid to Wall Street insiders, Romney could quickly become known as the candidate of the wealthy elite who brought us the 2008 economic collapse.

Already the Romney camp is worried about the image of Romney being Wall Street’s man.   Moreover, they are betting on a bloody negative fight whereas they try to paint Obama as out of touch and aloof.   That image Republicans are trying to cultivate (any time he shows any irritation at anything it pops up on Drudge as the President being ‘prickly’ or ‘annoyed’) is well planned.   In fact, a memo leaked to the press had a group say they could get Americans to “hate” Obama by engaging in such efforts to smear and attack.

Images like this are pounced upon by the right who want to paint Obama into some kind of arrogant aloof elitist – if they can’t defeat him on ideas, they hope to simply smear.

The problem is, Americans aren’t buying it.   Even those who are disappointed with Obama’s job performance still like him.    Moreover, he has the bully pulpit, and hundreds of millions of dollars of negative attack ads may end up being marketing that is just as effective as the ads selling “new Coke” were in 1985.   Overkill and an over the top message can turn people off against negative campaigning, and Obama’s people know what’s coming.    The power of the Presidency can trump a lot of PAC money.

The election is still close – Intrade has the President’s chances of re-election at 53%, down from 60% in early May, but far better than the below 50% numbers he had most of the second half of last year.   Still, President Obama is telegraphing an activist strategy that Romney will find difficult to respond to, especially if the Republican message is primarily negative and offers little new from the Republican play book of the pre-2008 era.

We will only know in hindsight, but given the symbolic and real importance of this change in immigration policy, June 15 may end up being looked on as the day that President Obama assured his re-election.


The Time of Transition

A piece of the fabric of space-time fractured in my office today and a description of a course to be offered in 2279 slipped through. Weird, that.

It is the year 2279.     Here Professor Hubert Morgan talks about the popular history course on the era of transition from 1985 to 2065 when somehow the global system survived a series of crises without collapsing.   Instead, the basis for the peaceful global union we have today was forged.

We look back at the era as one of instability, riots and fear that we luckily managed to survive – students in this course learn to understand the era through the eyes of those who actually lived through it!

People come to the course with a variety of expectations.   They know that this was the era of globalization, economic crisis, the collapse of the sovereign state as a system of governance, intense global warming, energy crises and famine, but they also know that the story had a happy ending.   Not only did they solve their problems through a mix of technological ingenuity, political creativity and adaptation, but they forged an ongoing era of peace, known as the Global Union.

In my course I try to as much as possible get them to experience that era the way the people living through it did — not knowing for sure what was happening, finding it hard to let go of old concepts and ideals, and fearful of the future.

Students get hands on experience with old technology such as this mid-1980s version of a “personal computer.” Now seen as ancient and archaic, these machines were the gateway into the information revolution that changed the world.

We start at 1985 – the year when both globalization and the information revolution started to take off.    We spend time there, learning about the culture, the state of the world, the films (students especially enjoy one called “Back to the Future”), the games, and the music.

Students laugh when they see the 1985 game “tetris,” which looks much like the exercises two year olds engage in to develop spatial cognition. “It’s surprisingly addictive,” one student grudgingly noted.

People choose various media experiences – that was the age of motion pictures, television, and the emergence of music on compact discs – large cumbersome devices that nonetheless opened the door to the era of digital music.  The idea is to immerse themselves in this strange but fascinating past before heading onto the roller coaster of the next eighty years.

Students take awhile to understand ideology.   Ideology is now seen as a kind of mental prison forcing people into stagnant modes of thought, but politics was ideological in those days.   Students need to understand the bizarre “Cold War” and why it was so difficult for people to think outside narrow political or national boundaries.  It’s not that people were stupid or bigoted, they simply saw that world of ideology, ethnicity and states as natural.

We also explore why warnings on the growing economic imbalances, the loss of oil as a major energy source, and global warming were ignored and even denied.   One student described it as “cultural group think.”

I think the part that often most startles them is the “trips” to virtual farms to see how animals were treated and food produced.   Even though they know it’s not real, when talking to the farmers the odors, inhumane treatment of the animals and the way in which chemicals and other additives are simply dumped into the food chain sometimes makes some students physically ill.   Of all the things that make life 300 years ago so wretched, most say food production is the biggest reason they wouldn’t want to go back!

