Archive for category Ethics

My Marxist Pizza Moment

Another in my series about my adventures with pizza, including Pizza and Me, (8-17-11), Steak Film and Back to Pizza (8-21-11), and Pizza Success (8-23-11):

In general my time working with pizza from Village Inn Pizza to Rocky Rococo’s is an example of learning the business side of the restaurant business as well as the operations.  I was in “management” nearly the whole time, did nightly, weekly and monthly books, was proud of keeping my labor and food costs below the goal, and consistently had the best record for low labor cost percentage.  Yet it was there that I had what I have to call a “Marxist moment” – a time I got so pissed at the corporate capitalist structure that I struck a blow for the workers by allowing free pizza and even beer after close.   I then backtracked and decided that wasn’t the thing to do.   Looking back, I think my basic instincts on politics, ethics and economics can be seen in a microcosm in that experience.

I was still 18, had not started college yet, and in my first months as supervisor.   We were told that the big boss (I forgot his name) was coming from Spokane, Washington, for an inspection of whether Warren had fixed the problems the store had been suffering.   We had to clean the store spotless.     As we worked I started to hear Warren and the assistant manager talking about hiring a prostitute.   They needed to find someone attractive, sexy and not sleazy or scuzzy.   “Hard to do in Sioux Falls,” was one comment.   I just kept working; generally I’m not judgmental so it didn’t seem a big deal.

I also noticed that it was being paid for from the till, and that somehow it seemed the books were being manipulated to cover what the expense was for (“corporate will cover this,” I heard Warren say).   I wasn’t quite sure — I was trying to be observant, but obviously this was done with office whispers, glances and signals.   “What’s going on,” one worker asked.   I shrugged.  “Getting ready for the big boss.”

Finally, the “big boss” arrived.  He was quiet, sneered at the workers, and was fat and ugly.   After being introduced (he muttered something to me, not shaking my hand) I recall walking through the door.   “What’s the big boss like,” someone asked?   I made a face of general disgust.   The guy was gross.   We made little jokes about him (eating the profits, keep him out of sight of the customers or it’ll drive business away, etc.) as he walked around the store, muttering things now and then, but generally seeming to be sort of a dick.

Finally Warren came up to me and said “we’re leaving, the store is yours.”   As they left I heard the big boss asking Warren about “the girl” and assuring him that the money would be “taken care of.”   Warren didn’t seem especially comfortable with all this, but clearly had no choice.   Finally they were out the door.    I waited a few minutes and then took some trash to the dumpster.   The cars were gone.

“God, what a pathetically horrible excuse for a human,” I said loudly as I walked back in.   Everyone laughed, though I was the only one who knew about “the girl.”    We made jokes about his girth and poor social skills as we worked, and I bit my tongue, so tempted to spill the beans about the prostitute.  The next week the assistant manager told everyone the story; my silence had been unnecessary.

I was getting angry thinking about the guy.   He was ugly, gross, and buying a prostitute with Village Inn money, getting wealthy on our work, while we sweat and get paid minimum wage or slightly above.   What’s fair about that?   Who gives that wretched excuse of a human the right to come in, force us to scurry around, please him, and then let him get rich off our work?

“You know what,” I said at about 10:30, “we’re eating on the house tonight, make up a couple large pizzas.”

“Really?”  I think it was a guy named Steve I was working with.   “Cool!”  Steve started making pizzas.   “Why?”

“I’m pissed off at the big boss (I’m sure I used his no forgotten name at the time).”   He’s disgusting, I want to take away some of his profits.”   This was before I had studied anything about political philosophy so I wasn’t really using Marx or any one to justify this, it was an emotional reaction.

“All right!”  The crew was enthused.   We made the pizzas and all of us (about five people at that time) chowed down free of charge (usually food was half price).   After close we even had a few beers.  I realized at that time I was on a dangerous path.  If Warren found out I’d be in big trouble.   “OK,” I said, “this is a one time thing.   Just to spite the big boss.”   There was disappointment at that pronouncement, and others tried to get me to do it again.   I was surprised Warren never found out — or perhaps he did and decided to ignore it that one time.

As I reflect on it, I think the emotion of disgust combined with the realization that a$$holes like the big boss were living pathetic yet wealthy lives on the work of lower paid folk, is the moment I realized that structural force exists in the system.

Yet, the knee jerk reaction to just try to take back value — in this case pizza — to compensate for the exploitation is misguided.   “Workers of the world unite, revolt against the oppressors, take back the means of production” — it was the reaction of 19th Century socialism, a revolt against the system — at least in its logic.   Yet I realized quickly that this was a path that made no sense.   It just wasn’t right.

Maybe the system is unfair, but it’s what it is.   And while the big boss may have been disgusting, he isn’t the whole corporation or system.    There may be exploitation going on, but there is also opportunity.   My ability to get hired and quickly promoted — and reasonably well paid for a high school senior — was testament to what the system could offer.  Compared to other parts of the world, that’s pretty good!    Some might say I stole those pizzas — but I had worked off the clock to avoid overtime enough that I’d contributed free labor to more than pay what they cost.

I determined that my ethics as a manager would be to always respect and treat workers well, and not act like the grotesque blob I thankfully never saw again.    I still think there is a lot of exploitation, and the wealthy use their status to manipulate the system in their favor.   That’s why despite my belief in markets, liberty and individual initiative, I still am not a free market capitalist.  I don’t trust capitalism any more than socialism or any “ism” – human behavior is too complex to be captured by an ideology.

The disgust I felt at the time to me symbolizes the legitimate disgust hard working Americans have about the fat cats — the financial bankers who gamed and rigged the system, the ponzi schemers who manipulated the real estate market, manufactured AAA rated crap derivatives, and pushed us into a global recession.    Yet like most workers, I don’t trust government to come in and equalize things, or to steal from the rich to give to the poor.  Rather, the system needs to provide equal opportunity and block the wealthy from using their status to enhance their opportunities at the expense of others.

Nothing is perfect, and what we have is pretty good.   Rather than destroy it in the quest for some ideal, it’s better to work with it, and try to improve it over time.

