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Orwell Redux

Orwell

Okay, so I am getting over my depression, but not my fear. Running the US is not like running a business. Appearances really matter. The events of the last few days should serve as a warning for those who voted for Trump looking for understanding and relief. The appointments of more very wealthy folks who are, perhaps, even more out of touch with your concerns than the so-called elites you voted to oust. And there are many more to come.

Last night Ruth and I and friends went to see the moving, Loving, the story of the successful Supreme Court case than threw out state laws banning interracial marriage. As we walked out, I wondered if we would have to go through all of that again. Since Loving, we have freed others who seek loving (small “l”), committed relationships to realize their deepest intentions. Care for others beats all the trumped up reasons that stand in the way. I have written about care as the most basic of the human essence. Nowhere is it more evident than in the cases where two human beings who do not fit the mold of the majority exhibit the deepest form of caring.

That we see this evidenced in these loving acts and lives is better proof than all the theory or philosophy I and others use to establish our claims about care as underpinning human existence. I am very concerned that the inclusion of relationships that do not fit the mold of those holding political power has been endangered. Certainly the rhetoric of the election process suggests that, and the lack of explicit repudiation of that rhetoric reinforces it.

If I had to find a single word to describe the reasons that people voted for Donald Trump, I would pick care or, better, the lack of it from both the public and the private sectors. One could hear in all the news stories, “Nobody cares about me.” Ironically, the predominant anger was directed against the government when it should have been aimed at the private sector. Ironic because this is the selfsame set of institutions that is supposed to be the savior. Jobs are not lost because of the government. Jobs disappear as a natural process of capitalism and free market economies. They are supposed to as technology makes work more and more efficient.

Jobs go as the wealth produced by the economy goes disproportionally to the already wealthy. If it were not for public policies that attempt to level the playing field, the imbalance would be even greater. Trade deficits are indicators that we in the US buy more from abroad than we sell. That is the result of the availability of cheaper goods than we can produce even if our economy is more efficient. Efficiency cannot beat lower wages at come point. Putting tariffs to level the playing field would make it much harder to buy the goods that the poorer people do have. Those who voted for Trump should do an inventory of what they own and count up comes from overseas.

I used irony above but should really use a word with a much more sinister tone, doublespeak. George Orwell especially and others warned us against what has become known as “doublespeak.” Here’s its definition from Wikipedia:

Doublespeak is language that deliberately obscures, disguises, distorts, or reverses the meaning of words. Doublespeak may take the form of euphemisms (e.g., “downsizing” for layoffs, “servicing the target” for bombing), in which case it is primarily meant to make the truth sound more palatable. It may also refer to intentional ambiguity in language or to actual inversions of meaning (e.g., “I just want you to know that, when we talk about war, we’re really talking about peace.”). In such cases, doublespeak disguises the nature of the truth. Doublespeak is most closely associated with political language.

Orwell, the author of 1984 where this idea of doublespeak became well known, wrote in a more academic piece,

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible … Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness … the great enemy of clear language is insincerity. Where there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, …

The word “insincerity” jumps out. Perhaps there have been other elections where insincerity and outright lying have been greater, but not in my quite long lifetime. I have voted in 16, maybe 17 Presidential elections and cannot remember one that came close to this. Orwell’s novel ends very badly for those concerned with authoritarianism and freedom. The danger of being bamboozled grows immensely when the press is a captive of the authorities or vice versa. I doubt if Donald Trump has ever read 1984, but, judging from the attacks against a responsible and free press, some of his advisors and plotters have. Now with technology enabling the ease of capturing the sources of truth by malicious or Machiavellian interests, protecting and supporting sources of information reflecting reality is essential. Reality may not be what is used to be, but there is a real difference between those to try to speak truths and those that deliberately do not.

Thinking about all those that think they “won,” I believe that will be bitterly disappointed or worse. I also believe it is already too late to do much about forestalling the disappointment. But is it not too soon to assure that there are strong and independent voices that will not allow the inevitable anger be directed at the wrong targets. History points to the extraordinary threats to freedom when it does. Given that some of this has already begun, those that treasure their own freedom should/must protect the freedom of those unjustly being blamed or risk losing their own.

