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Looking for the Keys in the Wrong Place


I am back to reading the news and opinion, seeking inspiration for these blog posts. Today it comes as it often does from an op-ed by David Brooks, entitled, “This Century Is Broken.”

Most of us came of age in the last half of the 20th century and had our perceptions of “normal” formed in that era. It was, all things considered, an unusually happy period. No world wars, no Great Depressions, fewer civil wars, fewer plagues.

It’s looking like we’re not going to get to enjoy one of those times again. The 21st century is looking much nastier and bumpier: rising ethnic nationalism, falling faith in democracy, a dissolving world order.…At the bottom of all this, perhaps, is declining economic growth. (Emphasis added)

Brooks continues with some statistics on the number of people without jobs, including a large number who have stopped looking. Pretty shocking. Then some data on the number of the poor that are using some form of drugs. Pretty grim outlook.

About half of the men who have dropped out take pain medication on a daily basis. A survey in Ohio found that over one three-month period, 11 percent of Ohioans were prescribed opiates. One in eight American men now has a felony conviction on his record.…In different ways Eberstadt and Cowen are describing a country that is decelerating, detaching, losing hope, getting sadder. Economic slowdown, social disaffection and risk aversion reinforce one another.

Of course nothing is foreordained. But where is the social movement that is thinking about the fundamentals of this century’s bad start and envisions an alternate path? Who has a compelling plan to boost economic growth? If Trump is not the answer, what is?

Wrong question. Economic growth is the problem, not the solution. Economic growth has put many of the disaffected in the straits they are now in. Brooks should be, instead, following the money as “Deep Throat” is supposed to have said back in the Watergate days. I have to admit I lack proper statistics for what follows, but I think I am correct overall. I believe that a better analysis should be based on the distribution of income. GDP per capita has been rising steadily for the last 50 years with a few bumps along the way. This means on average, every one in the US would have had more dollars to spend every year. The graph plots GDP per capita (constant 2005 US$) vs. year. (Source: Index Mundi)

Screen Shot 2017-02-22 at 3.35.57 PM.png

I also looked at similar data corrected for purchasing power. The same upward trend indicated that even if prices increased, the average person would have had more to spend. Without going to the work of Thomas Piketty and other economists, it seems very clear that more is not better. The problem lies in where the money goes, and for that, you need another economic statistic, the Gini coefficient, that indicates the way the money is distributed. Higher numbers indicate that more of the money is going to the wealthier. This graph plots Gini vs. year (Source: Index Mundi)

Screen Shot 2017-02-22 at 3.54.18 PM.png

US Gini coefficients have been increasing for a while. So while the US keeps getting richer overall, the lower economic classes are getting less of the wealth. That’s the basic problem, not growth. But that’s not all. We are significantly more distorted than the countries we tend to compare ourselves to. The bottom cluster includes the UK, Sweden, France, India, and Greece. The middle cluster is China, Russia, and the US. The upper two are Guatemala and Haiti. I did not have any particular set of counties in mind when I constructed this chart, but I find the closeness of the US to both Russia and China, particularly intriguing. Perhaps we should stop pointing fingers at them.

Then for fun, I went to the Freedom House website where I could gather data on the most authoritarian and undemocratic countries of the world and plotted the Gini coefficient just as in the above graph. I won’t include the figure, but the US is again clustered in with many of these baddies. It seems to me that the time has come to, as Shakespeare wrote for lawyers, start killing the economists.

To add fuel to the fire, the number of billionaires is rising far faster than global GDP. A story in the NY Times noted, “[t]here were 2,473 billionaires in the world, as of Wealth-X’s last count through 2015. That was a 6.4 percent increase in billionaires from the year before. Global GDP currently is rising from about 2 to 3 percent per year. Further, “The top 10 — nine from the United States, one from Spain — have a combined net worth of $582 billion.” I can’t do the math, but wonder what the Gini coefficient would be if this money were to be spread around the bottom end of the economic spectrum? More critically, what kind of lives would all those disaffected be able to live?

This raises many, many questions for me, and I hope for you. Are we looking in the wrong place for answers to the social decay we are falling into? I think so. Economics has no solution. Neither does technology or innovation. The current shift toward authoritarianism and populism is, if we are like so many other nations where wealth is controlled by oligarchs, only to make things worse or, at best, maintain the current conditions. All the promises President Trump has made fly in the face of these data and other economic models that are equally as unpromising for the poor. How terribly cruel this is. We have started to use that word to describe the current immigrant actions, but really should begin to see the inherent cruelty across the board.

Most arguments related to this situation are couched in terms of fairness. We need policies that are fair because we believe in justice. That language is going nowhere in dealing with this issue. It’s too easy to subvert fairness, but maybe it is time to expose the inherent cruelty behind what appear to be the principle drivers of this new President and his men (sic).