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Reflections

Lately I’ve written a lot about politics and economics, and I have to remind myself that no matter how important the issues may seem, and how emotional the debates become, politics and economics simply provide the context within which we live our lives and make our choices.   If we take it too seriously, we risk losing ourselves.     It reminds me of the old Billy Joel song, “Angry Young Man” from Turnstiles, one of my favorite Joel albums:

“I believe I’ve passed the age of consciousness & righteous rage
I found that just surviving was a noble fight.
I once believed in causes too, I had my pointless point of view,
Life went on no matter who was wrong or right

And there’s always a place for the angry young man,
With his fist in the air and his head in the sand.
And he’s never been able to learn from mistakes,
He can’t understand why his heart always breaks.
His honor is pure and his courage as well,
He’s fair and he’s true and he’s boring as hell!
And he’ll go to the grave as an angry old man.”

I see political activists on the left or right, socialist or libertarian, centrist or extreme, and realize that while they convince themselves that they are seeking truth and justice, many are deluded – trying to find from an external cause what they lack within.   Those with whom they disagree are disparaged – fascist, communist, religious extremist… reminding me of another song, this one by Rush and lyricist Neil Peart — “You bet your life” off the Roll the Bones album.

The song conjures up a vision of a young man in the world, surveying all the different beliefs and lifestyles.     The chorus/refrain is a collage of different ways you can bet your life:

“anarchist reactionary running-dog revisionist
hindu muslim catholic creation/evolutionist
rational romantic mystic cynical idealist
minimal expressionist post-modern neo-symbolist

Armchair rocket scientist graffiti existentialist
Deconstruction primitive performance photo-realist
Be-bop or a one-drop or a hip-hop lite-pop-metalist
Gold adult contemporary urban country capitalist

The odds get even – you name the game
The odds get even – the stakes are the same: you bet your life.”

You bet your life.   In each person’s life the true reality is not the power games in Washington (or even Madison), nor is it the ideological struggle between various philosophies.  It’s not about unions or corporations, or about taxes and regulation.   It’s not even about religion.    Reality is about friends, family, and daily choices we make about what to do in complex situations where people’s emotions and perhaps life direction is on the line.

It’s a coward’s way out to hide behind an ideology or a political cause.   It’s a way of avoiding life, of losing oneself so deep in an abstract reality that one doesn’t recognize the pitfalls of “consciousness and righteous rage.”   Life does go on no matter who is wrong or right.

The political and cultural backdrop may change, but each person is confronted daily with the need to make choices on what to do in diverse situations — to help a friend or not, to cheat on a spouse, to lie to a stranger, to steal or even kill.   Yes, the backdrop will change, but to go back to Neil Peart and Rush, you have to stick it out (from the Counterparts LP):

Each time we bathe our reactions
In artificial light
Each time we alter the focus
To make the wrong move seem right

When caught up in a cause, a belief or a sense of “righteous rage” as Joel put it, it’s easy to make the wrong move seem right.   It may be dramatic like the Hutus feeling they had to eliminate their Tutsi rivals, or it may be trivial, like pulling out an opponents’ election signs from front yards — either way, it’s easy to rationalize doing something wrong.  Whenever one is driven by ideology to justify doing things that would otherwise be wrong, that person has lost perspective.

The older I get the more I sense that reality unfolds as it must.   The political and economic turmoil that surround us reflects humanity’s inner state — and is a mere stage for the unfolding of dramas about ethical and moral choice which each of us undertakes.   To focus on the political quest and lose sight of one’s personal connections, friendships and moral choice can lead to a kind of psychological pathology.   It’s why so many political leaders turn out to have personal failings — Senator Craig seeking gay sex in airports though he was a social conservative, Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy’s liaisons with women, or the moral scandals of religious leaders like Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker.   Whenever one gets more caught up in the abstract cause or game than focused on the moral implications of each individual choice, one risks losing sight of what is right.

Greenpeace attacks whaling ships, “Anonymous” hacks corporate and governmental websites, PETA throws red paint on fur, Timothy McVeigh bombs a Federal Building because America’s government is ‘too oppressive’: any time one uses ideology to rationalize actions that otherwise would be wrong, that’s a sign of moral nihilism: anything for the cause.

When I was 11 years old I bought a 45 RPM with Les Crane  reading The Desiderata, written by Max Ehrman back in 1927 – when the world was about to face unpleasant times.  It’s wisdom still comes through:

Go placidly amid the noise and the haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.

As far as possible, without surrender,
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even to the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons;
they are vexations to the spirit.

If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain or bitter,
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs,
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals,
and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love,
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment,
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be.
And whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life,
keep peace in your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

(The Desiderata, by Max Ehrman, 1927)

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Bush and Obama’s Deficits: the Real cause

The above graph was printed in the Washington Post in Ezra Klein’s column.   What it says may shock you.  For all the talk about Obama wanting to massively increase government spending, it’s clear that the real drag on the budget these days comes from programs passed during the Bush Administration.    The graph does not just include Obama’s spending in his first two years, but projects it outward.    The only way to get spending under control is to undo things done during the Bush Administration!

Add to that the fact that the biggest debt increases happened under Republican Presidents — Reagan and Bush the Younger — and the whole narrative of this being a big government problem caused by the Democrats falls apart.

Now, don’t get me wrong.   I’m not trying to blame the Republicans.   There is too much blame being thrown around.   In many ways the debt spiral has been a cultural phenomenon, as Americans became hooked on consumption and credit, with private debt and credit card debt growing faster than government debt.    In our system you don’t get an economy this dysfunctional without it being a bi-partisan effort.

The blogger “From my inkwell” hits the nail on the head when he indicates that this is really a problem relating to values.   Coincidentally netflix happened to deliver the second Wall Street movie “Greed never sleeps” this week, and we finished watching it Tuesday night.    One thing clear in that world of high finance portrayed a bit caricature-ish but reasonably accurately by Oliver Stone, is that values don’t matter.   It’s a game.

The moral philosopher Adam Smith, embraced by libertarians who often never actually read what he wrote, did not think markets were magic.   Absent a system of ethics and values, markets can easily fall apart because people with inside knowledge can use that to manipulate the game and essentially steal value from others.   They don’t need weapons, they don’t need crude physical force, all they need is an advantage, knowledge and resources.