Photo: George Orwell

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on November 26, 2016 4:05 PM ::

Comments Please, But Read This First

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

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on November 26, 2016 8:56 AM ::

Getting Ready for Turkey Day

turkeys

I wish I were talking about cooking for our Thanksgiving gathering. Many years ago, I aspired to a political job to run a regional Federal agency. I was on the short list and due for an interview. I prepared myself by getting up to date on what I thought were the most important issues facing the Agency. When the interview finally happened, I got through the first few questions, but was unprepared by the next that was, “How will you deal with all the turkeys.” I have forgotten my response. It made little difference as the job went to someone whose political credentials were far greater than mine.

The question has stuck with me and arises quadrennially. Governing this vast country gets harder every year and requires thoughtful people to keep it inside some unknown bounds of stability. I have long given up on any ideological set of rules that will suffice. The world, including every nation with it, is complex and pays little heed to any fixed rules. I have always been located on the liberal side of the political balance, largely because I think any potential solution to the barriers to a fairer society has to be discovered anew, not by looking backwards, even to ideas that may have worked previously.

I am not dissing ideas, but what matters are not the ideas per se, but how well the ideas fit the immediate situations. In complex systems, ideas are always and only starting positions. The infinite possibilities in an ever unpredictably changing world rules out the likelihood that any idea will work for very long. Just think about the election. Virtually every plan will have unintended consequences. The bigger than plan, the larger these consequences may be. Just look at the mess in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Inequality grows as capitalism works its ways. Climate change comes along.

The only, and I do mean only, way towards a satisfactory resolution of situations like this is to have thoughtful, committed people working on them. Russ Ackoff called such kinds of situations, “messes”; others call them “wicked problems.” Ackoff used the word “dissolve” to point to solutions that eliminated or greatly reduced the problematic situation. Importantly, he called the activities necessary to make the problem dissolve, “research.” That usage means than no easy solution to messes is ready at hand. If it were, one might ask has the problem hung around.


Research on complex problems requires pragmatic methods. The usual abstractions of ideologies and scientific principles and facts do not apply to process of understanding complex systems. Their complexity, in part, is due to the failure to be able to reduce them to such rules and laws. Pragmatism, in turn, requires a cadre of committed, concerned inquirers to wrestle with the system and try to pull its secrets out. Turkeys will not suffice.

In their first meeting, President Obama said of the President-elect, “I don’t think he is ideological. I think ultimately he is pragmatic, and that can serve him well, as long as he’s got good people around him.” I think President Obama made a serious categorical error here. The opposite of ideological is not pragmatic. Pragmatic applies to a very specific methodology for understanding complexity and for interacting with complex systems. It requires care, inquiry, and the monitoring of any intervention. Unsuccessful attempts, whether they move the system in the wrong direction or produce significant unintended consequences, must be modified. It is not easy to track the results of interventions (policy); patience is always necessary.

The lack of ideas, knowledge, or specific programs does not turn into pragmatism automatically. Much of the time it turns into chaos. One critical, essential characteristic of pragmatists is humility and a willingness to suspend those beliefs that don’t appear to be effective. My first impression of those involved in the transition is that this trait is largely missing. Rittel and Webber, who coined the phrase, wicked problem, note that solutions to complex problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad. Unlike technicians of all ilks, those who would solve wicked problems have no right to be wrong. They cannot blame the error of the abstract rules for failure. There is a deep-rooted moral responsibility involved.

I am disappointed by the election results for many reasons. With a few days to think about the outcome, I can explain my feelings in the arguments of this blog post. Democrats, as a generalization, are more committed to making government work. That fits my observations that, with all its warts, it is an essential institution. If we neglect it and turn toward the market as the solution to all problems, we will be making a great mistake. I am not being ideological here. My conclusion comes from a look at history and some knowledge about how markets do work vice how they are supposed to work.

Economists and political scientists tend to reduce the essence of political economy to mathematical abstractions. Economists are better at doing this than political scientists, which may be one reason markets appeal more to ideologues than does government. It seems clear to me and (many, many) others than some combination is always necessary, but getting that right is very difficult. Again, humility, not hubris, is needed.

I am almost finished with my new book and am getting ready to find someone to publish it. The three most important words in it are flourishing, complexity, and caring. This blog focuses on the second of these. My disappointment stretched however to the other two. I do not hear a lot about what I would call caring coming from those preparing to take the reins of government. Nor do I hear much about flourishing as I define it.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on November 22, 2016 9:21 PM ::

Ready, fire, aim

readyfireaim

The election result is being explained by any number of causes, but the one I see most invoked is anger at the government and its associated “elites” to provide jobs and a livelihood for many in the lower and lower middle economic classes. I accept the facts of pervasive unemployment, but I think these citizens have the cause wrong. Not only wrong but ironically wrong for their hopes are based on the success of the incoming Trump, conservative government, who are about to make life worse for these folks.