(Image: Gustave Doré, Wentworth Street, Whitechapel: 1872)

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on February 22, 2017 5:07 PM ::

Comments Please, But Read This First

spam I have again deactivated the comments function, at least for the time being. I started to get a few thousand spam messages every day. I do still want to hear from you. Instead of using the comment link, please send an email to the link at the bottom of "recent posts" list on the right hand side. I will paste your comments into the appropriate post. I hope this will defeat the spammers.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on February 22, 2017 8:56 AM ::

Truth or Consequences

truth or consequences

I imagine that very few of those who read this blog will remember the old radio show by this title. Here’s how Wikipedia describes it:

On the show, contestants received roughly two seconds to answer a trivia question correctly (usually an off-the-wall question that no one would be able to answer correctly, or a bad joke) before “Beulah the Buzzer” sounded (in the rare occasion that the contestant answered the question correctly before Beulah was heard, the question inevitably had two or even three parts). If the contestant could not complete the “Truth” portion, there would be “Consequences,” usually a zany and embarrassing stunt. From the start, most contestants preferred to answer the question wrong in order to perform the stunt. Said Edwards, “Most of the American people are darned good sports.”

I only wish that the game of truth were such a light-hearted sport today. The Guardian, now an increasingly important source of news for me, ran a story today about Roger Stone, one of Trump’s early supporters, entitled “Trump ally Roger Stone: Americans can now choose ‘alternative’ truths.” Referring to the Kennedy assassination, Stone argues that there is now much disbelief about the “official” explanation and, consequently “… there can be a choice over the truth?”

Here’s where we start to get into deep trouble. There are only two forms of truth, brute facts that are exact replicas of reality, and self-consistent truths, like 2 + 2 always equals 4. Everything else is opinion in one form or another. Opinions are assertions about reality that are not or cannot be grounded with indisputable evidence. Scientific facts are an exception. They are very carefully constructed opinions, based on a rigorous methodology, that we have come to accept as valid statements about how the material world works. They are the opinions of the scientists that applied the method and interpreted the results, and can be superseded by better opinions in the future. Social scientific facts lack the same rigor.

Truths are statements that should or must be taken into account in our actions if actors of all sorts want their intentions to become truly satisfied. Truths become embodied in the brain as beliefs, the grounds on with an actor plots whatever actions are to be taken in any particular case. If I fail to believe that 2 + 2 = 4, I will be unable to balance my checkbook and may overdraw my account. If a UPS driver believes I live at 19 Main Street in Lexington, MA (I do not), I will not get my long-awaited package.

Opinions are not important until they become embodied as beliefs and determine how we act, using them as grounds. Until they become embedded beliefs, opinions are nothing but words. Because opinions are what they are because they lack acceptable grounds for establishing their factual reality, we are always forced to rely on assessments of the source as a proxy for the truth of the assertion. From the start, people were suspicious of the Warren Commission’s report of the Kennedy Assassination. So, it is not surprising that alternate stories (opinions) continue to capture the beliefs of many people.

In the Guardian article, Stone, who has just written a book about the Trump election, paints politics as a “contact sport”

“Politics is not beanbag. This is a contact sport, always has been, always will be. It was alleged that Martin Van Buren dressed up in women’s clothes, that Abraham Lincoln fathered mulatto children - this is part and parcel of American politics.”

Perhaps so, but those who win in this game become our governmental leaders and legislators. Quite abruptly they are thrown into a different game. Some realize that and start playing by the new rules, but others do not. This seems to be the place we are right now in the US. Our leaders cannot distinguish between the rules of getting elected and being elected. If they continue to act based on lies and biased opinions—a sort of lie, we cannot count on the outcomes of actions as likely to be the case.

Brute facts are few and far between in most of the issues that matter in governance at all levels. The problems to be faced arise in complex systems, one of my favorite topics. Complexity confounds the discovery of brute facts. It is unlikely and, in some cases, impossible to determine the basic facts that explain a situation and can, thus, be counted on in drafting and implementing a response. There is only opinion to be had. Science, which is the only institution that offers “truthful” opinions about the material world, may be useful, but cannot deliver a full story in these cases. It is critical that the opinions used to plan and initiate action are the most reliable possible. Reliability of opinions depends on the open-mindedness and mental capabilities of those (high levels of complexity always require multiple inquirers) involved in generating the actions.

Partisan opinions are intrinsically biased; that’s what makes them partisan in the first place. I do, unhappily, agree with Stone’s claim that such partisan sources now dominate the way many, if not most, people get the information on which they formulate their beliefs. I do not see any way to avoid this. All the more reason that those who win on the basis on poorly grounds opinions, shift as they move into their official roles. And all the more reason that the people have access to unbiased sources of information and public opinion. Painting such sources as passing off untruths and alternate facts is a strategy to deprive the citizenry of such sources.

Lastly, in this discussion of truths and opinions I have to add lies. Lies are statements the speaker knows are not true. They do not ever correspond to reality. Saying I live in Washington DC is a lie. Claiming I have a PhD in philosophy would be a lie, although I have come to acquire lots of philosophical ways of thinking. Accepting lies as truths has two serious consequences. Acts based on them will generally fail because they have little or no reality as grounds for the choice of action. In addition, they will erode the legitimacy of the speaker’s reputation as a truth teller, making it more and more problematic to engage with her or him in the future. That may not matter for those who are uncritical and do not care about the bad outcomes, but would seriously damage future interactions with anyone who does. Lies have no legitimate place in either the political process or the governance that follows. They may thwart the popular choice in elections, but they will cause harm, perhaps very large, to all, both the winners and losers, during the governance actions that follow.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on February 20, 2017 12:57 PM ::

Truth, Trust, and the Constitution


The idea underlying freedom in the United States is government by the consent of the people. Most of us have been exposed to this somewhere along our educational path. I suspect, however, that very few have really thought about what it means. To truly understand what it means, you have to start with the previous post. Consent rests on a foundation of trust. And trust lies on a deeper ground of truth or facts.