In 2008 we had an economic crisis caused by a greed induced orgy of marked endorsed insanity.   Mortgage backed securities, considered safe “AAA” bonds, were being manufactured and sold at an unprecedented pace.  The reason for the subprime debacle was not government, but private banks demanding more mortgages that they could bundle into bonds and sell to unsuspecting dupes (like people saving for retirement or municipalities for their firefighters).   Mortgage brokers, unrestrained by ethics, ignored the ability of the buyer to pay back the mortgage and approved insane loans — someone making $30,000 a year could get a $750,000 mortgage.

When this lead to a housing crash and a near collapse of the world financial system, the “dupes” took the loses, but most Wall Street players stayed in the game.    Insider politicians figuratively slept with the Wall Street big shots who are now making record bonuses and posting obscene profits just two years after this great swindle.   And on Main Street?   Well, recession and fear rule.   No values.   No ethics.  Just greed and the market.

It’s not that markets are evil.   It’s more that markets reflect the people who are in them.  If unethical folk driven by pure self-interest make up the market, then you’ll get a system devoid of morality.  The rich will make out big time, average folk will suffer.  The problem in our society now is not so much what policies the government makes, it’s one of ethics.

Yet most Americans are ethical.  Most work hard, care for others, give to charity, and recognize that they are part of a community, connected to others.   But they aren’t the ones with the wealth and power.   They aren’t the movers and shakers, the ones “playing the game.”  Also too many of us, including myself, have gotten caught up in the game of over valuing material possessions and not really thinking about the ethical, environmental and human consequences of our actions.  Pollution, exploited foreign workers, and a growing current account deficit are abstract and invisible, it’s easier to consume.   As MAD’s Alfred E. Newman would say “what, me worry?”

Which gets us back to the budget debate.   Republicans and Democrats have it wrong.  It’s not about whose plan to choose, it’s about embracing a different set of values.   One value is simply to live within our means.   That doesn’t mean never running budget deficits.   We installed a geothermal heating system this June, and we had to borrow to do so.  We’ll have it paid off in less than two years, but debt itself isn’t bad.   Most Americans have a home mortgage and car payments, after all.   That’s why a balanced budget amendment makes no sense — sustainable debt for a good cause makes sense.

But in the “something for nothing” mentality of the last thirty years debt became structural.  That has to change.   It will involve raising some taxes, but also cutting a lot of spending.   With all due respect to my friends on the left, unless the public becomes convinced that higher tax rates are acceptable, spending cuts are necessary.   They should be humane, fair, and involve a restructuring of programs to achieve their goals rather than a heartless slashing, but we need as a society to embrace the idea that government debt needs to be sustainable.

More than that, though, we have to give up the mentality that consumption is “good for the economy.”   Advertisers have created a load of  “artificial needs” (or wants) that people strive to fulfill, usually on credit.   Capitalism is excellent at producing value, but it needs to be shifted ethically to creating opportunities for those who have not, including the third world.   This means finding a way to be productive rather than focusing on mindless consumption.

President Obama gave a good speech Monday, but he needs to broaden his approach.   We need to talk about values, what it means to be part of the American society.   If not, then we’ll keep bickering our way into decline.   There is no magic fix.  Government can’t simply bring back the rah-rah days of hyperconsumption of the 2000’s.   We all have to look inside and recognize that values matter — be it on Wall Street, Main Street, or Capital Hill.

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Reality

In the first comment in response to my last post Modestypress wrote:  “I’ve decided to live life as if the world I sense is “real.” I don’t see any point for doing otherwise.”

That got me thinking.   I did not mean to imply the world isn’t real.   Rather, is reality constituted by each of us as a subject in a world populated with objects?   If so, then subjectivity is a unique personal experience.   We can assume that other humans are also subjects (and ethically we tend to believe we should treat them as such), but the rest of reality consists of objects of various sorts.

If we have a view of expanded subjectivity, then the nature of reality is different.  We are connected at some level with that which we experience.   Rather than being discrete entities navigating an external reality, we are entities enmeshed in experience, part of a deeper unity.

Such a possibility actually gets support from cutting edge science.   The most obvious example is how particles can impact each other across vast distances instantaneously.    This seems impossible, the fastest information should be able to get from one particle to another is the speed of light.    (To read more on the science behind it check out the Wikipedia articles on quantum entanglement and the principle of locality.)

The only way that such a result makes sense is if at some level the two particles are connected.   Yet they are not connected in space-time.   If they are connected it is either through something outside space-time which we cannot fathom, or space-time itself is not populated by discrete separate objects but has a deep underlying unity.

While this meshes well with many eastern religions, it also captures neo-platonic thought which heavily influenced Augustine and the early church.    The idea that reality is a unified whole containing diverse perspectives and attributes is not that hard to imagine.     I experience my body as me, an entity comprised of different physical attributes.  I can sit in nature and imagine myself part of the entire scene in much the same way; poetry explores this kind of imagined connection quite often.

So what would it mean if reality actually was unified?   What would it mean if the self isn’t only the thinking mind inhabiting a body, but actually is connected to and a part of all we experience?

First, everything we do to others (whether living or not) we would be doing to a part of ourselves.   We would at some level  be connected to all the pain and joy that exist in the world; if we cause pain or joy, we also would at some level receive it.

Death would have a new meaning.  Rather than being the annihilation of the self, with the only hope of continued identity being either a transcendent supreme being or the possibility that a soul could be reincarnated into different bodies, death would simply be the cessation of one perspective of experience.     That happens all the time.    The person I was 20 years ago no longer exists in the sense that the perspective of experience I had then has been transformed into something completely different.    Life is constantly changing perspectives.

If reality is unified, then no perspective has a privileged position or permanence.    Death may be less an ending than a change of focus — rather than experiencing the world as a human living at a certain period in history, my perspective could shift, perhaps mingling with other perspectives or taking on a new manner of experience.   Death may be the equivalent to finishing one book and starting another one — or turning the channel on a TV.

