January 2016 Archives

All the Political Blaming Misses the Point


finger pointing

Disappointment and anger directed toward what are claimed to be the failures of government to solve persistent social problems is misdirected. Government is not the culprit; the ineffectiveness lies in the way we think. We are stuck in a modernist mindset that sees the world as a big machine. When the machine sputters and fails us, we turn to the engineers and technocrats, and charge them to fix it. This is true whether the problem is deemed to arise from the systems of the government, private sector, natural world, or elsewhere. We tried to fix the financial system that broke down in 2008 by tightening regulations, We think we can mitigate the impact of climate change by changing our energy mix away from carbon.

No, we can’t. The problems that have captured our attention are the result of complexity at work. To address these we have to change the basic frame of our thinking from one based on the Enlightenment ideas about a mechanistic universe that we can come to know and control to a post-modern acknowledgement that the world is complex and is, in terms of the standard scientific method, unknowable. The global social/economic/environmental system is so highly interconnected and full of non-linear relationships that it cannot be reduced to a set of conventional rules, laws, and formulas. At any moment, the next instant cannot be predicted. Outcomes defy our models. We alternate between boom and bust, drought and flood. Great problems, like global warming or growing inequality are inevitable, unintended consequences of our normal societal structure.

When we are dealing with complexity, we have to heed the law of unintended consequences because the models we use to design our institutions and technological structures are, except for the simplest situations, imperfect replicas of the real world out there. The great power of science and technology rests on a methodology that takes the world apart and looks at one piece at a time, but that is not how that world works. It’s not the parts that matter as much as how they are interconnected to form a system. The failure of the design models, based on scientific knowledge, to precisely represent the world produces unintended outcomes, sometimes insignificant, but occasionally large and threatening, as it the case for climate change.

If the source of the problems we face is the failure of our scientific knowledge and technology to match reality, then it should be obvious, that we cannot rely on these tools to alleviate or obviate these problems. Institutions, like governments or markets, cannot fix the problems by simply identifying unitary causes and applying fixes. A flat tax, for example, could reduce some serious distortions and quirks in the present system, but risks creating new and unpredictable problems because the system is complex. Almost any proposal to fix an existing problem offered by the political sphere would fit this picture. The same is true of economists, aiming to fix market imperfections, but using an imprecise model of human behavior.

Technology also exhibits the law of unintended consequences. Devices, designed to do one thing, produce additional outcomes, some good but, often, some bad. This happens because the knowledge used to design the devices fails to represent the complete real context into which the device is to be introduced. Sherry Turkle, an MIT technology scholar, in a recent book, argues that the ubiquitousness and persistent use of mobile devices has negatively affected the ability of young people to engage in meaningful conversations. Other similar examples abound. The explosion of technological devices and personal applications has deepened our centuries-old optimism that science and technology will always rise to solve our persistent societal problems and keep us on the progressive path to perfection. We should be extra cautious, warned by outcomes that are not so aligned.

Is there an alternate way to proceed that holds the possibilities of avoiding the pitfalls of matching reductionist thinking to complexity? Yes, we have a very good example of an alternate way of framing these serious problems and dealing with them in the response to the Great Depression by the Roosevelt administrations. The approach Roosevelt and his team used to understand and address the terrible devastation of the collapse of the socio-economic system was pragmatic in nature. Pragmatism, which some call the only American-bred philosophy, is ideally suited to cope with complexity. Pragmatism rests on a methodology to slowly and patiently understand complexity and develop effective solutions to problems arising from it.

Contrary to the abstractive methods of science which require the investigators to isolate the subject of their inquiry, pragmatists directly interact with the system in play, trying one approach after another until they begin to see positive results. Large problems demand large teams of concerned seekers. Different points of view are subjected to questioning to avoid getting stuck on some ideologically pure approach. John Dewey, perhaps the greatest American pragmatist, saw this way of thinking and acting as the heart of democracy. Progress would come by continuous inquiries into the nature of the barriers to fully realizing critical American values, and testing the solutions as they emerge from the murk of complexity.