Consent always applies in practice to some form of commissive: a promise to do something. In a high level of generality in the context of government, it means to obey the law, pay your taxes, and, even, understand why you are doing what you are doing. This goes back to Jefferson’s admonition about the need for an educated citizenry.

I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power. (Thomas Jefferson to William C. Jarvis, 1820.)

Commissives, in turn, respond to some form of request or obligation, except in cases where the intention to act is entirely self-generated, but this latter instance does not apply to the context of government. Nor in this case does it usually respond to some individual directive from somebody; actions as a citizen almost always come as the result of some declaration that established a duty or duties.

Consensual action in this case requires that the actor hold the declaration as valid. This means that the utterer of the declaration has the authority or legitimacy to stand behind it and, further, that the reasons for it are valid (true). We obey the Constitution of the United States because we have accepted the reasons behind it and the authority of the myriad of people that have used it as a basis for other laws and rules. Occasionally as times change and the actions no longer do produce the originally intended outcomes, we change the Constitution itself. Behind this generally unquestioned authority lays a context of trust in the intentions of the Framers, those who have followed in implementing it, and those who have interpreted it when necessary.

Trust, itself, rests on assessments of the validity of the authority of anyone who asks you to do anything meaningful to you. Trust is built by examining the truthfulness of such a person or institutional power. Truthfulness is measured by several indicators, 1) how well the assertions being made fit reality, and 2) how well have previous promises been satisfied. In many cases, individuals cannot independently validate a specific assertion or fact because they lack access to proper grounds, and must resort to another source. For facts about the workings of the material world, science is the proper alternative because it has proved to be the most reliable in this context.

For facts about the social world or the lived world, no single such source exists. Journalists and their media have historically served this purpose. They were a trusted source of facts that could be used for the necessary personal assessments of the validity of the requests being made by people whose authority was established ex officio, that is, by the powers inherent in their office, but not necessarily in the person him- or herself. The discredited or disempowering of the journalistic media is often one of the first acts of an elected or unelected leader aiming to usurp more power than the office was intended to hold.

A second way is to examine the actual history of the person holding the office. Do his previous actions, taken as a whole, provide evidence of his or her trustworthiness? Our present president falls far short of this test. It is clear that President Trump holds ‘truth” in contempt. Comparisons to Orwell’s 1984 are fully warranted. The claim of alternate facts is equivalent to Orwell’s idea of “Newspeak.” It’s worth a short diversion to read Orwell’s own words from his Appendix to 1984.

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever. To give a single example. The word free still existed in Newspeak, but it could only be used in such statements as ‘This dog is free from lice’ or ‘This field is free from weeds’. It could not be used in its old sense of ‘politically free’ or ‘intellectually free’ since political and intellectual freedom no longer existed even as concepts, and were therefore of necessity nameless. Quite apart from the suppression of definitely heretical words, reduction of vocabulary was regarded as an end in itself, and no word that could be dispensed with was allowed to survive. Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum. (Emphasis added)

One important difference, Donald Trump is not subtle. Not are those close to him. Lies abound. Lies about brute facts. Those who accept these lies do so at their own peril. Again, looking at Orwell’s work, these falsities are traps designed to capture the minds of the citizenry, first, then their souls, and finally, their bodies. If and when the hoi polloi begin to catch on, it is too late for them; freedom will have disappeared. Some people in America have already begun to find a solution through drugs to the inner distress that comes from an utter sense of disappointment and despair. There is a big difference, however, between these drugs and, soma, the drug of Huxley’s Brave New World that was given to keep people from rising up. Soma does not kill. Sales of 1984 have jumped since the election. It is now #7 on Amazon’s best seller list.

If evidence of not telling the truth is insufficient, there is further evidence that President Trump has a long record of failing to keep his promises. The details of these failures were made public during the campaign. Such failures are essentially just another form of lie, in this case, about the validity of one’s intentions. We have come, in America, to have a healthy skepticism toward promises made during political campaigns, but, in Trump’s case, the promises to do it single-handedly defy the accompanying cry, “believe me.”

I do not expect the President to change his strategy, which put him into the White House. This puts a lot of weight on the two other countervailing parts of our tripartite system of governance. There is little we, as citizens, can do to influence the courts. They are explicitly designed to be independent. We can work on our legislators at all levels. It is probably fruitless to influence the ideologies that place them in one of the other major political parties, but perhaps they will respond to an argument based on this and many other similar essays and opinions elsewhere. Trust is essential. Without trust, the Constitution, to which many have taken an oath to protect and abide by, is but a lifeless piece of paper. Ironically, it protects the same people that would allow it to lose its legitimate power. Even if a plea to support one side or the other of a specific issue is unlikely to prevail, perhaps a plea to speak truth to power and build and maintain trust might filter through.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on February 19, 2017 2:39 PM ::

Politics and Philosophy

speech act

I have been struggling for the last few months to assess the possibilities for flourishing. Since I believe its possibility started dropping centuries ago when the key ideas about the way the world works burst forth, a few years wouldn’t seem to make much difference. I think it does, however. I have to focus on the United States for my lack of context about the rest of the world.