Ones’ perspective on life would alter as well.   One might better know oneself by looking at the world one inhabits.   What kind of reality do I experience, and why is it that I have chosen (or have been drawn to) this type of experience?   What does the world around me say about who I am?   Usually identity is separate from the external world, here it would be integrated.    How we look at luck, coincidence and chance would change completely.   Life would be a maze of interrelated coincidences, full of symbolic meaning.   Rather than seeing the world as a cold harsh stage upon which one lives a short often difficult existence, it would be a rife with opportunities and possibilities that we draw to ourselves in some way.

Success and failure would alter form completely.   Neither would be completely real, and certainly not permanent or all that important in the grand scheme of things.   Even poverty, wealth, exploitation and violence would shift meaning – if there is unity, the “self” experiences everything at some level.   The idea I’m living a comfortable life is just a focus of perspective at this moment.   At a deeper level all experience is shared.

Most people would simply dismiss all this as meaningless speculation.   We have jobs to do, families to raise, and the reality we experience runs by particular rules we have to navigate.   However, I would argue that thinking about reality from a new perspective might actually have some beneficial consequences.

It could certainly mean letting go of a lot of stress and anxiety — just entertaining the thought that the world is not cold and cruel but rather purposeful and full of opportunity alters ones’ mood.    It also could cause one to consider different goals; if this moment of experiencing life through this perspective is only a partial taste of a greater reality, then striving for material success for the sake of material success alone starts to seem pointless.

The mind would shift to looking for clues in relationships and life activities that might hint at how one can enrich ones’ experience at a deeper level.    The world as a whole would be more important; the day to day struggles and dilemmas could seem more trivial.   Fear of death would give way to acceptance of transitions.   Hatred would become irrational, since hatred of the other would be hatred of a part of the self.   Love would be the ultimate truth, in that it would entail the connection between apparent-self and apparent-other.

Human history contains many versions of reality that seemed absolutely natural to those living within them.  Slavery, the superiority of one gender over another, sacrifices to Gods, tribal customs, religious faith, and secular rationalism are all ways humans have conceptualized and thus interpreted reality and experience.    The idea that what seems natural at this point in time is based on a misunderstanding of reality certainly is feasible.

If we are willing to try out different ways of conceiving experience and reality we can avoid being trapped into the mode of thinking dominant in our particular culture.    To me, that’s liberating, and gives me some power over how I choose to interpret my experience.   Rather than accepting a world view created by otherse, I can use reason and reflection — the heart and the head — to determine what I believe to be true, and choose how I want to live my life.   That is real freedom.

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Is There A God?

(This reflects my own internal musings over the past few weeks, already discussed in a blog entry ‘The Nature of God?‘ last month.)

We’ve reached a time in history where most well educated people have developed a deep skepticism of religion.   Even those who still profess a faith often treat it as a minor aspect of life, something held on to out of habit more than conviction.   In Europe only 20% of the population still believes there is a God.   Even here in the US core biblical knowledge that all used to share is becoming rarer.   When I was a child everyone learned about, say Jonah and the Whale, and knew who Abraham and Isaac were.   If I ask a class that now a days only one or two out of thirty students will know.

The skepticism of religion seems to answer the question “is there a God” with “no.”  But really, the question goes unasked.  Instead a particular belief system is being replaced by another one.   Atheism generally is an embrace of materialism (belief in the dominance of matter, or things which can be seen and measured in the world) and rational logical thought.    This was the enlightenment alternative to religious faith and tradition, after all, and the enlightenment is winning.

A belief that matter is all that matters (pun intended) has to be called into question, especially as scientists learn more about the nature of matter, time-space and the universe/multiverse.   A focus on reason or rational thought discounts the entire emotional side of human existence, relegating the part of our experience that gives us a true sense of meaning — joy, anger, happiness, sorrow, etc. — to second class status.   In short, even if one thinks that particular theological perspectives or religious dogmas cannot be believed, that shouldn’t automatically lead to an embrace of materialism and rationalism as the proper way to understand life.    Reason, after all, cannot provide ethics or morality, it is only a tool that can lead to conclusions based on evidence and assumptions.   Reason does not tell us what our values should be.

So I would start by going back to the question: is there a God?

The first aspect of answering any question is to define the term.    What does God mean, especially if we’re asking in the abstract, rather than asking about a particular God-story.   The Christian, Muslim, or Hindu Gods may all be fiction, but that doesn’t mean there is no God.    For any of their beliefs to be right, there first has to be a positive answer to the central question on God’s existence.

There are various ways God can be described.   God is the prime mover, the one who set the world in motion.   Before Newtonian physics was modified by Einstein the need of a prime mover caused most people to accept the need for a God.   And it does seem like science requires if not a prime mover, at least something to cause the “big bang” or to generate space-time.   So part one of a viable God concept is that God is something that is outside space time that in some way caused this universe or world we experience to come into being.   At this point there is no requirement God be a conscious entity, just a causal mechanism.   And, being outside space-time, there is no need to ask “what created God” – creation and a “beginning” are attributes of being in space-time.

God could also be seen as  a spiritual presence.  Here the going gets trickier.  Religious experience is real, documented over time (famously by William James), and has the capacity to create happiness, improve recovery from disease and yield a more satisfying life.   But how do we understand that experience?  It doesn’t seem to matter what religion one believes either — all Gods seem capable of miracles.   The usual way to approach this in a materialist sense is to see it as a psychological aspect of humanity; religious experience is a chemical reaction of the brain.

But that’s unsatisfying.  Depression, for instance, is linked to chemical imbalances in the brain, but do we really want to say that all ‘negative’ emotions and experiences can be “fixed” chemically?   Can we find a “religious” chemical treatment that gains the benefits of religious experience without actually having the faith?   Such a “brave new world” approach to psychology is scary.   Perhaps chemical imbalances are caused by a mix of stress, negative thoughts, and cultural pressures.   To focus just on treating the symptoms would be to ignore the causes and the possibility that human mental health is more than just chemical reactions.

The spiritual/emotional/inspirational side of life can’t be found in purely material terms, it’s the stuff of dreams, internal meditation, reflection, imagination and art.    We have to have a different standard of observation, more subjective and comparative than use of the scientific method.   If we do that, then a wide realm of possibilities open up.