The primary culprit of their situation is not government but capitalism itself as it operates today. The financial sector, which employs a negligible number of the present disaffected classes, channels a large amount of wealth generation to the already wealthy. At last count this sector’s share of all profits was about 40%.

Next factor is the disparity in income between bosses and workers. There is a lot of variation in published data, but the following data from a report by the Economic Policy Institute appears to be typical:

The CEO-to-worker compensation ratio, 20-to-1 in 1965, peaked at 376-to-1 in 2000 and was 303-to-1 in 2014, far higher than in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s.

This upward trend is due in part to falling wages over the past several decades. I cannot find any way to attribute this situation to any failure of the part of government except its failure to exert more control. Hardly the message that was used to attract these disaffected voters.

The third factor is the pace of disruptive innovation. A, if not the, primary cause of worker displacement is structural change due to technological innovations which substitute for labor. Whole sectors wax and wane with large scale impacts of opportunities for worker. New openings for high-wage skilled technically trained workers cannot match losses due to the new technologies. Replacing toll collectors with automated systems is a good example, but is but one of many such displacements.

The free market ideology that is help out to be a plus for these unemployed tends to be just the opposite. In theory, a free, perfect market should be the most efficient in generating GDP. But markets are far from perfect. The costs of social displacement and environmental/health damage are, at best, only partly reflected in the cost of goods. The models used to guide the political economy of a society can examine and maximize efficiency and output, but at the expense of equity and fairness. The work of Thomas Piketty has shown that growing capitalistic economies tend to increase inequity as a systemic effect.

Most schools of management or business are founded on economic theories that stress efficiency and growth. Profit and growth remains the dominant normative goals of virtually all large firms and many smaller ones. MBA’s, who have little understanding of what a firm really does, populate higher management echelons. They are guided by the abstract rules and metrics they learn in business schools.

Neither is trade the villain. Trade raises the whole ship as does a rising tide, but showers its fruits unevenly, displacing some workers while enabling those with income to dispose of having access to cheaper goods that would have been produced in the absence of trade.

I could continue for some time. I know that many will pick at these reasons as not being accurate. I am not an economist or MBA and accept that I may deviate in degree, but I am convinced that the overall picture I am painting is correct. The culprit is not the government, except as not doing enough. It is the capitalistic system as constituted today.

Most industrially advance nations recognize the structural nature of unemployment and displacement and attempt to compensate through redistribution in some form or other. Some aid may come in direct payments or through access to free or subsidized necessary services like health care, education, or retirement income.

All such programs involve some form of public policy as opposed to the working of a free, unfettered capitalistic market. They are based on both experience and sound theory. They are never perfect, but have responded to the same kinds of concerns that propelled the Trump victory in this election.

I am quite upset by this turn of events because it threatens to set the clock back, possibly a long way back, in some arenas most back to the beginning. What I have written in this blog post is not motivated by these threats as much as it by the likelihood almost certainty that those who have been told everything will be just fine, even great again, will see their fortunes ebb even further. I am sad, almost to the point of tears, when I try to adjust to the results. We have come a long way from Hobbes’s times when the role of government was more clearly juxtaposed against an anarchic alternative.

In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

I find it very interesting and, again ironic, to read his concern that, without a functional social contract and its implementation in the form of government, we would lack trade, adequate knowledge, arts, but not fear. In the language of today, we might say that without the order furnished by the public sector, we would live at the mercy of the private sector. Not a good idea. Both are necessary, but always in some sort of balance. History does have lessons for us and to ignore the past is not a good idea. But conversely the future is never like the past and past lessons always must be altered and shaped to fit the present.