The biggest event to examine is the election of Donald Trump. I will start my analysis by looking at what he represents as a potential window into the current cultural beliefs and values. He moves us quite a long way from thinking in terms of complexity. We are to get our facts, a form of belief, about the state of the world largely from tweets, 140 characters in total. We are told that The President has a monopoly on truth. The facts we hold to describe or explain what is happening before out eyes are simply alternate facts.

I have to remind you that there are two distinctive kinds of facts: brute facts and institutional facts. Brute facts are descriptions of the perceptible world, for example, I live in Lexington, Massachusetts. If someone offers up an alternate fact about where I live, they must be living in some alternate universe. Institutional facts are not quite so simple. They are facts that have been created entirely through language. Both kinds are critical to the creation and maintenance of an orderly society and the ability to assess the possibilities for moving in the direction of our visions of how life should be.

Institutional facts are created through a particular kind of speech act, a Declaration to use, the philosopher, John Searle’s term. It is one of five commonly used speech acts. Even if you are not familiar with this nomenclature, you have been using speech acts all of your life. Searle has written extensively on this topic. As introduction, here is a quote from his book, Expression and Meaning:

We tell people how things are (Assertives), we try to get them to do things (Directives), we commit ourselves to doing things (Commissives), we express our feelings and attitudes (Expressives), and we bring about changes in the world through our utterances (Declarations).

One very common form of speech act is the class of assertives. They are statements claiming that something is so. “I live in Lexington,” or “I am the smartest person in the room,” or “My car is black,” and so on. I am choosing the words I speak to fit a real worldly situation. An assertive is valid if the words actually do fit the world. Just saying them does not make them true. They must ultimately be backed up with satisfactory grounds, if challenged.

The next familiar class is directives. These are statements like “Please shut the door”; “Do not drive over 60 mph”; or “The Secretary of State shall suspend the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for 120 days.” The speaker wants something to happen. If the action is then performed, the world will now fit the words. The act is satisfied in such cases where the world has changed to fit the directive. The next speech act, commissives, is the obverse of the last. It is an utterance that commits the speaker to some future action. Statements like, “I promise to send the check,” or “I will attend the party,” or “I will build a wall” are forms of commissives. Commissives, like assertives, have the same fit of the words to the world. They lead to actions such that the new state of the world matches the words. The changed world appears sometime after the request or promise to satisfy the utterance, but sometimes it never does.

The last class I will mention in the body of this post is declaratives. These are very important because the words in the utterance create a new world instantly. “I name you Tom,” or “You are guilty,” or “A chess game is over when one player (the loser) is unable to move the King without losing it by capture,” or “I hereby proclaim that the entry of nationals of Syria as refugees is detrimental to the interests of the United States” are all forms of declarations.

They are immediately satisfied, unless the authority of the declaration is challenged, because 1) the declarer has been authorized to speak in this way, or 2) everyone involved has agreed to the declaration. The first pertains to a president, judge or referee; the second to a game, like chess or baseball. Declarations create or invent new facts. They convey new obligatory powers to common objects and situations. A home run is simply a baseball (object) that has left the ballpark between two poles that have been declared to delineate what is fair game. A Judge is a person who has been given certain powers. So is the President of the United States. Declarations are a kind of magic. I speak and, presto, the world has something new about it. Our country is based on two such speech acts, The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The Declaration contains a Preamble asserting the facts that ground the argument for the accompanying declarations. The Constitution is a pure declaration.

Declarations create all sorts of subsequent rules and obligations. If one wants to play chess, there is an obligation to follow the rules; otherwise what is going on is not chess. If one wants to take part in any institution from small ones like families to larger ones like companies to even larger ones like a nation, then he or she has an obligation to play by the rules that accompany the fact that such an institution exists. Institutions are as real as brute facts in terms of guiding human action, but lack materiality. They can be changed by new declarations, but brute facts can be changed only if the material situation has changed, say, if I move to Cambridge.

Why all this philosophical stuff? These definitions and concepts have been created by philosophers. They are important because these speech acts keep societies and institutions together and allow them to function without the exercise of force. John Searle has written that institutional facts are “the glue that holds civilization together.” Importantly, scientific facts are not brute facts; they are a special kind of institutional fact. They are statements coming from the institution of science that pertain to a “truth’ about the way the material world works. Their validity is established by the agreement of other scientists (peer review) and is always contingent upon new evidence that replaces the old declaration with a new one. Since the Enlightenment, the scientific laity has had a tacit agreement with the scientific institution to accept these scientific facts as truths. For much of the world, they have come to be conflated with brute facts.