So I would posit the following God concept:  God refers to an essence outside space and time.   As such it is likely immaterial, in that it would not be subject to the laws of nature as we experience them in our space-time universe.  As I noted last month, if we see reality as primarily spirit (or consciousness) rather than stuff (or matter), then there is a good chance that a God would have consciousness.

Looked at in this way the question of “Is there a God?” has three possible answers:  a) Since we cannot not determine for certain yes or no, it’s a pointless question; b) the probability is that there is no conscious God and any causal mechanism for the world’s existence has a natural/material basis; or c) the probability that there is a God is great, with God defined as a force/source outside of space time (at least in part) with some form of consciousness.

“C” is a superior answer since “a” requires us to dismiss thoughts about the nature of life and our purpose as irrelevant since we can’t have certainty.   I’m fine with uncertainty.  “B” requires dismissing as unlikely the possibility of anything outside of matter and relegates consciousness to mere chemical/material reactions.   That may be the case, but it seems a leap of faith to assume that’s the case.   “C” leaves open a vast range of possibilities from pantheism to a kind of deism, virtually all existing religious beliefs, and a variety of spiritual and philosophical perspectives (including Plato’s notion of the ideal).

So yes, there is very likely a God with some kind of consciousness existing at least in part outside space/time.   But what God is remains ill defined.   Is it a part of all of us (are we all aspects of God?), is it a spiritual force, is it an entity with individual identity?    Those are harder questions.    So I guess for now I’m a Deist.

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Gandhi and Libya

Last night we watched the film Gandhi, the 1982 classic starring Ben Kingsley.  I haven’t seen the film since it came out almost thirty years ago, but shortly into it I recall how inspiring the person and message of Gandhi was to me when I first saw it, and then subsequently read more about the great spiritual teacher.

His message was clear:  love is truth, and truth ultimately is more powerful than hate, fear and anger, which are untruths.   When confronted with “untruth” it is best to respond with truth.   That is not passive resistance but active non-violent resistance.  Violence and anger only increases the scope and depth of the violence, and ultimately reinforces the problems one is trying to confront.

Gandhi also had real respect for all faiths.  He was close friends with Muslims, Christians and of course fellow Hindus.   He saw truth in the core teachings of each, even if the humans professing those faiths often veered from them.    He was fond of quoting the New Testament and when asked about Christianity at one point he said he only wished Christians were more like their Christ.

I’ve always believed that life is at base spiritual.   What matters is the spirit, the flesh is simply a vehicle which we are using in this limited existence to learn lessons and have some fun.    All of that requires cooperation — we learn with help from others, we help others learn.   We enjoy life and have fun with others.   That is a view that helps me stay grounded, especially if material and daily concerns get intense.  Ultimately the “stuff” of the world doesn’t matter, the spirit does.  I’ve internalized that view and believe that right or wrong it helps me live with a bit less stress, an easier time forgiving others (and myself) and perspective about the world in which I find myself.

Which brings me to Libya.  I’ve always found Gandhi’s notion of non-violent resistance to be powerful, and his argument that violence begets violence persuasive.   I’ve not supported US foreign policy, especially military actions, for as long as I can remember.   Whether Clinton in Bosnia or Kosovo or Bush in Iraq and Afghanistan, it seemed to me that violence did more harm than good.

I don’t believe in coincidence (that comes from my spiritual world view).   The fact that I’ve generally supported intervening in Libya coincides with the unexpected arrival of Gandhi from netflix.   That leads me to rethink my view on the conflict.

Ambiguity about the use of military action for humanitarian purposes has been something I’ve always grappled with.   As former German foreign minister Joshka Fischer said, “no more war, but no more Auschwitz.”    President Obama cited Bosnia, but to me Rwanda is the strongest case for intervention.  Ever since teaching about the details of that genocide, with students reading Romeo Dallaire’s book and myself obsessed for awhile with gathering the details and arguments around that event, it seemed to me that the international community simply let the Hutus slaughter 800,000 Tutsis when a well equipped international force could have ended the violence.

Following the news of the non-violent revolt in Egypt, and then hearing about protests growing in Libya, my reaction to the news that Gaddafi was using mercenaries to brutally terrorize citizens and then taking heavy military equipment to bombard them and promise that his attack on Benghazi would show “no pity and no mercy” was emotional.  My anger at a dictator who for over 40 years stole the oil wealth of his country to sponsor terrorism, train mercenaries, engage in foreign policy adventurism in Africa and brutally repress his people turned into contempt.  When someone of such obvious evil clings to wealth and power by threatening massive death and destruction, how can the world stand by?   When now Canadian Senator Romeo Dallaire called for intervention, comparing the case directly to Rwanda, that intensified my emotional desire to see NATO hit back.   When the UN Security Council approved military intervention, making it a legal action driven by humanitarian concerns, it seemed to me the right thing to do.

In terms of national interest it also seems to make sense; the region is changing, this will help get the US on the right side of change and undercut the ability of al qaeda or extremists to guide the future of the Arab world.  Moreover, it is a true multi-lateral action, while Iraq was clearly a US-UK action with small states going along in exchange for favors.  This might put the US on the side of cooperative efforts to secure the peace rather than what appears to be neo-imperial efforts to control world affairs.  It takes President Bush’s idealistic but likely accurate belief that democratic change and modernism is needed in that region and supports those in the region who want to make it happen.

Yet, thinking about Gandhi, I realize that as strong as those emotion beliefs are, they carry with them a veil of abstraction.  Military action is easy to talk about, but it kills people, including innocents — there has never been a clean intervention.   Moreover, if Gaddafi had subdued the rebels, perhaps a lot less life would be lost overall, and the international community could still do things like boycott Libyan oil, freeze assets, and essentially deny the Libyan leader the right to act effectively on the world economic stage, pushing him to choose to leave on his own — he is in his eighties after all.

