October 2012 Archives

Halloween Horrors and Hypocrisy

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The last of the neighborhood children are dribbling in, ready to reach into the proffered bowl of candy and stuff a few more unhealthy calories into their sacks. As the end of October approaches each year, I go through the same mental gyrations. Should I fight the fakery of Halloween and leave the front lights off or should I give in and play into the hands of Mars and Hershey, and bribe the kids with candy? Candy usually wins because I enjoy seeing the kids who show up; they are usually gone off to school before I take my morning walk. We still live in a suburban neighborhood, holding out as long as we can, while watching our peers move into condos and even more foreboding places.

Like other of our holidays, Halloween has a very long history dating back perhaps as far as 2000 years ago. Its origins are somewhat hazy, but most claim it was originally a Celtic ceremony, held in the Fall as the days shortened, to mark the return to earth of the dead, an event that was momentous and used by the Druid priests to foretell of coming events. The Celts apparently built bonfires to mark the period, creating a special image. As their influence died out, Halloween later became a Christian holiday. In the Eighth Century, Pope Gregory III declared the holiday to honor all the saints and martyrs. It underwent a few more alterations over time, but always honoring the dead in some way or another. In England, upon All Soul’s Eve, as this holiday was called for a time, the poor trooped through towns begging and were given “poor cakes” in return for a promise to pray for their benefactors dead family members.

The costumes worn on Halloween have been attributed to Celtic times when folks were afraid of the rising spirits and may have donned outlandish costumes to frighten them off. My modicum of research failed to turn up anything definitive on the present custom of “trick or treat,” except that it appears to be of rather recent origin in the United States, dating back to the late 19th century. Given, that in our modern society, very few believe in the return of the dead or actively celebrate the Christian martyrs, what does Halloween mean now? Wishing people “Happy Halloween” is completely off the mark.

While I did some cursory Internet research to come up with its meaning, the more authoritative source would be the children that go house to house. So I asked them. Amidst the giggles my question roused, I, not surprisingly, got only strange looks. Like so many rituals and routines today, Halloween has little meaning other than the contributions to the bottom lines of the companies that provide the paraphernalia and consumables. Do we eat enough pumpkin pies at Thanksgiving to support pumpkin farmers or would they vanish without the tradition of scary jack-o-lanterns? I did a web search for Halloween costumes and had no trouble finding a huge variety costing anywhere from $10 to well on the way to $100. The same goes for all the candy. Not only is it unhealthy, but symbolically it accentuates the connection of some kind of consumption with many common rituals, now virtually completely divorced from their meaningful roots.

Every year I go through the throes of a battle. Do I cave and bring home a bunch of bags of candy or do I turn off the front light and play I am not at home, braving the threat of tricks? I have to admit that wanting to be a part of the neighborhood always wins. Given that I rail against consumption, especially mindless consumption such as Halloween most clearly exemplifies, am I guilty of hypocrisy or caught in a kind of ethical dilemma? It makes a difference. I can find some arguments for this kind of consumption in my authentic desire to be a part of my neighborhood. I do care about the children that show up. I am the consumer in the economic sense because I bought the candy. The kids are recipients of a gift from me. But I also contribute to the process of eroding meaning and promoting consumption for its own sake. As the King said to Anna, “It’s a puzzlement.” Maybe next year (always next year) I’ll buy a crate of apples instead of candy bars. I will still be exalting and reinforcing inauthentic consumption, but at least I won’t be rotting their teeth.

Sandy's Positive Power


Hurricane Sandy

Sandy is coming, but when and how strong? She is the biggest, in terms of the affected area, of any hurricane in historical records. I am sitting in front of my computer wondering when the screen will go black and I get disconnected from one of my several worlds. Some people around Cape Cod have already lost power and have been told it may be three days before the lights go back on. New York City is literally shutting down. All of a sudden, the power of nature shows up against the everyday consciousness that we are her masters. And our impotence to respond also shows up when the tools we have become habituated to rely on fail, and many find themselves surprisingly helpless. Of course, the opposite is also true, and some find inner resources that enable them to cope.

Humans have had to cope with natural phenomena as long as we have been human. Being human rather than some other living species is, to a large extent, defined by our ability to cope, using our unique and special cognitive capabilities, something that most, if not all, other species do not possess. William James, whom I am reading for a course on pragmatism I am giving, thought that our extraordinary ability to think was the result of our species’ evolutionary history of coping. He argued that thinking for us is a mechanism for creating experiences that are good for us, good in the sense of survival. Where has that idea gone today?

Our primary models for human cognition are based on some variant of a computer, although that is changing. We are creatures that think in order to solve problems along the way to maximize pleasure. In today’s consumerist culture, much of that thinking goes into the processes of consumption and determining what is the next market transaction we will engage in. Pleasure has become almost purely hedonistic, found in the senses, rather than in the “soul,” or some other metaphysical manifestation of who we are. My whole approach to sustainability is grounded on flourishing, revealed to us when we reach a moment, hopefully an extended, sustainable moment, when we become conscious that the caring that makes us human has been exercised in every important domain of life.

Another pragmatist in my current reading list is John Dewey. Dewey was concerned with the ethics of democracy early in his career. He wrote that democracy was the best framework for individual self-realization. He spoke about several normative qualities that were to be realized: wholeness, harmony, plentitude, richness and organic growth. Further he argued that individual humans were inseparable from the world they inhabit and so who we are is shaped by where and how we live. It is easy then to jump to a model for the kind of world we actually inhabit that is built on the same norms, but in a collective sense. He argued for a democracy in which individual’s capabilities were brought out through participation in a community that included everyone’s engagement and enabled the full expression of “personality.” one of the terms Dewey used for the full development of an individual. It’s pretty close to what I call flourishing.