Similarly, in civil society and all other institutions, smooth functioning depends on the legitimacy of the speech acts that create the rules (declarations); and the validity of those that provide 1) the context or grounds for reasonable actions (assertions), 2) assumptions about the purpose or end condition of the stated motivations of requests (directives), and 3) assessments about the trustworthiness behind promises (commissives). For those that want to dig deeper, I recommend the work of Jurgen Habermas on Communicative Action. He places the speech act theory of John Searle and others in a social context. I find Habermas provides answers to the question about why people act in social situations without being coerced to. Basically, he argues that rational people will act consensually if the validity of the all the speech acts involved in the context of any particular action can be established; if so, actors will go ahead without being forced.

It should be obvious that such consensual action is the engine that makes the world work satisfactorily. If we were forced to act all the time against our interests and values, no institution would last long. Our nation is predicated on the idea of government by the consent of the governed. I will continue this discussion in the next post, but this is a lot to digest. I do think a little reflection of these speech acts can help sort out all the dysfunction in the news these days.

ps. Searle adds a fifth class of speech acts, expressives. They lack any connection to establishing new institutions and associated institutional facts or to a future world. Expressives express a psychological state referring to some past or existing situation. A few examples include, “Thank you for your gift,” or “I apologize for lying to you,” or “I deplore your being so selfish.” Expressives are important acts to maintain civility when the intentions of other speech acts have been bent or breached, as in “You broke the rules, lied to me about cutting the grass, or never did send me roses.” One of the most powerful forms of expressives is “I forgive you for…” It permits a renewed willingness to freely assess the validity of clams involved in future speech acts and may re-establishes a lost context for acting consensually. Apologies often act as precursors to acts of forgiveness. Also relevant?

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on February 14, 2017 12:15 PM ::

Regulations Are Good for Us


It’s is a terrible deal to toss out two regulations for every new one as the President recently ordered. Regulations were invented to correct the raw mechanics of capitalism and minimize its harmful unintended consequences. I have lived through and worked with environmental regulations since they first showed up in the 1970’s. A company I started helped write the very first regulations put out under the Clean Air Act of 19790. I remember why they came to be. Smog events in Los Angeles with dreadful health consequences. The Cuyahoga River catching fire in Cleveland. Love Canal. Some 3000 excess deaths after an extended fog in London, England. Today Beijing is choking in the absence of adequate regulation.

Regulations are a standard mechanism to control the bads that accompany the goods that commerce produces. They are necessary to make the cost of the goods include both direct and indirect inputs. Direct inputs are items like labor, materials and the cost of capital; indirect costs include harms incurred in manufacture, use, and disposal. Dirtying the air or water with wastes creates a cost that you and I, the consumers, pay. Minimizing the wastes by imposing a tax, technical controls, or other measures limits the direct harmful effects on humans and other life and the costs to remedy any such outcomes. Financial regulations such as those issued under the Dodd-Frank Act similarly limit economic losses to private citizens.

Regulations are always costly to those on whom they are imposed. That’s the very idea: to make the price reflect the true cost, a necessary condition for the market to function properly. In some cases, the potential harms are so severe or unethical that regulations ban certain practices outright. The rules by which regulations are put into place require that the benefits exceed the costs. The process by which this happens is onerous and is constrained by the requirement that the result cannot be either arbitrary or capricious.

The benefits generally accrue to the general public, but the costs are borne by the firms doing the damage. So they yell and scream, “Foul.” These outcries are not justified according to a report of the Office of Management and Budget in 2013. Examining 536 major rules issued between FY 2003 and FY2012, they found that the annual benefits were in the range of $193 to $800 billion, while the costs ranged from $57 to $84 billion. The broad range reflects the difficulty of valuing indirect costs. Nonetheless the net positive effect is unassailable.

Those of us who would be negatively affected by rolling back regulations have short memories. Few are old enough to remember the filthy linens in the houses of those living near coal-burning power plants. The harms to millions caused by the 2008 financial crises are already fading from view. The perpetrators of these harms are not necessary evil or venal; they simply don’t learn. The bottom line and personal greed show up every day at work; the indirect costs are far away and the Boss is pushing to outdo the competitor next door.

The business sector now includes a small number of companies that do have a social responsibility to produce goods and service with a net positive value that includes all costs, direct and indirect. They are yet but a tiny fraction of the firms that continue to stick with the famous utterance by economist Milton Friedman, “The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.”

Any government that purports to represent all the people has no choice but to use regulations to insure that the costs and benefits of the economy are fairly distributed. An administration that politically claims to side with the poorer and disenfranchised elements of the public has an even greater stake in making sure that the lack of regulation does not exacerbate the very situation that has led to the imbalance. Before applauding efforts to roll back or fail to implement regulations, make sure that the job created by that move doesn’t harm your family or cause your insurance to skyrocket. Somebody always pays for the costs of poorly- or un-regulated commerce.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on February 12, 2017 4:02 PM ::

Conservative Doesn’t Mean Mindless

Instead of my usual opening image, I will start today with an aphorism. I chose it because of the obvious irony. I am into irony these days. It helps me through the days.

It is better to be be slapped with the truth than kissed with a lie. (Russian proverb)

It is very difficult, even I would say impossible, to get where you are going by using only the rear view mirror. That’s true unless you are heading to a distant past. This may be the right destination following some sort of collapse or serious setback, but hardly the right one to head for when everything seems to be working reasonably well. Especially in contrast to times in the past. Today I am going to comment on a development where the present plans would seem to take us back to times when we struggled to move forward.