Though my world view is essentially spiritual, I don’t think the material world is useless.   Even Augustine distinguished between what he called the “city of man” and the “city of God,” and the definition of violence is arbitrary.   Structural violence is as real in its impact as is actual use of force; to focus on only one as wrong is arbitrary whim.   Yet in this case I come to the conclusion that the emotional desire to strike led me to be too willing to rationalize military force, and that it would have been better to let Gaddafi take back the country and then use other means to try to bring about change.    The post-Ottoman world is still scared by 600 years of military dictatorship followed by corruption and ruthless leaders.   Adding more death and destruction may well do more harm than good.

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Dimensions

I’ve been reading Brian Greene’s new book The Hidden Reality, which deals with various theories in physics about multiple and parallel universes to ours.   It’s a fascinating book, though I’d recommend reading his previous piece on modern physics, The Fabric of the Cosmos first.  Not only does it provide background information on the science of modern physics that makes The Hidden Reality easier to understand, but it is one of the best lay science books out there.  Still, The Hidden Reality is worth reading.

Rather than write about the book and the various theories within, I want to speculate on what it means to think of humanity not only as not the center of the universe, but perhaps part of a multiverse with unseen dimensions that further makes our little planet seem utterly insignificant.  Yet perhaps not.

I’ve before made my “ant analogy” — just as an ant’s world seems complete and understandable on an ant’s terms, reflecting the very limited mental activity of such a creature, we may be limited in ways just as profound.   Just as the ant can’t comprehend the socio-political dynamics of our world, there may be as much that we can’t comprehend about the world around us.   We think we see it fully, can use logic clearly, and make definitive statements about our universe and its laws, but if what is unseen is fundamental to shaping our reality, our view is inherently limited.

Consider dimensions.  It’s really hard for us to imagine dimensions beyond the three spatial dimensions we inhabit.   We even get headaches thinking about “space/time” as a single unified entity — space just seems to be the world out there, and time the passage of events.   We know that’s not the case thanks to relativity and quantum theory, but for every day life it’s not something we can practically comprehend.

Subatomic particles like electrons are considered point particles.   That seems one dimensional.   Photons and other particles are considered to be without mass — and photons are pure speed, experiencing no passage of time.  (And paradoxically light is both a particle and a wave at the same time).    So while we can capture, measure and aim photons to use practically, an individual photon will never experience time — it is pure velocity.   Mass itself is a problem — why do particles have mass?   The current theory is that there is a field (the Higgs field) which creates mass (the particle moving in a field meets resistance, which yields mass — that’s imperfect, but the most easy to understand metaphor), but even the fact mass is so problematic is counter to the common sense of life in the world.   Common sense, of course, is often misleading — but when it comes to core aspects of life, that’s a bit spooky!

The paradoxes of quantum mechanics are well documented.   Anyone wanting a clear natural deterministic universe that runs on distinct laws has to be disappointed with where science is taking us!

Yet if there are other dimensions then one can imagine a reason why these apparent contradictions and paradoxes exist.   If we are seeing only three (or four, if you count time) dimensions then we are seeing only a portion of the world.  Particles may exhibit themselves only ‘in part’ in our reality, having some other source or aspect in other dimensions which we can’t fathom.   Gravity seems most likely to move within dimensions, while electromagnetism seems at least to have a dynamic contained in what we can experience and measure.

This also makes the nature of life problematic.  Life as we define it relies on certain attributes within a 3D environment.  It is a biological definition, reflecting how chemicals interact, reproduce and adapt.   Notions of consciousness, spirit, or anything other than seeing humans as extremely complex “natural” robots are inherently controversial and untestable.  Biological intelligence isn’t that much different from artificial intelligence except for its complexity, speed of adaption and pristine functioning.

However, if life exists here because of processes or attributes of other dimensions — things that impact ours but cannot be seen directly — then what we consider to be life is unclear.   Consciousness and spirit may be terms that describe the hidden impact of other realities on our own, while entities that appear “lifeless” in our world may actually be part of a larger ‘conscious’ organism operating beyond our own dimension.   While a good down to earth scientist would dismiss this as pure speculation, it’s speculation built on the fact that we have so many unanswerable questions about existence (what is consciousness, why is there something and not nothing, do we have free will).   Like the ant unable to see beyond a closed clear insect world, we may simply be unable to see what may be obvious to multi-dimensional entities.

Since Copernicus took us off our pedestal of seeing the earth as the center of everything — God’s one creation, the core of existence — we’ve been falling fast.   The sun lost it’s role as the center, then the galaxy, and now there are multiple galaxies, the earth is a tiny planet amongst billions of stars, to the point that there could be an infinite number of alternate universes, and other dimensions that shape our world but can not be seen directly.

Yet all that complexity and our apparent insignificance is itself questionable.   We only appear insignificant because our limited 3D space-time mentality cannot interpret the notion of other dimensions or universes in any way but one that seems to create worlds outside ourselves and far distant.    Consider a four dimensional equivalent.   Rome is a long ways a way.  I cannot visit the Pantheon or throw a coin in the Trevi fountain.  Two months from now, I’ll be in Rome and those things will be directly accessible to me.   The problem is simply the dimension of time.   In another dimension, it might be possible to transcend time — we simply don’t have access to that part of reality.

The oddities of modern physics may in fact reaffirm our significance, since the notion of being in the center of a 3D geographic world is meaningful only in this limited world.  Expanding that analogy into other dimensions makes no sense.   Perhaps it is in fact meaningful to think that the apparent isolation and uncertainty of life in a space time world is an illusion caused by our limited access to reality.    We don’t know more, we don’t have an answer key to how to live life, what its purpose is, what we should value, etc., because such an answer key is wholly inaccessible in this world.  Uncertainty is a core aspect of this existence.

And that possibility comforts me.   I don’t need to figure it out.  I don’t need to find the “right” philosophy or the “right” religion — it’s utterly impossible to know if I’ve found it, or if one exists.  Instead, I need to make choices and live my life as I truly want to live it.   I’m responsible for it, I determine what it means, and I can explore spiritual and philosophical ideas whether through dreams, logical analysis or prayer and meditation as I see fit.   Daily problems, injustices small and large, battles over ideology and power, even horrors like torture and genocide need to be seen with that perspective.  As bad as it is, we don’t know the true deep meaning and cause, so rather than responding with fear and anger, we simply need to choose how to act ourselves, being true first and foremost to the inner voice it seems each of us possess.    Fear, anxiety, stress, anger, greed, hate…all are things driven by our inability to be at peace with our ignorance of the true meaning of reality.    Once we embrace that ignorance and recognize it’s just a part of this life, things might become much easier.