Today I will limit my comments to the irony I have discussed, but I reserve future space to discuss the criticality of understanding the way the immediate world is working. Ignorance or denial is very, very dangerous. Given the daunting challenges of understanding the complex world, the best we can do toward such understanding may be very limited, but, no matter, we must keep trying. If we do not, our plans will be fated as Robert Burns wrote, “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, Gang aft agley. An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, For promis’d joy!(To A Mouse)” Just imagine what he might have written about plans that have little or no basis.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on November 17, 2016 8:56 PM ::

Synchronicity

clef

Just after I hit save for the last post, a remarkable thing happened. I listen to streaming classical music as I work. Literally as I posted the blog piece on hope, I heard the first few familiar notes of one of my very favorite, but rarely played, pieces: Vincent d’Indy’s “Symphony on a French Mountain Air.” I find this piece one of the most hopeful pieces of music I know. I can’t say why, but it always raises my spirits. Another example of synchronicity.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on November 9, 2016 8:04 PM ::

Hope

tears

I have been away for a couple of weeks touring the French and Italian Rivieras, ending with a few days in Florence, Dante’s home. In just a few days I have gone from Paradiso to Purgatorio. One of my faithful followers (R. S.) implored me today to write something hopeful. I am not sure that I can find the right words today. The image on the left reflects my state of mind. Like many of you, I am profoundly sad. But I have been collecting hope-filled quotes for some time. Here are a few of my favorites. I am particularly taken by Václav Havel’s words, as he lived through a lifetime of oppression, but saw his dreams realized eventually. I hope (sic) we never get to the state he had to live through, but the book from which this first quote comes should be on your book shelf just in case.

A genuine, profound and lasting change for the better […] can no longer result from the victory […] of any particular traditional political conception, which can ultimately be only external, that is, a structural or systemic conception. More than ever before, such a change will have to derive from human existence, from the fundamental reconstitution of the position of people in the world, their relationships to each other, and to the universe. If a better economic and political model is to be created, then perhaps […] it must derive from profound existential and moral changes in society. This is not something that can be designed and introduced like a new car. If it is to be more than just a new variation on the old degeneration, it must above all be an expression of life in the process of transforming itself. A better system will not automatically ensure a better life. In fact the opposite is true: only by creating a better life can a better system be developed. (Václav Havel, The Power of the Powerless, p.30)

Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul, and it’s not dependent on some observation of the world. Hope is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond the horizons.…Hope in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.…Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism.…It is not the conviction, that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. It is Hope, above all, which gives the strength to live and continually try new things. (Václav Havel, Disturbing the Peace (1986), Chapter 5: The Politics of Hope)

You have to draw a distinction between hope and optimism. Vaclav Havel put it well when he said “optimism” is the belief that things are going to turn out as you would like, as opposed to “hope,” which is when you are thoroughly convinced something is moral and right and just and therefore you fight regardless of the consequences. In that sense, I’m full of hope but in no way optimistic. (Cornel West, not sure of source)

“Hope and optimism are different. Optimism tends to be based on the notion that there’s enough evidence out there to believe things are gonna be better, much more rational, deeply secular, whereas hope looks at the evidence and says, “It doesn’t look good at all. Doesn’t look good at all. Gonna go beyond the evidence to create new possibilities based on visions that become contagious to allow people to engage in heroic actions always against the odds, no guarantee whatsoever.” That’s hope. I’m a prisoner of hope, though. Gonna die a prisoner of hope.” (Cornel West, not sure of source)

“Last, but not least, there is a need for audacious hope. And it’s not optimism. I’m in no way an optimist. I’ve been black in America for 39 years. No ground for optimism here, given the progress and regress and three steps forward and four steps backward. Optimism is a notion that there’s sufficient evidence that would allow us to infer that if we keep doing what we’re doing, things will get better. I don’t believe that. I’m a prisoner of hope, that’s something else. Cutting against the grain, against the evidence. William James said it so well in that grand and masterful essay of his of 1879 called “The Sentiment of Rationality,” where he talked about faith being the courage to act when doubt is warranted. And that’s what I’m talking about.” (Cornel West, from the 1993 commencement speech at Wesleyan University)

Hope implies a deep-seated trust in life that appears absurd to those who lack it…The worst is always what the hopeful are prepared for. Their trust in life would not be worth much if it had not survived disappointments in the past, while the knowledge that the future holds further disappointments demonstrates the continuing need for hope…Improvidence, a blind faith that things will somehow work out for the best, furnishes a poor substitute for the disposition to see things through even when they don’t. (Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Human, p. 81)

“The world, unfortunately, rarely matches our hopes and consistently refuses to behave in a reasonable manner.” (S. J. Gould)

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on November 9, 2016 7:31 PM ::

Life as a Sack of Potatoes

potato sack

Reality is a difficult concept to grasp, partly because it has been used in several confusing and even conflicting ways. Difficult or not, reality is one of the most important concepts to keep clear because it is a metaphor for the media, the soup, in which life takes place. Pieces of that reality enter our consciousness through our senses where they become transformed onto meaningful images or processes in the brain. I use a couple of metaphors here because no one knows yet exactly how the brain makes this wondrous move to add meaning to the meaningless objects that enter our consciousness. Without being able to make that step, humans would not be able to engage in intentional actions. We would be just like almost all other life, limited to responses built into our evolutionary cognitive wiring.