I see these same themes in Amartya Sen’s and Martha Nussbaum’s notion of capabilities, a verbal variation of caring. For one to be able to take care in a real world, he or she must possess the appropriate functional capabilities, some are available internally, but in a modern technological, industrial political economy, many must come through consumption of objects found in the marketplace. But let me get back to the thread, flimsy as it is, I was creating in this post. In our culture here is the US, capabilities are most generally thought to be some object or tool that permits me, as an individual, to go about my work, earn money, and buy more tools. My life is mediated primarily through the application of my tools and those used by institutions. When one’s own tools fail, as they always will do from time to time, the first impulse is to find another tool, the next move is to try to think one’s way out of the situation, and, finally, if this fails, is to throw up one’s hands and move on. Moving on without having been satisfied leaves a residual sense of dissatisfaction, frustration, anger, or some other negative memory. Anxiety may also show up as a worry that next time, whenever that comes, the capabilities for coping will be lacking.

Storms, like Sandy, accentuate anxiety for everyone as we become acutely aware that we lack the tools to cope. They also produce lots of anger directed against the institutions we take for granted as taking care of us, showing little consciousness of their limits in such extreme situations. We are, more or less, subject to nature’s cruelty and mercy. Either of those is only an assessment we make of the effects of nature’s power. Nature is neither of these; she is nothing more than phenomena separate from human origins we observe, meaningless until we come up with some assessment. Any meaning comes from us.

I believe that one of the reasons we become anxious and start to give meaning to nature is that we lack or have only an underdeveloped capability in the caring domain of the spiritual. This domain arose out of our consciousness of events like hurricanes and, because they affected us in spite of the tools we might have used to protect ourselves, we grew to respect them (we acknowledged their power). In the earliest of days, our species created rituals out of that respect. By and large, such respect for nature has disappeared because we believe that technology can deflect anything that nature throws at us. Our capability, thus, to become wholly human beings in Dewey’s words, my words, or many others’s is greatly diminished.

I hear no one saying besides, for sure, beware of the storm’s power, but stop for a moment and give it the respect it deserves. Acknowledge it and tell it that you care about it, not care in a selfish way, but care as respect and an understanding that it is something very special. The storm is simply a part of the world we inhabit, a world we try to control and cannot as this event shouts to us, and on which we absolutely depend. Nature is simply a set of happenings and objects not of human origin that we attempt to manage towards our ends through technology. We try to hide our role in what events happen, denying we have any in changing the global climate, changes that may bring us much more inhibiting situations than Sandy. We can no longer even say that nature has no human origins. Worse, we speak of intervening at the global scale to control nature’s patterns. Only a short time ago, a single individual took it upon himself to dump a lot of iron filings into the seas to test an idea with very uncertain consequences. We have no laws to prevent this kind of individual action, but should get them very quickly. Trespass has been a common misdemeanor for a long time; this act is trespassing on nature (a part of all of us), in a grand scale, and is certainly much more serious than someone invading my castle.

Sandy has given us a rare opportunity to see nature in all her power and to take a moment to show her respect. If we do that now, we may be able to rebuild our spiritual capability just a little, but even that is very important. Taking care of the spiritual piece of our individual humanity is, perhaps, the only domain of care that cannot, absolutely cannot, be handled by any kind of tools. The rituals that have arisen since hurricanes and earthquakes upset ancient cultures grew out of respect and awe, but like all tools, have a tendency to stand between our humanity and the real world out there and inhibit us from expressing our most fundamental humanness. Without this capability, we cannot grow to become the flourishing, whole human beings we aspire to be.

Wicked Problems

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insoluble After my post yesterday, I got a comment that my argument that pragmatism is the only framework for dealing with the always messy problems of real life is mistaken. Mike argued that pragmatism can lead only to fallible truths or propositions and any absolute-sounding such as I made is self-contradictory in this sense. I agree, but only on the surface. It does sound paradoxical, but I still believe it is true in a pragmatic sense. For me, I cannot see a better way to go. Pragmatism does work in complex situations. Any other formulation or philosophical basis I know about always comes back to being a form of pragmatism, methodologically (proceeding on the basis of relevant experience) and accepting the contingency and fallibility of any resultant knowledge.

The title of this post comes from a classic 1973 article by two planners, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber. They introduced the phrase, “wicked problems,” and provided a procedure to deal with them. (I posted a series starting here on this subject in 2011.) One of the key aspects of their arguments is that wicked problems are always part of a larger context,and that any solution is contingent. They never used the word, pragmatism, but it is there at the heart of the paper. Russell Ackoff wrote extensively about “messes,” similarly to Rittel and Webber, and argued that research was essential to dealing with them. Research was his phrase for an inquiry another key feature of pragmatic problem solving. The most widely acclaimed and copied manufacturing methodology, the Toyota Production System, is pragmatic at heart.

I have not done any deep digging to respond to Mike’s comment, but the systemic methodologies for dealing with complexity I know are all adaptations of or other names for pragmatism. David Brooks, in his column today (10/26/12) in the New York Times serendipitously offers yet another variant. He writes about being a political “moderate” and what that means. I can substitute the word “pragmatism” at virtually every place “moderate” is used without changing anything.

Here are a few parts of his column. I have bolded the places where it is tightly aligned with pragmatic concepts.:

Moderates start with a political vision, but they get it from history books [the role of experience], not philosophy books. That is, a moderate isn’t ultimately committed to an abstract idea. Instead, she has a deep reverence for the way people live in her country and the animating principle behind that way of life. In America, moderates revere the fact that we are a nation of immigrants dedicated to the American dream — committed to the idea that each person should be able to work hard and rise.

This animating principle doesn’t mean that all Americans think alike. It means that we have a tradition of conflict. Over the centuries, we have engaged in a series of long arguments around how to promote the American dream — arguments that pit equality against achievement, centralization against decentralization, order and community against liberty and individualism.