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%$#@!

As my children, two boys, slowly grow up — one is about to turn 8, the other turned 5 in December, an interesting question is how do you teach young children about morality and ethics.

The easy way, of course, is just to invoke rules.   To the inevitable “why” that is asked the response is “just because,” or “because I told you so,” or “because that’s the right thing to do.”   I avoid this approach like the plague.  It’s OK if the boys are out playing and it’s time to come in – “because I told you so” is a fine reason in response to open defiance – but not when it reflects a genuine puzzlement about why a person should behave a certain way.

We live in a culture that values the simple.   People prefer their explanations to be straight forward and easy to understand.   President Bush disliked ‘nuance.’   Whether in food or politics, people embrace what is easy.   Complexity is distrusted, as if it is used when someone is trying to fool you.   And, of course, complexity can serve to obfuscate what should be transparent.    But overall this is a very dangerous tendency in our culture because the world is a complicated place, and often what seems clear and obvious — and thus embraced as ‘common sense’ — is simply wrong.    Understanding how the world operates actually takes some time and work — indeed, the lessons keep getting learned and refined until we leave this world.

Nowhere is that more important than in the realm of morality and ethics.   The problem with trying to just teach kids rules is that if they don’t believe the rules are necessary (they don’t understand why the rules exist) then there is nothing wrong with breaking the rules.   Most college kids who plagiarize don’t really see it as wrong; in their eyes they’re harming no one and just finding a way to get a good grade.   The only question is “can I get away with it?”   Morality becomes something people adhere to only out of fear of the consequences of their action, not because it is the “right thing to do.”   Given that my kids are already smart, creative and independent beings, I know they won’t simply follow a rule because they are told to.   They are too much like their rebellious and independent father!

This leads to some interesting conversations.    When my (nearly) eight year old used the “F word” the other day,  I was surprised and responded, “Ryan, don’t say that word.”      (For the record, I almost never swear so I know he’s getting it from somewhere else!)

“Why not, it’s just a word.   I’m not using it against anyone else, I’m just mad.”

I was going to respond, but I realized that he was absolutely right.   There is nothing wrong with the F word.   If you doubt me, check out George Carlin’s irrefutable analysis of the seven words you can’t say on TV.   (If you click the link you’ll have to verify you’re 18 to continue!)  I didn’t want to say “it’s a bad word” because he’s smart enough to know that would be a stupid argument.

“I know,” I replied, “it’s just a word.  I don’t use it because some people really don’t like hearing that word.”

“Why?”  His face made it clear he was genuinely puzzled.   “Why would people let a word bother them?”

Yikes.  He’s right.  “There are a lot of silly rules in the world,” I confided.  “Rules that really don’t make sense….”  I stopped.  What next?   I didn’t want to resort to “just do as you’re told” and leave him thinking that I’m simply commanding him to follow senseless rules.   But sometimes following “silly rules” is absolutely necessary in daily life.  Luckily as a teacher I have a tactic to use when I’m in this kind of bind — turn the question around.

“That’s a good question.  I don’t use those words because they bother people, but you’re right — it is pretty silly to let a word bother you.  Do you think we should use those words anyway?”

Ryan thought.  “I guess if we know it’ll bother someone we shouldn’t,” he said without enthusiasm.  “But you said it doesn’t bother you, so why can’t I use it at home?”

That was easier.  “Because you get into habits and say the same things without thinking.  If you get used to saying the word it’ll come out when you don’t want it to.”    He accepted that but still was a bit dissatisfied.  “I still don’t see why people let words bother them.”

“Why did you use that word?”   I asked.

“I was angry about the legos,” he said, his voice showing that the frustration was still there.

“I think a lot of people have been shouted at by angry people who use those words since words like that are most often used when someone is upset.   It’s sort of like how I don’t want you to call your brother an idiot.   It hurts his feelings.   If people have had their feelings hurt by people using angry words they’ll remember that when they hear a word again.”

OK, I thought, that’s probably the best I can do at this stage of his development.

“Then maybe we shouldn’t use angry words and just talk calmly.”   Yes!   Ryan’s tendency to explode and get angry is something we’ve been working on for years.

“Exactly.  Try to really work on that.  I think that it’s even more important to try to stay calm and be nice to others even when you’re mad than what word you use.”

“So if I calmly say ‘damn it’ that’s better than being angry and not using any bad words?”   (Hmmm, I thought, he’s the one who brought up the concept of  ‘bad words.’)

“You got it kiddo!”

“Why do people not want you to say ‘Jesus Christ.’   I thought some people think he’s a God, why is that bad?”

Sigh.  “Yes, but people who think he’s a God really don’t want you yelling his name when you’re angry.   Also, God is supposed to be a very good, important entity — there are some people who get angry if you even try to draw a picture of their God.”

I knew his frustrated look.   “People get bothered by strange things,” I shrugged.   “People take things far too seriously in this world, life would be easier if people didn’t let things get to them.   So I guess we shouldn’t be bothered by the fact some people get bothered easily!”

He laughed a bit.  He went back to his legos, I went back to preparing a lecture on Iranian politics.   Somehow I think this is just part of a conversation covering a variety of themes that will recur and grow in complexity over the coming years.

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A Movie You Must See

A short blog entry today to recommend everyone go to netflix and rent The Last Days of Sophie Scholl.   It is a German film (Sophie Scholl – die letzten Tagen), and it is very powerful.  I wrote a blog entry about it two years ago called ‘moral courage,’ so I won’t repeat here what I said there.

It is the kind of film that draws not tears of joy or sadness, but the tears which come when witnessing true moral strength and clarity, the kind of behavior that speaks to the most noble and honest aspects of humanity.   The film is set in her last six days of life, from her arrest to her execution.  It is based on real transcripts of her interrogation, and interviews with others involved.    Her faith, sense of honesty, and ability to see the situation with moral clarity while others are deluded or simply taking the easy path by conforming to expectations should cause all of us to look inside and ask if we have that capacity to see truth and stand by it.