Whether conservative or liberal or of any other political ilk, blaming any of the major institutions of our society is misplaced and ineffective. The failures lie deeper in the modernist ideas about how the world works. Neither pole of the political spectrum will be successful as long as they claim to have answers based on some technocratic ideology. The possibility of effective solutions will arise only by working together, under a pragmatic governance regime. The current practice of casting blame on individuals for all our messes may win points, but deepens the misunderstanding of the nature of our most serious problems and prevents us from seeking solutions that might really work.

More about the Importance of Context


As a follow-up to the last post, I just read this op-ed piece by Timothy Egan, Egan is bemoaning the drastic shortening of human’s attenuation span.

In the information blur of last year, you may have overlooked news of our incredibly shrinking attention span. A survey of Canadian media consumption by Microsoft concluded that the average attention span had fallen to eight seconds, down from 12 in the year 2000. We now have a shorter attention span than goldfish, the study found.

Attention span was defined as “the amount of concentrated time on a task without becoming distracted.” I tried to read the entire 54-page report, but well, you know. Still, a quote from Satya Nadella, the chief executive officer of Microsoft, jumped out at me. “The true scarce commodity” of the near future, he said, will be “human attention.”


As we shift our attention from one focus to another in rapid succession, two outcomes limit our ability to add meaning and context to our lives, and, consequently, to create a way of living that can produce flourishing. Context can be conceived as the filter by which we are able to make something distinct against a meaningless assemblage of phenomena. Meaning comes with context, and context is created by pauses in the rapid flow of information on the sense, during which the actor stops and related a story about what just happened to the brain where is it stored for some future time when it is recalled during a meaning act. Consciousness and attention are coupled. Consciousness is always consciousness of something that has currently captured our attention; whatever that is, it has been filtered out of the other sensory perceptions that were impinging on the body at that moment of consciousness.

If we lack context, we cannot build up meaningful stories when we decide to act. Meaning allows us to connect past experiences with our values. We can associate love, trust, admiration or any other quality with the immediate awareness of whatever has come into focus. Many of these qualities obviate the need to make instantaneous assessments of some utilitarian nature. When we do act in such context, we continue telling the story and enrich the meaning even more. Not all such actions will turn out positively but, in every case, we will add new chapters to the story already in our memory.

As I wrote in the last post, actions that arise from a contextual basis are meaningful in the sense of caring. They are based on a sense of prior engagement and a sense of connection to the other involved in the action. That other can be other humans, parts of the non-human world, the actor as a distinct human being, or images of a previous transcendent experience. As fundamentally social animals, we spend most of our times with other human beings. In our earliest days as Home sapiens, life was always entirely devoted to caring. It was a time that we created language as a tool to facilitate such interactions. Words and linguistic structure were means to tell stories to others as instructions for coordinating action. If one wished to act, it was necessary to provide a meaningful context: who should be involved, what was the intended outcome, why that was important, and so on. The richness of context and, consequently, meaning deepened as more words were added. Human beings have been often described as meaning-seeking animals.

Jumping a few dozen millennia to today, Egan’s article is one more in what I see as an increase in commentary about the thinness of modern life and the increasing pathologies that threaten human and non-human flourishing. In the last post, I pointed to dangers inherent in the growth of 1) markets as the appropriate means to coordination actions, and 2) technology as the medium for communication. Both fail to produce meaning in engagements with them, which failure can be attributed to the absence of reflective consciousness, the process by which we add to the stories in our brain.

Egan proposes a couple of remedies.

The first is gardening. You plant something in the cold, wet soil of the fall — tulip bulbs or garlic — and then you want to shout, “Grow!” Eight seconds later, nothing. Working the ground, there’s no instant gratification. The planting itself forces you to think in half-year-increments, or longer for trees and perennials. The mind drifts, from the chill of a dark day to a springtime of color. Hope, goes the Emily Dickinson poem, is the thing with feathers. But it’s also the thing that rises from a tiny seed, in its own sweet time.