Nothing prepares students for the virtual tours of chicken farms, and immersion into the food and chemical culture of the era. “How could they eat what was treated so barbarically?” students ask. The answer – most people never gave a second thought to where their food came from, or how it was manufactured.

Of course, the worst part of that era — 2015 to 2045 — can’t help but grab attention.  Looked at as a thirty year “era” it’s easy to understand it and figure out why things worked out the way they did.   In our course we try to accentuate the uncertainty people living through that era experienced – they truly feared global instability, mass warfare, disease and even human survival.

As global warming rendered huge sections of the planet virtually uninhabitable due to drought and disease, many thought that humans would fall back into savagery and chaos.

We follow the side stories of the scientists, politicians, thinkers and cultural icons that strove to keep civilization together and built ties between the impoverished suffering states of Africa and parts of Asia with the technologically advanced people in Europe and North America.    Students recognize how fragile these connections were, especially early on, and how easily they might have been destroyed by fearful nationalism and bigotry.    The wisdom that global cooperation was necessary was a hard sell only on!

In 1901 the first “gusher” at Mt. Spindletop in Texas helped usher in the age of oil – cheap, transportable and extremely efficient energy. A whole society was built on cheap energy, and when oil became scarce by the 2020s people feared collapse.

The final era is that of consolidation, from 2045 to 2065 when the Treaty of Global Union was signed and most of the severe problems of the 21st Century were solved.     This includes the new economics in which the ideologies of capitalism and socialism were jettisoned for a pragmatic approach that combined ideas from all, but focused on human liberty and opportunity as the core values.    Massive debt was wiped out as all old currencies were simply abolished and the world started a new with a global currency and blank slate.   In retrospect all that seems to have been inevitable, but students learn how gut wrenching and scary it was while the issues were debated.

In the course we trace how the information revolution led to the capacity to massively decentralize government and bring it closer to the people, making possible a “Global Union” of core shared rules but little centralized power.   They realize how odd such an arrangement would look to an early 21st Century human so used to seeing centralization and de-centralization as mutually incompatible.

The new science of energy, food and climate is perhaps the most intriguing.  We all learn it as natural, and look back at the materialism, consumerism, pollution and poisonous chemicals as a barbaric aspect of the old era.   In this class students learn how that was taken as natural, and how dramatic the change in thinking was — so dramatic that absent global catastrophe it might never have happened.

The virtual trips to the era are life like.  It is as if we have traveled back in time, our ability to use holography to create worlds that appear completely real to our senses makes this possible.

The past comes alive for students with hyper-programmed holographic technology — something imagined (albeit in very crude form) back in 1987 on a show known as Star Trek.

This course reminds us of crises caused by the era of greed, corruption, materialism, lack of respect for the environment and pursuit of pure self-interest without regard for the common good.   By learning about the past we can better understand our present, appreciate what we’ve accomplished, and remind ourselves that humans do best when we understand we share a common destiny, both with each other and with our planet.


Demography, the GOP and the Democrats

Some facts from an article in the New York Times by John Harwood got me thinking.  His argument was straightforward:  in a close election President Obama will have an edge due to changes in demographics.  Some facts:

  • 89% of the electorate was white in 1976, now it is 74%
  • 1% of the electorate was Hispanic in 1976, now it is 9%
  • In 12 battleground states the “working class white” vote is down 3% from 2008

This may mean that the election is “economics vs. demographics,” though that’s oversimplifying.   But what does this say about the future?   To me it points to an inevitable shift in the Republican party as they move to embrace policies that right now are anathema to the Tea Party, such as immigration reform, gay marriage, and a welfare reform that doesn’t just seek to cut welfare, but make it more effective.   The Democrats, on the other hand, need to find a way not to have to rely on non-whites for victory.   Both parties face a demographic challenge, though the GOP’s situation is more dire.

Consider – the shifts described above are not over.   The working class white vote is declining, the white vote in general will continue to go down (and at some point be below 50%), the urban vote is growing, the rural vote receding, and Hispanics are voting in ever larger numbers.

At some point, the Presidency will be almost unwinnable to the GOP if they do not shift policies in order to appeal to these demographic groups.   This isn’t yet true in 2012, and maybe not be for a few election cycles, but the writing is on the wall.   If the 2008 election had been held with the demographics of 1976 or even 1988, Obama wouldn’t have had a chance.   A President Obama was only possible because of demographic change.