Conservatism, like liberalism, means many things to many people, but I cannot find any arguments that it refers to going backwards. The classic case is to stick with what you have instead of trying out new, unproven ideas. In the real, complex world, this never made sense and it doesn’t today. We live in a world with many flaws in the fabric of our ideals. They are there because the explanatory models and structures built on them fail to match the reality of the world. Unlike scientific facts that do a good job of matching the parts of that world, our beliefs and institutional facts, which may have come close to reality sometime in the past, have become obsolete and mismatched to the present world.

Complexity demands a certain level of humility, a willingness to accept the virtual certainty that anything we say about the world can only approximate, at best, what is going on out there. Even science struggles when it comes to explaining the real, complex world. The best, perhaps the only, way to deal with complexity is via pragmatism. Pragmatism is a way toward understanding complexity. The better we understand how any complex system, like the real world, writ large or small, works, the more likely our attempts to guide it towards our desires will be effective. In changing times, the very reason to try new and different approaches is that the old ways no longer fit the world, and in fact created many of the problems to be addressed.

With this short preface, let me connect it to what has been going on. The last time human societies attempted to operate without facts was the Dark Ages. We owe almost everything we would argue is “good” for us from the marvelous realization in the Enlightenment that facts matter. Life until that time had been ruled by articles of faith coming from two sources. One, obviously, is religion whose dogma was largely responsible for the darkness of the Dark Ages.

The second is what emerged in the early times of the Enlightenment as scientific facts. I write “as scientific facts” because they are not what we would call such facts today. They were pronouncements of philosophers, like Descartes, Hobbes, or Smith, about eternal truths that were picked up and used to build the early modern world we still live within. But they are not scientific facts at all. Today, we accept as scientific facts only those that have emerged from the rigorous application of the scientific method, which ironically was an idea of Descartes. The facts produced by the early Enlightenment thinkers are what have been called institutional facts, social constructs, legal fictions, even imagined realities. They take on the power of true facts about the world simply because they become heard as such, usually because the first person to utter them has some sort of authoritarian legitimacy.

John Searle, the philosopher, offers another category of facts he call “brute facts.” They are simply truths about the world that speak for themselves. I am a male is an example. I am composing this blog on an iMac is another. So is the size of the Inauguration crowd a brute fact. Occasionally there may be good reasons to argue over brute facts, but not usually in a society of shared meaning about the physical nature of the world. The concept of “alternate [brute] facts” is nonsense. It is simply a denial of reality that comes with a great loss.

Denying brute facts destroys trust in the speaker very quickly. Without trust, new institutional facts, the critical kind necessary for any form of social existence from families to nations, even to the whole planet, will not be accepted as true or valid. If and when this happens, the fundamental underlying principle of American democracy, governing with the consent of the governed, is broken. I understand our American society is built on a network of principles and rules, but if this one goes, nothing else matters.

A substantial number of Americans have already made this judgment that the government cannot be trusted. Supposedly that fact was a major factor in Trump’s victory. Now, that number is being rapidly magnified by those who have already losing or have lost trust in the new government. Not by any past act, but by the blatant, deliberate lying since the election. This distortion of the truth in not the same as the argument George Lakoff makes about the framing of issues. He points to the power of context to guide the way we think and act, but always within the bounds of fact.

If this were not enough to wonder about the path ahead, the new Administration is showing an utter disregard for science. I guess that is because science has been legitimized as the best source of facts about the world we can trust, not because they are true in the sense of brute facts, but because they enable us to construct material and institutional structures that generally work the way we want. They also point out changes in the world that threaten those structures and the norms/ideals they stand for. The consequences of this disregard for both scientific and brute facts include one obvious, but chilling, outcome: a return to the Dark Ages. Not the Dark Ages of pre-Enlightenment times, but one of our own making.

We are not the first to face the possibility that our acceptance of a pack of lies or alternate facts has led to the very loss of freedoms we feared or never even knew they were available. I have lived through times when many souls lived and died under the heels of authoritarian leaders who survived largely by suppressing truth. I will finish this blog with a few quotes of one of my heroes who clearly saw the need for truth and the consequences of losing access to it, Vaclav Havel. Havel led the Czechs out of darkness by forcing the truth of their world on them and by that process, empowering the powerless. Here are just a few of my favorites.

There can be no doubt that distrust of words is less harmful than unwarranted trust in them. When a truth is not given complete freedom, freedom is not complete.

A human action becomes genuinely important when it springs from the soil of a clearsighted awareness of the temporality and the ephemerality of everything human. It is only this awareness that can breathe any greatness into an action.

What is needed in politics is not the ability to lie but rather the sensibility to know when, where, how and to whom to say things.

Anyone who takes himself too seriously always runs the risk of looking ridiculous; anyone who can consistently laugh at himself does not.