The second is deep reading, especially in the hibernation months of winter. I’m nearly done with the second volume of William Manchester’s masterly biography of Winston Churchill, “The Last Lion.” (O.K., I’m late to the book, Churchillians.) It’s zipping by. Next up is a new history of the Roman Empire.

The first is a marvelous thought. I often have used gardening in connection with complexity, a topic intimately related to the discussion above. Gardening requires that one build a context that informs actions along the way from seeding to fruition (flourishing). The same is true when dealing with any complex system and its challenges. Its outcomes come in, as Egan writes, “in its own sweet time.” Technological fixes tend to fail because those who would apply them fail to understand exactly that characteristic of complexity.

The second is also very thoughtful. Written texts are stories on paper that arise from the stories in the author’s bodies. The flow of words is produced by a continuous reflection of meaning in the author’s conscousness that is mirrored by the reader. Hermeneutics, the study of meaning in texts, aims at matching these two streams. As we read we attribute meaning, whether or not it matches the authors, which meaning then affects how we will interpret the next passage, or what we have previously read. If we are to get into a book, we must be able to focus attention for periods long enough to establish a continuing sense of what is on the pages. If we flit from one part to another in the sense of the short attention span that Egan bewails, the possibility of finding meaning is virtually nil.

What Makes a Society Run (Down)?



The social/political world is constituted by a myriad of distinct groups of people, roughly distinguishable by a handful of structural features. Sociologists provide us with a plethora of models that vary largely by enumerating the relative dominance of these features. I tend to follow the structuration model of Anthony Giddens that posits that societies differ according to their beliefs, norms, authority structures, and commonly used material resources. The success or effectiveness of different societies can be assessed by comparing the outcomes of societal action relative to some set of stated values.

In this blog post, I want to examine the relationship between the values and the kind of actions one would observe by standing outside and looking into the society. In a market economy, like the US, the dominant kind of actions to be seen is “transactions.” These are actions predicated on some sort of exchange system. “I will do this if you will do that for me.” “I will sell you this car if you will pay me $XXXX.” “I will operate this checkout station if you will pay me $YYY.” There are no contextual conditions needed between the two or more parties; that is, no existing relationships affect the transaction. This is the underlying basis for the “invisible hand” of Adam Smith.

If one looks only at the material economy of a society, this system of impersonal transactions seems to be working very well. In the aggregate, the quantity and value (in the marketplace) have grown in societies that build their institutional structures around transactions or exchanges. If, however, anyone, in this kind of society were to be asked, how they assess their life to be, they would measure up all the goods and services they have acquired through transactions and base their answers on the result. They would have difficulty providing answers related to the quality of their lives because qualities are usually emergent properties of systems; they are not produced in the material processes that conventionally comprise an economy. This is, indeed the case today in the industrialized world; the majority of respondents express dissatisfaction with their lives.

Human beings, alone among all living species, exist in a meaningful context. Meaning arises from our use of language to express us and to coordinate our actions with others. Meaning arises in the stories we tell about our experiences. The actor is always the central character of these stories. Meaning is self-referential. I cannot say what some event or action means to someone else. Meaning is historical and changes as experience accumulates in one’s memory. Meaning can arise from two sources: one is the stories that actors weave out of their own experiential perceptions; the other through the adoption of stories told by others, including the impersonal cultural voice, the “they” that expresses societal norms.

This latter source of “meaning” leads to inauthentic behavior. After 9/11, President Bush tried to restore normality to societal life by exhorting the public to “Go Shopping.” Conversely, actions that come out of one’s own story are authentic. Although this difference is critical, it is, in practice, frequently difficult to locate the source of the immediate context for action. Recognition of which type of behavior is being exhibited is best developed by observations over long time periods.

So far this discussion about meaning is prelude for the next part of my argument. I argue that transactional actions do not produce existential satisfaction, which I will now define. Existential satisfaction is an experience in which a human Being assesses that he or she is living up to his or her full biological and cultural potential. Like meaning, satisfaction is historically grounded and represents a reflection, not of some singular action, but of the continuity of experience. Existential satisfaction is grounded in actions that arise out of the historical context of meaning, associated with the particular action. I use “flourishing” to describe this satisfying mode of existence.