But we are different and have employed our unique ability to make meaningful interpretations of reality and, then, to construct ways of living together far more elaborate and richer than any other living species. The actual outcome of whatever we eventually intend and enact is determined by the forces at play in the real world, not by their surrogates in our minds. The closer the mind does mirror that reality, the more likely our plans will be realized. In order to do that, the mind has to put the immediate sensory inputs back in to the context of the real world. This is another way of saying the brain has to add back images (My metaphor for whatever or however the brain keeps things in its neural networks.) from the past. Those images provide a temporal context that identifies the objects and ascribes meaning to them. Spatial context is provided by the senses that capture images beyond those that are held in the attention spotlight. When either of these two aspects of context is missing, the focal object becomes diffuse and one- or two-dimensional.

Does this really matter? Yes, indeed. Our lives are becoming diminished by the dominance of technology and by the pace at which we live. Several articles I have read recently inspire this blog post, but it is a subject about which I have been writing for some years. Andrew Sullivan whose wonderful blog was a regular feature of my day disappeared from the scene some months ago. He reappeared for me in a recent article in the New York Magazine, titled, “I Used to Be a Human Being.” The title tells much of his story in which he recounted how his addiction to the Internet broke his physical and mental health.

If the internet killed you, I used to joke, then I would be the first to find out. Years later, the joke was running thin. In the last year of my blogging life, my health began to give out. Four bronchial infections in 12 months had become progressively harder to kick. Vacations, such as they were, had become mere opportunities for sleep. My dreams were filled with the snippets of code I used each day to update the site. My friendships had atrophied as my time away from the web dwindled. My doctor, dispensing one more course of antibiotics, finally laid it on the line: “Did you really survive HIV to die of the web?”

Davis Brooks penned a column with a similar theme, the power of social media and related devices to “change the very nature of the self.” The optimistic prognostications of the early days of social media could be attributed mainly due to a change of the tools used in relationships. This appears to be changing, as he writes:

But recently, people’s views of social media have grown a bit darker. That’s because we seem to be hitting some sort of saturation level. Being online isn’t just something we do. It has become who we are, transforming the very nature of the self.

Earlier this year, Jacob Weisberg had a fine essay in The New York Review of Books reporting that, according to a British study, we check our phones on average 221 times a day — about every 4.3 minutes.

A decade ago almost no one had a smartphone. Now the average American spends five and half hours a day with digital media, and the young spend far more time. A study of female students at Baylor University found that they spent 10 hours a day on their phones.

No one should be surprised at what is happening. Sherry Turkle wrote in 1995 that the computer was becoming our “Second Self”, the title of her important book. Much earlier, the philosopher, Albert Borgmann, warned against technology’s power to appropriate our humanity. In Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry (1984), Borgmann argued that the ubiquitous and transparent use of technology hides context and, thus, meaning from the humans employing it. This process turns the objects being manipulated by technology into commodities: objects with little or no context. While writing before the advent of social media and the devices that enable them, his theory fits the findings of more recent scholars. I haven’t used his work in this context before, but I find his use of the word, commodification, describes quite well my arguments about the impact of Facebook and related media on otherwise meaningful relationships. Sullivan’s personal experience might also be described as the conversion of a meaningful human being into a meaningless or meaning-poor commodity.

A related, but different aspect of technology was discussed in an article concerned about the effects of replacing humans with computers. “Crash: how computers are setting us up for disaster” tells the story of a disastrous airplane tragedy caused, according to the authors, by the deskilling of human pilots by the pervasive use of autopilots. In this case, the human agents were unable to correct deviations in the flight path of an Air France Airbus that crashed into the sea with the loss of 228 lives.

The cockpit record was recovered enabling investigators to reconstruct the events leading up to the tragedy. Autopilots hide the complexity of devices like airplanes and eventually change the mindset and response mechanisms of the human operators. One “solution” offered after the crash was to require pilots to turn off the autopilots from time to time to maintain their skills and appreciation of the complexity of the situation. This same issue will apply to the auto-driving cars now being tried out. Cars are not quite the complex machines as are airplanes, but real situations on crowded roads will surely produce situations as daunting to the human drivers as those for airplanes.