Man is not an omnipotent master of the universe, allowed to do with impunity whatever he thinks, or whatever suits him at the moment. The world we live in is made of an immensely complex and mysterious tissue about which we know very little and which we must treat with utmost humility.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on January 25, 2017 3:16 PM ::

Turning the Corner on My Book

inauthentic face

Well, I did it! I have sent my new book manuscript to a publisher in hopes they will accept and publish it. A long time coming, but finally off my computer screen. Now what? Some patient waiting before I hear from the publisher, and a lot more time available for other activities. Some goes to the reading and preparation for my last ME’AH semester, which covers the modern period of Jewish history. I should hear any day if I got my courses at HILR, my retiree learning center. Maybe a foot high pile of New Yorkers and other reading that sits waiting to be opened. Long overdue mundane household chores that I could justify postponing because of the importance of getting the book finished.

With Inauguration Day just a few days past, I expect to be spending some time following the new Administration. I wonder if we will see any changes in Trump’s behavior once he has been sworn in and, perhaps tones down his insecurity index. I can’t go quite as far as Ronald Reagan did in his stance on dealing with the Russians, ironically invoking an old Russian proverb, “Trust, but verify.” The original is in the form of a short rhyme, Доверяй, но проверяй (doveryai, no proveryai). Suspicious source, but I doubt that Reagan had any ties to Moscow. Update after 3 days: the answer is no.

The verify half of this is very important, but I expect will be difficult because of the shortage of reliable information, a condition that will probably get worse before, if ever, it gets better. The trust half doesn’t apply for me. The election process left me devoid of whatever leeway I normally have in observing what goes for politics lately. The transition process has moved my bullshit detector even closer to the redline. Update: We can expect to be fed a stream of ‘alternate facts.” I will be on the lookout for all sorts of apples rising from the trees.

Meanwhile, flourishing got a push from the United Nations recently. I got a note from a friend telling me of a meeting at the UN to work on a project that had been started a few years ago. To provide some context I quote from the document that was the focus of this meeting.

In reflecting in depth on the 2030 Development Agenda, in October 2015, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) convened a dialogue around the question: “ What deep human and organizational transformation is required to support the goals of sustainable development, and how might such transformation arise in human beings who have experienced suffering and trauma?” Around the table were respected policy experts, psychologists, neuroscientists, academics, ethicists, journalists, spiritual leaders and those who work in the field delivering UN programs. Their collective interest was to consider the question of human flourishing and sustainability with attention to an increasingly global, inter-spiritual and multicultural convergence on the “interconnectedness” of the world’s seven billion people. The main conclusion was that sustainable development requires a “spiritual transformation” of ourselves and the organizations we are linked with that actively extends to the societal, global, and ecological levels. (My emphasis)

I do not have any details of the meeting, but believe it was devoted to this idea of ‘spiritual transformation.” The document clearly, in my reading, argues that sustainable development taken in the economic sense alone is insufficient to achieve the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

I am not sure I would have chosen the word spiritual to contain the program being developed, but, in any case, the arguments are very close to those I make. The document stresses interconnectedness and what I call caring actions. I cannot say much more now because I was not at this recent meeting.

I am surprised and a bit embarrassed that I had not heard of this initiative at the UN. I am very impressed with the way they speak about “sustainable development as a transformative spiritual phenomenon,” clearly making the goal distinct. The most intriguing part of this document is the reference to authenticity. It is hard to find this idea mentioned anywhere, but in a bureaucratic document from the UN. It is clear to me that the framers of this do understand that the kind of acts they argue are necessary can come only from a very special kind of care, care I call authentic. Such care shows up only when the actor sees acknowledges the legitimate needs of the target of action. I call this an act of love; so does the UN document.

An elevation in the experience of oneness, conscience, and unconditional love that is necessary for human progress is imperative if we are to respond fully to the suffering caused by inequalities, violence, natural disasters, wars, and displacements and post-conflicts that have become chronic for individuals and entire communities around the world. Many people everywhere now are searching for ways to pull hearts together based on the consciousness of oneness. They are turning toward many perennial forms of spiritual practice where the authentic self can shine through into a life of inner peace and love

Wow! I am looking to see how to get involved. This effort is a ray of light for me in a sea of gloom.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on January 23, 2017 2:27 PM ::

The Inaugural Address Trump Didn't Give

I went to a performance of “Thurgood” tonight. Wonderful moving performance. The synchronicity with current events was palpable. The closing lines come from a poem by Langston Hughes. The irony with the winning slogan of the President-elect is extraordinary. Here is the whole poem.

Let America Be America Again (1935)

Langston Hughes, 1902 - 1967

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on January 19, 2017 10:29 PM ::

Beware the Messiah: A True Kabbalistic Story


I have been attending classes in Me’ah, a program on Jewish history, theology and sociology for about 18 months. Me’ah means 100, the number of class hours the course contains. Today we finished the third semester, which covered the medieval period. The subject was one I have been very intrigued by—Jewish mysticism. The subject is much too broad to fit into a single lecture, but our teacher, who speaks at a lightning pace, gave it a try.

Much of the time today was spent on the earlier phases of mysticism that pertained to the development of Kabbalistic (cabalistic) Judaism. This movement which has remnants even today in the rituals of the very rationalistic form of Reform Judaism I practice was a reaction to the transcendentalism of traditional rabbinic teaching that tells us that God is ineffable, unknowable. We can know what God is not, but we can never know what God is. We can only approach God through the effects caused by God on Earth. Study of the Bible and living according to its commandments is the best way to appreciate and love God. Purists will certainly find much missing from this very brief explanation.