Some of the Tea Party is driven by fear of this change.   The cultural transformation of the last thirty five years have been immense, and many yearn to return to when things were “normal.”    However, anti-immigration stances are poison for the GOP.   Besides not getting results, they assure that the largest growing demographic is captured by the Democrats, even if there are some big name Republican Hispanics.    This doesn’t have to be; Hispanics are not naturally predisposed to the Democrats, the GOP is pushing them into Democratic hands.  If this goes on too long, they will be hard to convert.

It’s a no-brainer that the GOP has to alter its stance.  It must embrace immigration reform, even if it draws the ire of their base.  It may be too late for candidate Romney to aspire to win much of the Hispanic vote, even if he chooses Marc Rubio to be his Veep.   There are too many sound and video bites of Romney from the primary season that the Obama team is going to make sure get a lot of airplay before the election.

Even though they are not representative of the GOP, social conservatives have been very good at getting involved, being active in local organizations, and making it to the polls, especially during primary season.   Take an issue like gay marriage.  A majority of Americans now support it, and the largest number of supporters are among the youth.  The culture has shifted and that can’t be undone.

But unlike immigration reform, the GOP can finesse this one.  Romney is refusing to make this a major campaign theme, which irritates social conservatives like Rick Santorum.   The GOP can take a “states’ rights” stance and say that this isn’t an issue for a President.   That way Republicans in Alabama can be stalwart against gay marriage while a Massachusetts Republican can be progressive.   Over time, the issue will lose its relevance, just as interracial marriage did.

Although the Iraq war ended up consuming his Presidency, President Bush’s efforts to steer the GOP towards a different path on immigration reform and a creative approach to social welfare reform reflect ideas the GOP needs to take seriously.

The GOP also needs to mesh it’s conservative values with an understanding of the challenges facing minorities and the poor.   George W. Bush has already shown how to do that.   In 2000 he talked about ‘compassionate conservatism’ and about building an ‘ownership’ society.   Rather than painting social welfare, unions and the like as all bad – with free market and less government the vaguely defined alternative, Bush’s approach sought to redefine the role of government with new markers.   Even ardent Democrats have to admit that high debt loads and the growing number of poor show that the programs we have now aren’t working right.   A discussion of how to fix things needs to be more than one said asking for more and the other side asking for less.  (I discussed ways the GOP could hone it’s message here).

The housing crisis makes it easy to lampoon the ‘ownership society’ President Bush envisioned, but at least he was offering a positive alternative.

Ultimately it’s not a question of if the Republicans will change, but when and how.   So Democrats should not get too comfortable looking at the demographic trends.   Parties adapt to cultural shifts.    The loud tea party “take back America” voice of today cannot win in the long run, and wouldn’t even have a chance if not for the on going economic crisis.   Just as Obama couldn’t have won back in 1988, Romney of today wouldn’t have a chance in 2028.

As Republicans adapt to the new environment and their party changes, Democrats will also be forced to change as well.   When the GOP starts making inroads with Hispanics and other minorities, the Democrats will have to address what used to be their core constituency: working class whites.    If the two parties become voices for ethnic blocs, American politics will break down.   We need two effective parties exploring creative ideas will nudge each other not to be complacent with a particular ideology or set of solutions.

These demographic trends point to two parties that face both long challenges and great opportunities.   Democrats should look at working class whites (their support among them is about 30-35%) as a great potential source of votes.   Republicans should look at Hispanics and other minorities as their key to the future – as Karl Rove and George W. Bush tried to do in 2000.    Avoiding the demographic split is the best way for the two parties to heal the dysfunction the defines US politics today.


Atheism, Spiritualism and Science

The curvature of space-time, digital art by Ricardo G. Silviera (–time-ricardo-g-silveira.html)

Modern physics is only touching the big questions about the origin of the universe.  Do black holes spawn universes?  Are we in a multi-verse with parallel realities less than an atom’s length away?   Perhaps — those are the kinds of theories occupying modern physics these days as scientists probe the nature of the big bang and what may have caused it.

So what should we humans believe?   Clearly scientific knowledge is uncertain at best.   We know we are in a space-time universe, space-time appears to have come into being at an event called the “big bang,” and if we take quantum physics seriously, the world is probabilistic and far more weird and indeterminate as most of us would like to believe.   The old determinist Newtonian world of clear laws and causality is long gone, even though in every day life that is still the approach we take.