The moderate doesn’t try to solve those arguments. There are no ultimate solutions. The moderate tries to preserve the tradition of conflict, keeping the opposing sides balanced. She understands that most public issues involve trade-offs. In most great arguments, there are two partially true points of view, which sit in tension.

… Moderation is also a distinct ethical disposition. Just as the moderate suspects imbalance in the country, so she suspects it in herself. She distrusts passionate intensity and bold simplicity and admires self-restraint, intellectual openness and equipoise.

I thank Brooks for his attempt to de-stigmatize moderation in political life. His central theme is what I referred to yesterday as meliorism belief that we can intervene in the real world with the objective to move toward the ends we value. He is helping the cause of pragmatism whether he is aware of that or not. Pragmatism, whatever word is used, shows up in many quarters of life without any stigma given to it by extremists. Extremist is just another word for someone completely driven by their ideological beliefs.

I can point to many example of pragmatism in action. A few follow. “Pragmatic planning,” has been an important theme in that field ever since “wicked problems” changed the tenor away for technocratic programs. Technocratic is an ideological approach at heart, arguing that scientifically derived solutions will provide the optimal outcome. Maybe for small problems, but not for the complex world of cities and similar contexts. We hear a lot about experiential learning as an alternative to the generally didactic framework of our schools. Again pragmatism in another suit of clothes. There’s lots more. Political talk and policy-making entail these complex situations and others, but generally fails to incorporate “pragmatic truths” that are aimed at action and success. Too bad for us.

Sustainability, Politics, and Pragmatism

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I know that everyone is sated with political talk at this point in the election cycle, but I cannot get away from it. You have probably guessed where I will come down on Election Day; my choice of Obama is completely clear to me. I have many points in my path to this choice, but let me focus on just one, one that is tightly bound to my concerns for sustainability. Obama has been called a pragmatist before and since he became President in both a positive and pejorative sense. For me, this descriptor is both positive and essential. The pluses of operating from a pragmatic, rather than an ideological platform are many. In a recent NYTimes column, philosopher Harvey Cormier sums up the case for Obama, based on a pragmatic point-of-view.

Obama challenged both parties to leave behind their ideological boilerplate and develop something new, something that all Americans can come to believe in.… Obviously we are not there yet. But there is still potential in the pragmatist’s belief in beliefs. That meta-belief treats our ideas, faiths, beliefs, and principles as an evolving set of tools for coping with changing circumstances. Ideally it will, if we adopt it, provide us with two simple but crucial benefits: encouragement and flexibility. We, just like the ideologues, will be inspired by our beliefs and principles to fight—even to kill and die, if we have to—to make things better; but we will also be willing to stop and reconsider our principles every so often, looking hard at the world of practical life and asking whether our principles are really getting us what we want, whatever that may be. We will have faith, but we will also be ready to develop new faiths for new times.

Should we, then, support the pragmatic president, despite the many disappointments of the past four years? Obama has indeed come out with some surprising half-loaves — the pullout from Iraq, Obamacare, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, some mild re-regulation of the banks, some incipient consumer protections, a Supreme Court that is not full of ultra-conservatives. Is this enough? Or should we snort in disgust at these comparatively small concrete accomplishments and go ideological, either hard left or hard right?

The voters will have to decide. But pragmatism, which looks at the way the world really works, seeks cooperation (sometimes to little or no avail), and takes experimental chances, is, at least, not something we should hold against Obama. As a computer programmer might say, pragmatism is not a bug: it’s a feature.

Ideologies do work sometimes to solve the problems we face, especially for the small, recurring ones. In a sense, the habits we embody to cope with these problems are ideological, fixed response to a familiar, but problematic situations. The key here is the regularity of the kind of problems that ideologies enable us to solve. But ideologies are ineffective when we face big or new problems. Their ideological origins have been rooted either in a dogmatic source divorced from reality or from experience in the distant past where the context of the problems were strikingly different from the context in which they appear today. In an ancient world where science had yet to explain the phenomena experienced by early cultures, supernatural causes were invoked to calm the natural curiosity and fears. Some of these arguments have survived even to the present, held in place by power in some form or another. The ever-present role of power in maintaining ideologies is often overlooked, but it is always there. Paraphrasing my favorite biologist, Humberto Maturana—any claim of knowledge, based on ideological grounds, is a demand for obedience. It would be extremely hard to come up with a truer description of dominating power.

Pragmatic frameworks for understanding the world and for solving the problematic situations we encounter within it are fundamentally different for those coming from an objective, ideological basis. Pragmatism makes no claims about some fundamental Truth, and, indeed, argues that all beliefs we hold are fallible, subject to revision based on what we learn from the results of applying them to our problems. This system of thinking and acting (acting is a key element in pragmatism) avoids dealing with complex situations as individual thinkers, arguing that “truths” emerge from an inquiry of a group of committed, interested parties. Pragmatism is fundamentally melioristic, a belief that the world can be improved by our interventions. But not all at once; pragmatically-derived solutions push the system in the desired direction, but are unlikely to make the problems disappear forever. Ideologies promise, wrongly, a “permanent” solution to every problem.

Our Presidents are expected to act as meliorists nudging us toward a better place and avoiding the pitfalls that send us backwards. If they take on this role, some do, some do not, they will have something like sustainability as their vision, getting to a place where all of the qualities of the vision of good life will start to flow. But the world seen from the White House is always complex and forever changing—the paradigm case for a pragmatic framework. Ideological solutions cannot work effectively. When applied to a system as complex as the world seen from the President’s office, the best outcome of ideological “solutions” might be likened to a balloon with a weak spot protruding, where pressure to push back the misbehaving bulge results in another spouting at a different, unpredictable spot.