Flourishing is the result of a different kind of interaction in which the actors are tied into a context of relationship. I will call these actions, relational or reciprocal. The meaningful presence of the other, the target of the intended action, is a necessary precursor to the action. Such interactions come with an already present story that provides a context for the intended action. In most cases the necessary preconditions for action, such as trust, are already part of the story. This kind of action also can be labeled as caring. Caring actions are those directed to another (including the actor as a target) that are intended to supply something missing from the other. What is deemed to be missing arises out of an empathetic interaction with the other at the time or out a memory of a prior history.

Caring actions are authentic and existentially satisfying to both parties. They are dependent on the presence of an experiential context that establishes a meaningful relationship. That context is generally created through an extended set of interactions and the linguistic interchange (conversation) that accompanies them. Transactions usually lack such a context and the parties have little or no history of interactions. The context necessary to initiate action, in these cases, comes from a generalized sense of what the cultural voice would say. It should be obvious that such a context cannot provide the richness of meaning that comes from an established relationship. Actions taken on the basis of such abstract or generalized contexts often turn out to be unsatisfying, leading to a high level of societal dissatisfaction.

Such is the case in the US today. The majority of the people are unhappy with the ways life is going for them. Such unhappiness is easily converted to anger, as we are seeing in the current Republican nominating process. Michael Sandel has written an excellent critique of the limits of the market on his book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. The hegemony of market transactions is a large part of that malaise, but is not the only cause. Sherry Turkle, an MIT scholar who studies technology, has recently published a book that sees a dark side to all the ubiquitous technology in our hands, but particular as young people are using it. The book was reviewed in the NY Times by Jonathan Franzen, who wrote about it:

Her new book, “Reclaiming Conversation,” extends her critique [from her previous book, Alone Together,] with less emphasis on robots and more on the dissatisfaction with technology reported by her recent interview subjects. She takes their dissatisfaction as a hopeful sign, and her book is straightforwardly a call to arms: Our rapturous submission to digital technology has led to an atrophying of human capacities like empathy and self-¬≠reflection, and the time has come to reassert ourselves, behave like adults and put technology in its place. As in “Alone Together,” Turkle’s argument derives its power from the breadth of her research and the acuity of her psychological insight. The people she interviews have adopted new technologies in pursuit of greater control, only to feel controlled by them. The likably idealized selves that they’ve created with social media leave their real selves all the more isolated. They communicate incessantly but are afraid of face-to-face conversations; they worry, often nostalgically, that they’re missing out on something fundamental.

Her central theme is the loss of conversational capabilities created by the context-free nature of communicating with these devices. Context and, subsequently, meaning require capturing the presence of the other and reflecting on the experience. The meaning comes from whatever story the actor adds to his or her memory, which memory can serve as the background for the next encounter with the other.

Our modern society is addicted to the use of technology and to markets. I have written quite extensively of the addiction to technology and its unintended consequences in creating unsustainability and, as Turkle writes, the diminishment of relations and the rise of dissatisfaction. Markets produce the same outcome of diminished relationships. Both are related to the modernist idea that the world is just a complicated machine with all the parts connected by functional, objective laws and rules. It should be quickly clear that such a world cannot produce meaning; everything in this model is simply there.

Flourishing arises only in a world where meaning motivates human action. Purely utilitarian transactions are important, as modern life demands that we possess and consume goods essentially available only in the marketplace, but are insufficient to provide existential satisfaction. The creation of meaning rests on reflective competence, that is, the ability to make and retain stories about what we experience. No matter how the brain actually maintains memory, our consciousness of it comes through language and images.

Turkle recognizes the importance of this and the threat that increasing reliance of “technology” poses. If we want to work toward a flourishing, rather than an affluent, efficient, society, it will be essential to actively address this problem. The solutions are not to throw out either the market or technology; that is virtually impossible. Countervailing means to reduce the dehumanizing aspects have to be introduced. Turkle’s book poses a number of initiatives, individual and collective. My work also is directed at adding practices that can counterbalance the inevitable consequences of modernity.