Nils Bohr and Albert Einstein – two early 20th Century physicists who helped shattered the old deterministic Newtonian reality

Consider: Since we live in a space time universe, we are incapable of comprehending or even imagining reality outside space time.   Something outside space-time has no beginning or end, since those are merely temporal markers.   If something is outside space-time it has no location, that is a spatial marker.   Yet there is no way to dismiss the possibility that reality includes entities outside of space-time.   We just can’t comprehend what they would be like or how they operate, it is beyond our cognitive capacities.   Just as an ant in the White House can’t comprehend the politics going on around it, our frame of reference and mental capacities are limited to the space-time reality we inhabit.

Many find solace in a well defined set of religious beliefs. Although the religions are often exclusive, there are vast similarities in core values across all faiths

For religious folk, this opens up the possibility for the existence of God – an existence that is not in denial of science.   If God is outside space-time, then we cannot imagine God’s nature.   God need have no beginning or operate under causal laws like we do.  This fits Buddhist, Islamic and Hindu conceptions of God well, though Christians and Jews have tended to anthropomorphize God and give it human traits.

That said, claims about God that can be tested in the material world are fair game.  The idea that the earth is 6000 years old, for instance, can be falsified.   But for those of us who are not religious, the real question here is what the term “God” means.   Is it a source for this reality from beyond space-time?

There are a few ways to deal with this question.   First, you can dismiss it as irrelevant.   There is no way to test any hypothesis about reality outside space-time, so contemplating it is at best a playful intellectual indulgence, at worst a waste of time.   This is generally the atheist/materialist reaction.   Speculation about something we cannot know is meaningless and beliefs about it are irrational and potentially dangerous.    Better to stick to trying to figure out the world we have access to and can study.

For Atheists the most rational approach is to focus only on what can be tested and experience – religious faith and spirituality is too mushy and uncertain

A second way to deal with this is to simply choose a religious faith and believe it.   We can’t know, but maybe a benevolent God gives us access to knowledge through the heart, with faith the key to achieving that kind of enlightenment.    Supplement that with emotional satisfaction about one’s perceived connection with God, and religious belief can be very satisfying, it can create a sense of meaning in life.    The trouble is that this is true for a vast variety of diverse and often contradictory religious claims.    Either people are choosing to believe in myth and fantasy, or they all grasp aspects of the truth but build human stories around it that can conflict, or (to me unlikely) one group has it right and the others have it wrong.

Others (like myself) believe that we can at least sense a deeper meaning to life through openness to a spiritual side of life.

A third possible reaction is to consider subjective experience and intuition as evidence to explore connections to a spiritual side of reality that may not be testable in the scientific/materialist sense.   That would involve consideration of dreams, feelings, meditation, and efforts at deep empathy.   The idea here is that we may be connected to the God/spiritual world outside space time, but not in a way that exhibits itself through what we can measure and test within the confines of space-time.    Any knowledge gained from such explorations is subjective and personal.

It seems that spiritualism of this sort would have to deny dogma, since dogma rests on claims of certainty.   Instead, ideas would be judged by how well they work in the world or each individual, or whether or not they ring true inside.   I can believe that I draw to me all my experiences through my state of mind and my choices, but I can’t prove it or demand others believe it.

Despite the uncertainty there is a sense of liberation in this approach.   If one takes a purely atheistic/materialist approach to life, there is a  kind of meaninglessness and emptiness to existence.   We all will die, the sun will eventually go nova, the universe will dissipate and everything we do and achieve will be forgotten.    Nothing truly matters, except for our transient and fading experiences.  These experiences can be very meaningful, to be sure, and atheists can find meaning in rational materialism – but to me a reliance on the material side of life seems incomplete.  I cannot look at the world that way.

For the very materialist, the meaning of life is secondary to ones plans and achievements

If one takes a religious approach, there is some heaven or judgment one looks forward to or dreads, with hope for some kind of paradise, be it union with the whole via Nirvana or a heaven of spiritual delights.   For a spiritual approach there is uncertainty and a sense that it is most important that one live true to oneself and ones’ beliefs and reflections.   Success or failure in the material sense are less important than spiritual living.   The idea of judgment seems absurd because how can one be judged when our knowledge is so ambiguous?    Rather than judgment day there’s karma – our actions and choices create our situations.   And that’s where I end up.  I can’t prove it, but I have a sense that there is a unity to all experience and that there is deep meaning.    Living with a spiritual perspective works for me, and that’s ultimately all one can hope for.