When I speak of sustainability, it is always in the context of creating flourishing. I am frequently asked to define flourishing in some numerical sense. I avoid doing that, because it is impossible to capture the meaning of flourishing in numbers. I can talk about its aspects, but always only in qualitative terms. Flourishing can be observed through one’s sense of fulfillment, satisfaction, beliefs that one’s care’s are being cared for, a consciousness of peacefulness and the cessation for urgency, a condition of what psychologists call “flow, or “self-actualization, another term from psychology, and so on. And when I am asked what five or some other number of steps to take to get there, I demur, often resulting in a dismissive response from the questioner. People want to know exactly how to create a sustainable world. If we knew, I would expect we would be a lot closer than we are today. But it is clear that we do not, given the the actions of the global human population is propelling the planet in the wrong direction.

Only a pragmatic framework has the possibility to shift this trajectory and begin the march toward sustainability. I think I understand the root causes of our problems and consequently the targets of our efforts, but I do not know what actions will be most effective. The inquiry to determine the starting point has yet to take place. Pragmatic solutions, momentary truths to apply, come from a community of inquirers. Such a community seeking sustainability as flourishing has yet to form. The term has been taken over by a large community finding ways to reduce the present negative impact of our collective activities. Their solutions may be successful in this endeavor, but it will not and cannot create flourishing. Although pragmatism is sometimes equated with incrementalism, there is nothing in the system that argues against radical moves, if they have emerged from a competent inquiry. Addressing the sustainability problematic at its roots requires both radical and incremental elements.

Our election focuses on a similar situation, the desire to realize and sustain the “American Dream.” Our leaders have an veritable insurmountable barrier standing in the way of getting there. The idea of a dream, unlike that of flourishing has no content whatsoever. And rather than hold a vision of a qualitative, but tangible state like flourishing, it is empty. It’s emptiness is filled with materialistic stuff, like a home or simply wealth. Or promises of freedom, but freedom of several varieties that if taken at face value are incompatible. This is the situation we elect a President to cope with. No ideological solution can work. Those that oppose Obama call him a pragmatist, but in a pejorative and misleading sense. They argue, from a common misreading of William James, that for pragmatists, that any idea that works is true and the existence of objective, eternal truths is doubtful.

That’s an error. What James and other pragmatists said is that anything that works to produce satisfactory results works to produce satisfactory results, and is worthy of being named a kind of truth to be held in individual or collective memories to apply to the next similar situation. Pragmatists are skeptical of ideologies and of the danger of the hubristic solutions they tend to produce. Pragmatists involve other concerned people in a meaningful inquiry on the way to find a solution. The framers of the Constitution may have believed in a balance of powers with all sorts of safeguards to prevent political mischief, but they surely intended that all the branches of government would work together to come up with missing solutions for the common good. Obstructionism is absolutely antithetical to the process of finding pragmatic solutions to complex problems.

So back to the Cormier’s column I quoted at the beginning. We need a pragmatist in the White House more today than ever. If simple solutions, like cutting taxes ever worked (I doubt it), they certainly cannot solve our messy problems today. That Obama has not completely done what he may have promised or even what each of us hoped he would is not a sign of failure. It is simply evidence of the successes of a pragmatic thinker and operator, and is very positive for all of us. Our governmental system effectively bars radical solutions for good reasons, but for reasons not relevant to the nature of our current unsustainability crises. So we are stuck with incremental treatments only, when it is critical that our initiatives be based on pragmatic inquiries, not ideological assertions.

Plain Talk (redux)


I beat the NYTimes by a few days. Check out this column. Here’s the opening paragraph.

IMAGINE a presidential candidate who spoke with blunt honesty about American problems, dwelling on measures by which the United States lags its economic peers.

That’s it.

Plain Talk


plain talk

I often write about authenticity as an essential attribute for flourishing and hence, for sustainability. Although this quality has great import in the model of human being I associate with flourishing, it is difficult to observe in action, and virtually impossible to recognize in a single event. Only the actor really can tell if he or she is acting out of true caring, metaphorically responding to an inside voice; not following the voices of the surrounding world. But, in place of interpreting some physical action, is it possible to listen to the actor’s words and assess how well they are connected to the inside and outside world.

The absence of plain talk, that is, talk that reasonably represents the state of the world outside is an excellent indicator of authenticity. Plain talk reflects conditions in the real world, the one we actually inhabit and act within. Here’s what I mean. First, what we say and second, in italics, what we could mean. The statements in italics are plain talk.

  • The check is in the mail; I have stiffed you.
  • Climate change is a hoax; I don’t want to change anything about the way I live.
  • Cutting taxes will solve the deficit problem; Ditto (This answer fits a lot of the cases)
  • Gun’s don’t kill people; people do; I want to keep my Uzi’s in the closet.
  • The American Dream lives on; I do not want to share anything that is mine with others.

I have been reading the early pragmatists for a while. C. S. Pierce offers four ways in which we fix our beliefs, that is, embed them in our cognitive system such that that they become the rules by which we act. The actions are the true indicators of our beliefs; how we explain them may or may not correspond. The first way is simple. Pierce called it ‘tenacity,” and it means just exactly what the word means. We hold onto beliefs as if they were glued to our brains. Where they come from is not clear, but once the glue sets we know what they are.

The second way is by authority. In this case the firmness in our minds comes from the words of another person or institutional we respect as a legitimate source of some set of beliefs. (Minds, here is just the metaphor that Pierce and others use; it is more accurate to talk of the cognitive system. But mind will do as long as you remember that it is only a metaphor.) The Bible and the religious orders that rest on it is one example. A baseball umpire is another. When he calls you out, you better believe it and leave the field. If you don’t you’ll simply get tossed out anyway. Parents serve this authority role for young children.