The issues that come out in the court room, her interrogation, and her reflections are intense and powerful.   The acting of Julia Jentsch is riveting and persuasive.    Words cannot do justice to this film, you simply have to watch it.    In a culture where ethics and morality seem devalued, where uncertainty takes relativism almost to the state of nihilism, this film is a powerful affirmation that there is such a thing as truth, moral clarity is possible, and when it is on display, immensely beautiful.

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Power to the People

(Part 2 of a two part post)

As I noted yesterday, the great compromise between labor and business ushered in an era of record prosperity and stability for the industrialized west.  It expanded opportunities for the lower classes, gave most people access to education, health care, and a functioning social welfare net, all while allowing businesses to prosper, expand, and innovate.   After the ideological battles of the first half of the 20th century, the success of the second half is astounding.

Yet we are in crisis.  Most industrialized states have government debt of 60% of GDP or more, while private and corporate debt is often three times as high.   So much debt in every sector of the economy cannot be sustained.  The cheap credit bubbles that led us here have burst, and it’s still possible that we are at the start of “Great Depression II.”   Moreover, the crisis is global, and the economic re-balancing it entails could breed instability and conflict.   The 65 year run of prosperity and stability in the industrialized world could be nearing an end.

So how do we prevent that from happening?  First and foremost is to avoid sacrificing ‘the great compromise.’   The compromise had two aspects.   First, the workers got true opportunity to succeed and have their children live a life better than theirs, thanks to a social welfare system that guaranteed the basics and protected worker rights.    Second, capitalism and markets could function, allowing businesses to innovate, profit and grow, thus yielding a materially prosperous society.    Now both the left and the right risk going beyond the terms of the compromise, and thus endangering it.

The left risks expanding governmental power and social welfare guarantees to the point that they do not only assure equal opportunity and basic needs, but are used instead to shape and mold outcomes.   The right runs the risk of going beyond the terms of the compromise by empowering big business to begin exploiting again — this time third world workers via globalization.   If production shifts to the third world, the short term benefit of lower prices for us is offset by long term problems of economic sustainability.   The middle class will shrink, the number of workers will decline, and less profitable and productive service sector jobs will dominate.   Working class opportunity will fade, and you’ll end up with a bifurcated society of the very wealthy and a large and relatively poorer lower middle class.

But how do we prevent the compromise from fraying at the edges, with both the left and the right breaking its terms until they set up a crisis that comes equipped with its own ideological holy war?   How do we avoid the kind of instability that marked the first half of the 20th Century?   The answer may be surprising: devolve power.  Give localities, states, and regions more money and control of policies and regulations.    Give people more power over big corporations and financial institutions.

This is possible because now even small towns have access to data and information that used to require central bureaucratization.   With resources, a state or county could run a health care system or aid for poor families in a way that used to require more central control.   The problem with central control is that bureaucracies are bad at adapting to particular circumstances.   They thus require ‘standard operating procedures’ that work adequately well most of the time, but rarely at an optimal level, and sometimes creating absurd Kafkaesque outcomes.   Bureaucracies are also very conservative, and do not adapt well to change — not a good attribute in this era of rapid and unexpected change.   All this makes bureaucracies inefficient and expensive.

If this could be localized, money could be spent more efficiently as local idiosyncrasies are taken into account.  The staff would be better able to adapt policies to fit individual cases that don’t fit the norm.    Broad guidelines could come from above, but everything from qualifying income levels to the amount of aid could be related to local prices and contexts.   Moreover, people would be empowered to define what problems should be addressed and even develop alternate solutions.   Before the digital age, this was simply beyond the scope of local or even state governments.    Not any more.

One can imagine the central state (or for the US, the federal government) shrinking over time, as more power and resources are given to states, while state governments would devolve more power and authority to the locals, something Jerry Brown already proposes for California. Thus while many programs might be reduced or eliminated, there would be more local control over the specifics of how this would happen.   The social welfare side of the great compromise could be made sustainable even in lean economic times.

The same logic could apply to big money.   Big corporations and financial institutions often have more power than most sovereign states.   They lack the protections of sovereignty, but also the burdens.   They are immensely powerful, and can use that wealth to manipulate political outcomes and circumvent both governments and markets.   Their flaws, as with the flaws of big government, come from too much centralized power and too little transparency and oversight.

Just as the left has to question its devotion to big government, the right has to recognize that big business is not somehow pure and uncorrupted just because its not government.   Centralized power acts like centralized power, whether its a government or a corporation.    The key here is to open up and democratize corporations — with the effect of altering them as much as the radical devolution of government power would alter the state.

Right now corporations are assumed to be responsible only to their shareholders, with their primary job being to maximize profits.  Yet in the US, at least, corporations are considered “individuals” before the law, like any citizen.  But while we tell our children that citizens have responsibilities, and we aren’t to just selfishly try to enrich ourselves with no regard for morality or others, that is precisely what we say corporations are supposed to do.

What if corporate decision making bodies, such as boards of directors and executive committees, had to include members of the public who represent the interests of communities, workers, environmentalists, and others.   The idea is that corporations need accountability and transparency just as governments do; big government and big business are more alike than different.    The choice to relocate in Vietnam would depend not just on the bottom line, but also the impact on the community.   Confidential information would now be open to the public (something Wikileaks like developments will cause anyway).

Since businesses are global, the difficulty would be in defining the relevant communities here, simple geography won’t suffice.   Over time the digital age may prove this less problematic than it seems to those of us still living with a world view shaped in the 20th Century.   Diverse populations can be brought together in communities rather easily, as Facebook illustrates.    Corporations will still generate profits, innovate, compete in the market, and remain capitalist.   They will simply be run with broader accountability, reflecting their responsibilities to both shareholders and the larger public.

In short, a radical rethinking of both government and business can save the ‘great compromise’ and bring us an era of continued prosperity.   It is premised on bringing the old slogan “power to the people” to life.    Real power, power over governments and large corporations, will be held in part by people in local and regional governments, now capable of getting information and acting on it thanks to the dramatic transformation of social, economic and political life caused by the information/internet revolution.

Imagine.

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