I add it only to illustrate what is different about Jewish mysticism. Not satisfied with the cool rationality of this tradition, the mystics wanted to feel or experience God. God was believed to be immanent, that is, internally present in everything. God was divided into two parts, Ein Sof, the transcendent part that was still unknowable, and a second part, Sefirot, which was accessible to humans, But not without some considerable effort because the form was mysterious. The two were connected by some sort of divine essence flowing out of Ein Sof. Many ritualistic practices evolved aiming at unscrambling the mystery so that the immanent God would be experienced ecstatically, that is, as present in one’s consciousness. Some practices survive to the present as a part of more mainstream groups within Judaism, but also as a more general mystical practice available to anyone.

This is all prelude to the main thrust of this blog post. Around the middle of the 16th Century, many Kabbalistic Jews had come to Safed in Palestine, as result of the expulsion from Europe during the period of the inquisition and later assaults. Safed was a center of learning. One Rabbi, Isaac Luria, taught a new doctrine different from traditional ideas that focused on individualistic practice. Each individual followed Jewish rituals and rules in order to find God’s favor, the rationalist viewpoint, or experience God, the mystical viewpoint. Luria changed this to a collective doctrine. Jews as a whole had to join in the practice so that redemption and return to Israel, the land of the forefathers would come. It would come in the form of a Messiah, a descendent of King David. The older idea of a Messianic appearance when things couldn’t be worse was replaced by a positive vision of a coming when the collective adherence peaked. To get there would take a pairing of ascetic and joyful activities.

About 100 years later, Shabbatai Tzvi (or Zevi) living in Smyrna, Turkey, became quite famous in this community for showing brilliance in his studies, but also in exhibiting very bizarre behavior. Today, he would probably be diagnosed as bipolar, but then he was a public curiosity. On learning of the terrible massacres of Jews in Europe, he began to have messianic visions of saving the Jews. He had a charming personality, fine appearance, pleasant voice and deep Kabbalistic learning, all of which made him a sort of idol and hope for a people that had been severely treated and yearned for redemption. He became even more convinced when he was “miraculously” saved from drowning. His visions and actions became of great concern to the authorities, and he was whipped and excommunicated, the first of a procession of similar outcomes as he began to wander from place to place, even as he gathered adherents as he roamed. After seven years when his banishment ended he returned to Smyrna.

He left for Constantinople after a few more years and the story might have ended there, but for the arrival on the scene of a man named, Nathan, from Gaza. Nathan convinced Sabbatai that he was, indeed, the Messiah. More importantly, Nathan took on the role of apostle and spread the word of coming of the true Messiah far and wide. Within a few years, messianic fever spread though the Jewish world with serious consequences to Jewish life. People began to stop their normal activities, and took to fasting, and more bizarre actions like burying themselves up to the neck in dirt. With the Messiah’s arrival imminent or even already here, there’s no point in continuing the normal.

The wiser heads in the Jewish communities tried to stop this fervor, but the Sabbatean movement continued, until the Turkish Sultan decided that Sabbatai was becoming a nuisance and ultimately a threat to Turkish authority. After several attempts at controlling him, the Sultan gave him the choice of beheading or conversion to Islam. He chose the latter to the chagrin of his adherents. The believers everywhere were ashamed to have so easily believed in this false messiah, and, for a long time, were confused, silent, and dejected.

This was not quite the immediate end of his story. Nathan continued to pass off Sabbatai, now, Aziz Mehmed Effendi, as the Messiah. Being a very clever PR man, he argued that external appearances were but a disguise of inner righteousness, and true believers should continue to believe in him. It’s not the end of the whole story either. This short period of Jewish history has consequences felt today. Here is a short quote from a Jewish historical website.

To a great extent, Sabbatai Zevi is the direct cause of the Reform movement, because he broke the back of the idea of waiting for the Messiah. The Jews in Western Europe and elsewhere were no longer willing to wait for a miraculous redemption. Having raised the expectations of the messianic time to such an extent and bankrupted it, there were vast sections of the Jewish people that were no longer willing to invest their faith in a messianic era.

Therefore, the Reform movement came and gave a completely different solution to the Jewish problem — a solution not dependent upon the land of Israel, the Messiah and supernatural events, but rather within the grasp of human reach and reason. It proved enormously popular because Sabbatai Zevi had bankrupted faith.

This tale has significance for more than just Jews. There is an uncanny similarity here to what has just happened here in the United States. I would not claim the Trump is bipolar, but he seems to have other personality disorders. He is a combination both Sabbatai and Nathan, combining the Messiah and the apostle, a very dangerous schizoid combination. He has promised redemption, but nowhere as clearly as Sabbatai and his followers who envisioned returning to the Jewish homeland, promised by God. Not much good came to the followers. Communities were torn apart. But eventually, historians tell us the Jews came to their senses, and the order was restored. For the “confused, silent and dejected” among us, hope lies ahead.

ps. A few small scattered communities of Sabbatai’s Jewish turned Moslem followers (Dönmeh) still await the Messiah in Turkey.

(Image: Sabbatai Sevi)

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on December 8, 2016 4:38 PM ::