The next group of fixed beliefs belong to those that have always been there and are pretty much generally accepted without question. Pierce’s example for this is the general belief that human beings act primarily out of selfishness. The legitimacy for these beliefs comes from their unquestioned presence out there in the culture. Pierce finds problems with all of these ways and holds a fourth way as the most important, His concerns are easily understood. Tenacity interferes with coordinated action. Authority becomes tyrannical. The third group of beliefs with no apparent sources squelches inquiry. All fall back on the opinions of someone or some body of rules.

Pierce and most of us naturally seek a way of forming and fixing our beliefs that doesn’t rely on the arbitrariness of human whims. For him, the approach was to inquire into the matter in the way that scientists come up with the facts about the world. Beliefs of this kind can be fixed in our minds without dependence of such whims. Their validity depends only on the methods and context of inquiry. We can base our actions on such beliefs with confidence that they conform somehow to the world out there, undistorted by the workings of our minds.

If you and I shared part of the world, as we must in reality, which kind of beliefs would you prefer we follow in solving our mutual problems? For me the answer is absolutely clear. The ones I can count on to address the differences in the world of the moment and the world we intend to form from our actions are the ones that result from our real experiences in the world. These are the ones that are true, pragmatically—that have come through observing what connections we can observe between our beliefs (fixed ideas) and their consequences out there. The others are different sorts of ideologies, fixed beliefs that cannot be grounded in experience, our own experience or that of others who we trust to have the same standard we do.

Guns absolutely do kill people. It is undeniable. On tonight’s national news, I listened to a continuing story about the horrendous violence in Chicago. More people killed this year there than the deaths of our troops in Afghanistan. Small children literally so frightened that they will not venture outdoors. How many multiple killings have we seen this year? Why must we listen to those whose beliefs defy reality? Believing that guns do enable violence doesn’t mean that they should be banned, but it does strongly suggest that we need to talk about the ways they should be controlled.

Climate change deniers are living in an alternate universe from most of us. Their numbers are falling according to Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

  • Americans’ belief in the reality of global warming has increased by 13 percentage points over the past two and a half years, from 57 percent in January 2010 to 70 percent in September 2012. At the same time, the number of Americans who say global warming is not happening has declined nearly by half, from 20 percent in January 2010 to only 12 percent today.

  • For the first time since 2008, more than half of Americans (54%) believe global warming is caused mostly by human activities, an increase of 8 points since March 2012. Americans who say it is caused mostly by natural changes in the environment have declined to 30 percent (from 37% in March).

But they are still around in important powerful places. There is no way to act on our common future on the Planet we share. It is possible (I personally doubt it) that the most expedient way to deal with climate change is to do nothing and wait until it becomes unavoidable that we do something to adapt to the changed world. But even if that is the right answer, we should/must arrive at it by an honest discussion using plain talk.

Plain talk is necessary to get through every day in the smallest sphere of individual activities. All of know this at some level of consciousness. None of us would ever be able to make it through the day without falling back on those beliefs that do the best job in reflecting the real world out there. No matter what we think, whatever we do happens in that world and depends on how that world works. As the sphere of action moves upwards in society to the highest levels of power, the urgency for plain talk grows because the results of the actions of the powerful rain down on us.

I am not talking about situations where facts are misused or abused in political (and other) conversations. These moments come and go; it is the persistent failures to utter plain talk in the deliberations that set the stage for significant changes in the rules and instruments that literally govern us. The absence of plain talk is at the heart of the stalemate and polarization that has stymied a concerted (acting together) inquiry about how to deal with the real issues of today. Politics has become a vacuum in which plain talk is immediately sucked up.

I suspect that the absence of plain talk is related to the scarcity of authentic behavior of all sorts in our consumerist, selfish, narcissistic polity. It may also be the result of a growing anxiety that comes from an honest understanding of what is happening in the world around us. And what we each are learning is threatening at some level. Retreat into a phony world will only enlarge that anxiety because facts have a strange propensity to show themselves in spite of attempts to avoid them.

A few years ago I read a little book by the philosopher, Harry Frankfurt, titled, On Bullshit. Frankfurt had lots of serious things to say about the subject:

When we characterize talk as hot air, we mean that what comes out of the speaker’s mouth is only that. It is mere vapor. His speech is empty, without substance or content. His use of language, accordingly, does not contribute to the purpose it purports to serve. No more information is communicated than if the speaker had merely exhaled. There are similarities in hot air and excrement. …excrement is matter from which everything nutritive has been removed …excrement is a representation of death that we ourselves produce and that, indeed, we cannot help producing in the very process of maintaining our lives. Perhaps it is for making death so intimate that we find excrement so repulsive. In any event, it cannot serve the purpose of sustenance, any more than hot air can serve those of communication.

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted … So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, nor attracted much sustained inquiry…

As I read this, he is saying that bullshit is the exact opposite of plain talk, as I have used the term. In polite company we refrain from using the term to point to others’ failure to use plain talk, but maybe since so much vernacular speech has become acceptable, we now might use it to increase the prevalence of plain talk, and consequently an approach to our common problems with beliefs grounded, through experience, in the same world we wish to influence.

(Wouldn’t you know it. “Plain talk” has already been copyrighted for an app.)

Inauthentic Speech is Dangerous to Our Souls



The editorial in today’s NYTimes (10/13/2012) takes Candidate Romney to task for his tendency to tell the audience whatever they want to hear, while keeping the same old positions in his body waiting to emerge, if elected.

There isn’t really a Moderate Mitt; what is on display now is better described as Convenient Mitt. Anyone willing to advocate extremism to raise money and win primaries is likely to do the same to stay in office.