Of course, the answer is really in knowing what the question should be!


Angry about gas prices?

In April the GOP theme was clear: blame Obama for high gasoline prices!

Probably not.   If you’re like me, you’ve been watching them fall daily, from a high of $4.00 per gallon in early May to $3.55 in Farmington today (down from $3.59 yesterday).    Yet it wasn’t that long ago that Republicans from Mitt Romney to John Boehner eviscerated President Obama on high gas prices.   They rose because of his policies towards oil companies, his foreign policy, or the lack of domestic drilling.

But, Democrats complained, the President doesn’t control gasoline prices?   Hogwash, was the reply – Obama’s policies are one of the main reasons that they are high — and look for them to get higher this summer!

So what happened?

To be sure, some media sources blamed Obama more than others!

Remember back in 2008 when the economic crisis hit energy prices went way down.    Within less than a year we fluctuated from $160 a barrel to $35 a barrel.   The reason is simple:  oil supplies are pretty stable in the short term, and demand is generally price inelastic.    This means that if demand exceeds supply at a particular price, large price increases are necessary to reach a new equilibrium point.   In the booming economy of 2006-07 oil demand world wide went up, while supplies could not increase.   The result – a spike in oil prices.

To be sure, speculation did accentuate that, but that speculation was based on a belief that demand would continue to exceed supply and oil prices would continue to rise.    Of course, if demand falls dramatically, the opposite happens — oil prices go way down.   Unless supplies are cut, a drop in demand can mean a steep drop in price to reach a new equilibrium.

This graph was from March – from a guy named Andrew Butter on the investment website ‘seeking alpha’ – predicting the oil bubble would pop

Perhaps what we saw earlier this year was an increase in oil prices due to a belief that economies were starting to move out of the recession and that oil demand would again increase.   Add fear of a war with Iran (fears which have seemed to subside since then) and its not surprising that oil again went above $110 a barrel.

However, now it’s down to $85, and seems to be settling in at that price.   Yet all the people who were blaming Obama for price increases are not crediting him with bringing the price down.   Clearly that was an opportunity attack – if something goes wrong, anything, blame the President.   If it starts going right, look the other way.

To me the question becomes: are we in a cycle whereby every time the economy starts to show life, oil prices will rise, ultimately stifling the economic progress?   With lower oil prices we might get another burst of economic growth in the second half of 2012 — perhaps leading to another jump in oil prices which thwarts the recovery.

If so, we’re in a conundrum that requires either increased oil supplies or an increase in the use of alternative energy sources.   Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like oil supplies with increase soon.

Despite a slow economy, oil demand appears certain to keep rising, while new discoveries decline.

In Europe, there has been an intense effort to invest in wind turbines, solar panels, and a variety of other sources.  The Europeans say the future is with electricity, and they are bent on discovering how to efficiently generate electricity without fossil fuels.   They’ve made a lot of progress, which is why they were able to meet the Kyoto accord goals.

Some might point to natural gas and oil shale development in the US and Canada.   Those sources could potentially add to the oil supply, but on a time frame out that is too long to help in the near term.

This means that as we work through the financial problems, the debt crises in Europe and the US, and all the concerns about infrastructure and economic rebalancing, energy is a main barrier to change.   The last century was the century of cheap oil, our lifestyle, our global population boom, our expectation for easy access to goods from all over the world was built on cheap oil.   We’ve electrified and powered every aspect of our lives, from our homes to our appliances, lawn mowers and tools.

If the era of cheap energy is ending, our economy will never get to what one would have in the past called “normal.”    We’re destined to years of economic malaise, only to end when we both work through the debt crises, get banks back under control, and find a way to keep energy costs down.    We should be investing in all sorts of alternatives, like the Europeans are, but instead our stagnating, with Congress unwilling to act, and politicians enamored with a failed “free market” fantasy that markets can magically take care of everything.

Indeed the future might be won by whoever develops sustainable alternatives first and adapts their economy to use them.   In that, we’re already way behind.