As I finish this post, I observe it is pretty dense, but the cause of the malaise in the modern world is very deeply embedded below the surface of culture. It takes a conversation with yourself in which all the cul-de-sacs in one’s thinking are exposed. If we do not take the effort to expose the believe structure that provides the ground for our culturally inauthentic behaviors, we are pretty much doomed to continue on the same trajectory that has reversed the earlier arrow of “progress.”

My wife is downstairs watching one of her favorite movies, Howards End, based on a novel by E. M. Forster. It is a wonderful story about the unfolding of an encounter of members of three English social classes at the beginning of the 20th century. The epigraph in the novel is the mysterious phrase. “Only connect …? It is repeated as “Only Connect!” in the story, itself. For me, it is one of the most powerful statements of the critical importance of relations in any culture where social artifacts have taken on hegemonic values.

The Absence of Care



I have had lots of time to think about what’s happening out there in the world as I am pretty much housebound for a few more weeks until my new knee tells me it’s OK to get behind the wheel. The political campaigns have captured much of the news, along with extreme weather and extremist terror events. Both the Republican and the Democratic races are full of negative name-calling and widely diverse policies. The Republicans, in general, are being characterized as appealing to an angry and disenchanted with government electorate. I see a very different dichotomy between the two parties that seems to capture their central philosophies more clearly. One party cares about caring; the other does not. I do not have to tell you which is which.

I am quite stunned by how comprehensively this feature encompasses the main arguments being made. One talks about a wall and the exclusion of many people already living within our borders and contributing to our general welfare from the economy and the ballot box. The needs of many that have been left out by the exclusionary policies of the past are generally being ignored. Access to weapons whose only purpose is to kill people, the antithesis of caring, is a central feature.

On the other side, we hear about inclusionary policies that would make it easier for workers to care for themselves. The point of this blog post is not to do a point-by-point comparison of the two opposing party’s rhetoric and promises. I want to focus on the theme of care. I, as I so often do, will draw heavily from a couple of oped pieces in the 1/10/2016 “New York Times Sunday Review.” While not appearing to have much to do with one another, I will argue that they are intimately linked. The first is a piece, “You Don’t Need More Free Time,” about how we Americans think more free time will bring more happiness, by Christobal Young. Young argues that this sense is incorrect.

AMERICANS work some of the longest hours in the Western world, and many struggle to achieve a healthy balance between work and life. As a result, there is an understandable tendency to assume that the problem we face is one of quantity: We simply do not have enough free time. “If I could just get a few more hours off work each week,” you might think, “I would be happier.”

This may be true. But the situation, I believe, is more complicated than that. As I discovered in a study that I published with my colleague Chaeyoon Lim in the journal Sociological Science, it’s not just that we have a shortage of free time; it’s also that our free time, in order to be satisfying, often must align with that of our friends and loved ones. We face a problem, in other words, of coordination (emphasis in the original). Work-life balance is not something that you can solve on your own.

I’ll return to this in a few minutes, but, first, the second article, another oped piece. This one was by Arthur C. Brooks, President of the American Heritage Foundation, titled, “To Be Happier, Start Thinking More About Your Death.” Brooks argues that thinking about one’s mortality leads to a better life.

WANT a better 2016? Try thinking more about your impending demise.

Years ago on a visit to Thailand, I was surprised to learn that Buddhist monks often contemplate the photos of corpses in various stages of decay. The Buddha himself recommended corpse meditation. “This body, too,” students were taught to say about their own bodies, “such is its nature, such is its future, such its unavoidable fate.”

Paradoxically, this meditation on death is intended as a key to better living. It makes disciples aware of the transitory nature of their own physical lives and stimulates a realignment between momentary desires and existential goals. In other words, it makes one ask, “Am I making the right use of my scarce and precious life?”