Politically speaking, I think that epithet is a good one, but I have my own related to sustainability, Inauthentic Mitt. Putting my political opinions aside for a moment (hard to do), Romney’s manner of putting who he his out for us to see is very troubling. Not only from a leadership perspective, but from an existential point-of-view. At the very heart of my approach to sustainability is the idea of flourishing, becoming a whole, satisfied human being. The key to getting there is to shift one’s beliefs that have created the habits of everyday life, hyper-consumption in particular, to a new set based on taking care of the essential domains of living. Coupled to this shift must be a new sense of self, an authentic sense—one that acts out of some consciousness of care as the essence of life as a human being. I use “essence” here and “soul” in the title metaphorically. The consciousness I speak of is not that of picturing the world outside or of a explicit sense of what’s going on inside. but a description of the cognitive configuration that drives routine actions. Routine actions, the ones we perform without “thinking” about them come from a “consciousness” we are not aware of. They just happen.

We can infer the existence of this “practical” consciousness by observing the actions we perform over time. I have been reading the early pragmatists, Pierce and James, who had a simple, but elegant view of this. They said that we “fix” beliefs in our cognitive system that become the rules by which we act. That was over a century ago, but is a picture more firmly established by contemporary science. If we have become convinced we are needy, as we are in our culture, we act to satisfy our needs, an impossible task because our needs are held to be insatiable by the same model. If we believe we are caring machines, we will act accordingly, taking care of all the domains we value. And if we intend to flourish, we will take care of all the essential needs, not merely the ones at the top of our lists.

The difference between these two modes of existence can be captured in the word, authentic, and its opposite, inauthentic. For those of my vintage, the image of the Wizard of Oz being exposed by Toto pulling the curtain back is as good a metaphor for inauthenticity as I can quickly recall. Here is a small man playing the part of an all-powerful wizard. While still operating the machine spewing smoke (and metaphorical mirrors), the Wizard says, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” For me, this is the most meaningful line of the whole story. It’s all about inauthenticity and captures the reality of much of politics today.

In my set of beliefs, an “inauthentic human being” is an oxymoron. Inauthentic can only describe a creature pulling the levers of an internal machine, spewing smoke and displaying mirrors. There is little or no independent self there. We are drawn into this mode of life everyday by the cultural institutions we live by, especially the conceit of the market as the means of freedom. It may free us from the guidance of a government, benign or not, but it seduces us into an inauthentic life.

It is not only the market that works to capture our beliefs. Much of our entertainment is based on inauthenticity, banal situations that set up stories we know cannot be genuine. Reality shows are about as far from reality as one can get. Every time we watch these and every time we go shopping because we want novelty or some goods that will signal our place in society our inauthentic personhood is reinforced.

When we watch “leaders” acting inauthentically, we will be drawn to them if the smoke and mirrors seem to align with our own values. We should be alert to the dangers inherent in these cases. The Times editorial did not explicitly point to these, warning us only that a wizard lurks behind the curtain of Romney’s political speech. We should not be surprised when we do not get what we were told we would. Inauthentic speech and actions are very different from promises. We can be sure we will not get what we expected from inauthenticity. Promises may or may not be authentic, but even if they are, they cannot always be completely fulfilled.

But getting back to flourishing to conclude this post, the other danger of inauthentic behavior is that it can reinforce the beliefs already present in our cognitive system that are and have been producing unsatisfying, inauthentic behaviors. The inauthenticity, as the Times wrote of Candidate Romney, is palpable and evident. For those who accept it, without reflection, it, as I said, takes them another step away from becoming an authentic human being who can flourish in the world outside, the place we live out our lives. Caveat Emptor.

What We Do Not Hear in the Debates



I listened to Gus Speth talk about his new book, America the Possible, yesterday afternoon. This is his third book in what might be called a trilogy, with echoes to John Dos Passos’s massive USA trilogy of the 1930’s, The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money. Dos Passos’s novels, written in a highly unconventional style, depicted the lives of a group of families struggling to become rooted in the US society of the early 20th century. It is impossible to capture the work in a few words, but here goes.The theme relevant for this blog is how the social and political system of that period thwarted the dreams and aspirations of the characters. The issues were different, socialism played a major role, but the stories have a ring of contemporaneous truths to them. Like the Vietnam War changed the reality for many Americans, WWI had the same effect for Dos Passos and his fiction. It has been years since I read this trilogy and others of his works, but I have a strong image of very pessimistic artist, looking at a country unable to fulfill the dreams of its citizens.

If this sounds familiar, it is meant to be. If I had to capture the feelings about America today, I would say something like we are (and have been) living through the destruction of the American Dream, mythical as it is and was forever. Speth’s book is a manifesto of how to restore the health of the country by transforming the current capitalistic political economy. Dos Passos was a writer and portrayed the ills through the lives of his characters, interspersing their stories with tidbits of real news. Speth is a scholar and activist and uses real facts to point to the ills of today. I have extracted a few pages from the beginning of his book. Taken together, these data are so stark that they may seem unreal, and I am sure the apologists for the US might say they are selective and trumped up. But they are not, and here they are.

So let’s look at the present, and at a group of advanced democracies, specifically the major countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)-twenty in all, including the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the Nordics, Japan, Canada, and others. They can be thought of as our peer countries. What we see when we look at these countries is that compared with them, the United States now ranks at or very near the bottom in a host of important areas. America now has:

  • the highest poverty rate, both generally and for children;
  • the greatest inequality of incomes;
  • the lowest government spending as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) on social programs for the disadvantaged;
  • the lowest score on the United Nations’ index of “material well-being of children”;
  • the worst score on the UN’s gender inequality index;
  • the lowest social mobility;
  • the highest public and private expenditure on health care as a percentage of GDP, and yet the highest infant mortality rate, prevalence of mental health problems, obesity rate, percentage of people going without health care due to cost concerns, and consumption of antidepressants per capita, along with the shortest life expectancy at birth;
  • the third lowest scores for student performance in math and middling scores in science and reading;
  • the second highest high school dropout rate;
  • the highest homicide rate;
  • the largest prison population, both absolutely and per capita;
  • the highest water consumption per capita and the second-highest carbon dioxide emissions per capita;
  • the lowest score on the Yale-World Economic Forum’s Environmental Performance Index, and the second largest Ecological Footprint per capita;
  • the highest rate of failing to ratify international agreements;
  • the third-lowest spending on international development and humanitarian assistance as a percentage of GDP;
  • the highest military spending in total and as a percentage of GDP; and
  • the largest international arms sales.

Need I say more!

Pragmatic Truth and Politics



I am teaching a course on Pragmatism this semester at my program for retirees. Right now we are taking up the pragmatism of William James after spending a few sessions on C. S. Pierce, the father of American pragmatism. James took Pierce’s theory of meaning and applied it to the concept of truth and came up with a definition that is both powerful and easily misinterpreted. Pierce gave us the idea, his Pragmatic Maxim, that the meaning of any concept was to be understood by thinking about all the conceivable outcomes of applying it in practical situations. The entire meaning of that concept was contained in the whole of those practical outcomes. Pierce saw this process, not as an individual exercise, but one in which a community of inquirers sought all the possible outcomes and could, ultimately, come to an agreement on the meaning. The inquiry was an essential part of the process.

Both men started with the idea that beliefs were the rules on which humans acted and both understood it was important to establish the condition by which our beliefs were “fixed” in Pierce’s word. Pierce’s conditions were based on an agreement among an interested group of inquirers. For him the validity of a proposition rested in a public process, much like the way that scientific findings are subject to peer review and acceptance by the whole scientific community. These fixed beliefs (Pierce did not use the word “true” to describe them) were always subject to being overturned by new experiences.

James, applying the Pierce’s Maxim to the concept of truth, but from a individual subjective viewpoint, defined truth as a belief that an individual found to be useful in practice, to have “cash value” in his words, not in the conceptual sense of Pierce, but in the actual experience of the believer. Where Pierce would have fixed a concept or proposition only after subjecting it to extensive public inquiry, James allowed for an individual to determine its truth based only on his or her experience with it.

The tersest definition among many in James’s works is, “The true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief.” The tie to experience is clear. Truth is not some metaphysical idea, but the result of experience. He said further that “Truth happens to an idea, it becomes true, is made true by events. Its verity is in fact an event, a process: the process namely of its verifying itself.” For him, the only function of thought is to satisfy certain interests of the human organism; the truth consists in such thinking as satisfies these interests. He applied this understanding to experiences beyond the give and take of daily life, extending to moral and religious concepts, arguing, “if the hypothesis of God works satisfactorily in the widest sense of the word, it is [pragmatically] true.”

This and similar statements have led to a serious misunderstanding of James’s pragmatism. The word “pragmatically” is usually omitted (I added it to the above quote from James.) when one says, “Well it works for me, therefore it is true and you should believe it also.” where “it” can be just about anything. James is clear that truth in his pragmatic sense has no necessary connection to the real world. His own belief in God does not mean that God actually exists. However, James’s statement “the true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief.” has become corrupted to mean “Whatever beliefs we take to be good for us may, by virtue of that fact, be said to be true,” enabling false beliefs to be deemed to be “true.”

“Facts” are nothing more than beliefs presented as true. It matters little to you if the facts I take to be true work for me but do not agree with your set of truths/facts, unless we are to coordinate our lives in some way. Politics are fundamentally different. Politics ultimately entails a set of truths that will involve all our lives. It matters how these truths are established. and how they are valued by those that will practice them if they gain control of the polity. Ideologies are composed of truths based, more or less rationally, on a set of hypotheses coming from some theory or model of how the world has worked in the past. In science this has worked very well because the natural world continues to work much like it has in the past. However today, humans are exerting such significant influence over natural processes that this assumption is no longer always valid. Political ideologies, rules about how to govern, even if they have worked in the past, cannot be taken as true for the future because the world is always changing. New innovations change the way we work, national boundaries are always shifting, in terms of influence, if not topographically, the weather changes, and so on.

Pierce’s concepts of pragmatism are critical in this context. Even James said,“Truth happens to an idea, it becomes true, is made true by events. Its verity is in fact an event, a process: the process namely of its verifying itself.” The only way we can tell how a truth will turn out is by continually testing it, by observing what happens to it. Economics, in spite of its popular sense as a science, is little more than a bundle of competing ideologies. Not a single one is a true representation of how the world works, other than being pragmatically true. But to listen to the political rhetoric in the news, the ads, and the debates, we are led to believe that each side of the argument has God’s truth about the consequences of adopting one ideology or another. That’s the case even if the words come from one that knows that there is no basis in facts borne out by experience. The absence of such facts creates (at least for me) a context where I must discount anything that follows. Distorting or deliberately lying about facts has become a common practice these days. Governor Romney’s campaign manager said sometime ago that they had no obligation to be truthful, that whatever was true or not about the campaign was the job of the media to establish. An almost perfect example of the corrupted use of James’s notion that if something works for me, it is “true.”

Vaclav Havel wrote extensively about the truth in a political sense and the importance of living within it, “.…that one day something in our greengrocer snaps and he stops putting up the slogans merely to ingratiate himself. He stops voting in elections he knows are a farce. He begins to say what he really thinks at political meetings. And he even finds the strength in himself to express solidarity with those whom his conscience commands him to support. In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie. He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game. He discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity. He gives his freedom a concrete significance. His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth …” `The US and the Czechoslovakia of Havel’s times are very different, but the necessity of living in truth is equally important.