I will excuse you if you do not immediately see a connection between these two articles, but will try to convince you that there is an important link. That link is care. Brooks tells us that we should live as if this year was going to be our last, spending more time on activities that are meaningful to us. Just saying no to time wasting activities is not enough. He writes, “The secret is not simply a resolution to stop wasting time, however. It is to find a systematic way to raise the scarcity of time to our consciousness.” In my own words, I interpret Brooks as saying, when you face the inevitability of your ultimate death, you will start doing more of the things you care about. He quotes work by Daniel Kahneman showing people misallocate their time, spending less on activities that deem truly satisfying than on things like watching television.

While Brooks got his inspiration from Buddhist monks, there are sources right here in our Western tradition that make the same argument. Using the philosophical language of Heidegger and others, Brooks is pointing to authentic behavior, as opposed to inauthentic. Heidegger argues that one, upon facing the finiteness of life, can begin to exist in an authentic, caring mode, making choices coming from inside. Otherwise, inauthentic behavior conforms to social norms, doing whatever, “They say is the right thing to do,” like watching the tube. Caring comprises those activities that provide existential meaning to life, that is, that make you aware of your humanness.

The connection to the other article comes through the word, coordination. The key is in this phrase, “[I]t’s not just that we have a shortage of free time; it’s also that our free time, in order to be satisfying, often must align with that of our friends and loved ones.” Again, what is being discussed is authentic, caring activities. Caring is always aligned between what we sense is needed over there and what we, then, intend to do about it. I think this article is too dismissive of work as unsatisfying, seeking satisfaction only in free time. These categories are arbitrary. An alien, looking at a society could not say what was work and what was free time.

If there is a solution to the lack of coordination that Young writes about, it is not, as he says, in simply expanding the non-working hours. New caring institutions must be established where people can enter in authentic activities interacting with themselves, others, and with the world. I have presented such a categorization of care in my books and on this blog. The metrics being used by the sources for these articles tend to focus on satisfaction as an instantaneous sense of well-being, as in “I felt good just after I did X.” One does X because one feels good doing it, but existential well-being, or flourishing, as I call it, is not some such fleeting activity or assessment. Authenticity and caring leave a rooted sense of satisfaction in place, along with a sense that this feeling must be sustained by continuing to enter into caring actions.

Young implies that today’s workplace does not offer much, if any, possibility for authentic action. Work for almost everybody means conforming to a set of rules and norms, designed to produce whatever the organization is supposed to produce. But there is one way to find authentic satisfaction in work. If you see work as a means to provide the wherewithal to take care of whatever is meaningful in your life, its rule-bound nature can be better accepted. Also the workplace can be seen as a source of caring toward other workers and even the work itself, if viewed as enabling the customers to care/

I recognize that this is not the picture of the typical company anywhere in the world. Workers are generally highly dissatisfied all over the globe. Marx observed this in his studies of capitalism, but there is no fundamental barriers to creating a workspace based on care. That is one of the central messages of the book, Flourishing Enterprise: The New Spirit of Business, written by a team, including me, at The Weatherhead School of Management. Existential satisfaction shows up as flourishing. It is an expression of human Being, acting out of care. It can occur anyplace, but only if the institutional setting has been created to enable it. Care is always intentional, coming after a connection to someone or something has been established. Care is empathic, focused on the immediate situation of the other.

Writers, like Young and Brooks, have begun to observe what is missing from life in today’s transactional economies, but are too quick to base their analyses on psychological or sociological models. It takes some deeper, more reflective work to discover that the malaise is existential, representing the gap between the diminished, scientistic model of the human species and the real essence of human Being.

Getting Back to Normalcy



It’s now 19 days since my knee replacement surgery. Improvement on each days. I can get all about the house on my own power, without using even a cane. Stairs still need a little help, Pain level is now low, except after I do my knee stretching and bending exercises. I felt well enough yesterday to get out and go to my MEAH class. That’s the one on Jewish religious and cultural history. A bit hard to concentrate for two plus hours, but got through. Yesterday we examined the story of King David.

I will be working myself back into flourishing here on the blog and on the very slowly developing new book.