There is very little different from the propaganda machines of his totalitarian state and the “propaganda machines” of today’s political advertising; both lead to worlds with little attention to the real facts of the human condition. It is obscene to read (in the current New Yorker) of the utter smallness of billionaire’s whining about being treated with less than royal deference. Their truths about the world are classically Jamesian, coming from a wholly personal experience that at most one in a thousand of us has lived. Romney’s shifting positions may be the result of his attempts to shift from his own privileged, personal way he has experienced the world and his consequent personal truths to one reflecting more of the way he believes we commoners see things. His awkwardness in communicating with ordinary Americans probably comes from the very different way he sees the world pragmatically than we do. At least, there is some authenticity in that.

But to keep shifting and adopting another set of ideological truths that can be said to be true only because they might be effective in winning an election is completely inauthentic and have little chance of dealing with the real problems the rest of us share. It would be wonderful if such ideas could be plucked out of some ideological basket, but that is simply not possible in the complex and ever-changing world. It’s OK and may be necessary to start with ideas coming from some theory, but only experience will tell us how they are working out. The argument that things are not working out as promised may be valid at any moment, but it is always true over time no matter who is in office. We can only ever argue over relative success or not, unfortunately. Our future depends on following Pierce’s, not James’s, pragmatism. It’s not the ideas that work for the politicians that are important; it is only those that work when measured by public results. That it might have been better to do this rather than that may be true, but can never be proven. I’ll take a Piercian (Obama) over a Jamesian (Romney) politician any day. For me the choice this time around is crystal clear.

The Sustainability College Rankings Racket

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It’s always pleasant to find confirmation of one of my favorite targets for scorn in the “legitimate” media. Joe Nocera’s NYTimes column on September 28th took the latest U.S. News & World Report’s college rankings to task, arguing, as I often have, that the methodology doesn’t justify the precision of the numbers. If I didn’t know better, I might guess he was cribbing from one of my earlier posts on the folly of these rankings, whether of colleges, green companies, or sustainable products. Here’s his own words. I couldn’t have said it better.

The U.S. News & World Report’s annual college rankings came out earlier this month and — knock me over with a feather! — Harvard and Princeton were tied for first… Followed by Yale… Followed by Columbia. 

It’s not that these aren’t great universities. But c’mon. Can you really say with any precision that Princeton is “better” than Columbia? That the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (No. 6) is better than the California Institute of Technology (No. 10)?  That Tufts (No. 28) is better than Brandeis (No. 33)?

There may not even be a significant real difference between Harvard (#1) and Tufts (#28) in terms of prospective students choices. Nocera answers his own question as to whether schools close together in the list are really different from one another.

Of course not. U.S. News likes to claim that it uses rigorous methodology, but, honestly, it’s just a list put together by magazine editors. The whole exercise is a little silly. Or rather, it would be if it weren’t so pernicious.

I agree with his assessment that this and similar rankings are bad for us. They become an end itself and encourage gaming the system just to score high. Easy to do by focusing on the factors that are used in the methodology. Rich schools have a great advantage, but do not necessarily produce better outcomes that those lacking the resources. Nocera writes:

And they imbue these rankings with an authority that is largely unjustified. Universities that want to game the rankings can easily do so. U.S. News cares a lot about how much money a school raises and how much it spends: on faculty; on small classes; on facilities; and so on. It cares about how selective the admissions process is.

But what does selectivity mean. It means that the schools high on the list will attract the largest numbers of applicants and, given limited class size, will admit the smallest percent. We have a classic reinforcing loop here. More students will apply to the high rankers, enhancing the schools selectivity this year, raising the ranking (possibly) and attracting even more students next year. And so on and so on.

Nocera continues to expose more of the mischief inherent in these rankings; his whole column is well worth reading. My concerns are not about colleges, although my grandchildren are still at ages when college admission will come in the not too distant future. I see the same issue with similar ranking of the top 100 green companies. The ranking are taken as indicators of some real distinctions in their impacts on the world, a completely unjustified conclusion. Even if the rankers are open and transparent about the methodology used, few ever bother to get beyond the numbers in the list. All suffer from a methodological problem common to any composite ranking that combines more that a single factor. A ranking that simply orders the weight of a bunch of portable computers can be interpreted directly, but means little unless your only consideration in making a choice is weight.

But that is rarely what people who consult rankings are looking for; they want some composite rating based on a number of factors that are important to them. But how important to them? Individuals have different preferences or utilities for the factors. I might prefer speed (60) over weight (40) when it comes to buying a laptop. The more factors are involved in the ranking, the more preferences (or weights) have to be used in calculating a single composite index. But I do not get to decide the weights, the rankers do. U.S. News & World Report does for the college rankings. The chance that they use exactly my preferences is virtually nil, and so the results cannot mean much to me. There is no practical way for me to tell if the ordering of the results matches what it would be using my own weightings. In theory, I could take the raw data and apply my own weights and create John Ehrenfeld’s version of the U.S. News & World Report rankings, but I am very unlikely to do so.

So what can/do the rankings mean? They mean sales for U.S. News & World Report They are used by the schools for public relations and fund raising. They are [mis]used by graduating students to guide their choices. In a political economy that is moving ever closer to a pure market system, they distort the economic calculus used by these applicants, by potential donors, or by faculty candidates. Some argue that it is better to have faulty data rather than none at all. I disagree. After all, a stopped clock is right twice a day while one running a few minutes slow or fast is far less accurate. Without accurate data to guide choices, (economic) actors are forced to find alternatives to the decision processes, relying more directly on their own preferences for any number of factors they consider important. This argument applies almost exactly to the case of a consumer considering the purchase of some product, and wants to buy the “greenest” item on the shelf. Both consumers (college-bound student or supermarket customer) face the same dilemma. Even after making a choice based on the ranking provided, there is no way whatsoever to know whether it was the right one.