Human life may appear to becoming easier, as what used to be tasks we had to perform are increasingly being done by machines. These stories and others like it tell us that this may be so, but there may also be a kind of Faustian bargain involved without knowing that it is being made for us. Experiencing one’s Being, that is, flourishing, requires removing the filters between the authentic self and the world. The result may not be a pretty sight according to current cultural values and norms, but seeing oneself as a mortal being with all the warts we carry may be just the shock we need to recover and hold on to our authentic self, a mundane equivalent to the ethereal soul of theology, poetry, and philosophy.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on October 20, 2016 5:25 PM ::

Thoughts of Repentance on Yom Kippur

yom kippur

Yom Kippur is over and I am left with my thoughts of the day. This day is the culmination of 10 days of reflection on the beyond-the-world, the world, and one’s place in it. It is a trying time for me because of the omnipresence of God, a figure for whom I have little or no belief. I thank Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman for giving me a way to get through this period and other times I spend in my Temple. While he was visiting our Temple a few weeks ago in preparation for the Jewish Holidays, he offered a way for skeptics and non-believers to take in the liturgy and traditions. He said (more or less), “Suspend your disbelief and come as a part of an audience attending a metaphorical drama written over the ages, full of wisdom to be found in its lines and music.”

Our Temple is using a new (two-year old) prayer book that is helpful in this regard. It is full of alternate readings and explanations of the texts that elucidate the drama. The core thoughts I carry away and have been reflecting upon are: gratitude for being alive, facing up to the human failings that come with that life, and confessing and repenting for the acts that come from those very human parts of my body.

Being alive is a miracle that transforms a mess of chemical matter into a living being, in my case, a human being. Being the specific human being I am is another miracle for which I am grateful. No one else of the billions of people alive in the past, today, or in the future is like me. I am unique, shaped by my own biological make-up and unique life experience. I am grateful for all of the other human beings and the non-human world that has created who I am. Some I know well: my parents and family, my wives, my children and step-children, my friends, my teachers, my students, my bosses, my doctors, and on and on. Others who that have entered more silently and indistinctly have also played their parts. I have not always had the most complimentary thoughts about all of these, but I am equally grateful for the presence of all of them in my life.

The new Prayer book has a footnote echoing what our Rabbi always interjects when we come to the part of the service where we confess or recount our “sins.” I put sins in quotes to distinguish it from the notion of sin in other religions. The word in Hebrew, often translated as sin, has a root meaning coming from archery and means something more like “missing the mark.” It has the same meaning that the secular aphorism “To err is human” does, but the context is very different. We throw out that aphorism when we want to excuse our bad actions.

On Yom Kippur, one cannot get away with that; we must confess our misses, repent, and ask forgiveness. God forgives and atones for us unconditionally for all our transgressions directed toward God. I can skip this because, as a disbeliever, this doesn’t apply to me, or, at least, so I say. But for those misses that fall upon other human beings, I must make it right and apologize if I am to move into the New Year with a clean slate. It matters not whether my errant acts were intentional or unintentional. So if I have written anything here that has harmed anyone, I apologize for doing so, and, in the spirit of Yom Kippur, Jewish or not, I ask for your forgiveness.

The central prayer of confession is the Vidui, a series of transgressions in alphabetical order, followed by another series of Hebrew acrostics. Not being a Hebrew reader, this goes right by me, but the impact does not. There are always a handful or more that must have been written just for me. Today, the Vidui had more meaning than usual. The Rabbi must have been reading my (and many others’) minds when he said before his sermon that he was departing from his customary practice and bring politics into the sanctuary. Having just recited the Vidui, I was pretty sure I knew what he was going to say and so it was. He spoke about the importance of being genuine in one’s confessions and apologies for missing the mark, especially when has missed the entire target (my addition).

I add here something he did not say, but surely understands. Living together at any level requires trust and trust requires that we expect others to be responsible for their actions. We expect them to be respectful and to honor every human being as the same miracle they are. Allowance for mistakes is critical as errors are inevitable, but accepting one’s responsibility for them is essential if trust is to be maintained. Little or none of this can be found in the immediate political campaign and in the behavior of office-holding politicians in our Capitols. They have forgotten that you and I are part of their family and we have to live together. My feelings about this run the gamut between sadness and disgust.

I’ll end with a selection of sins I edited down from the very long litany of the Vidui. I need not tell you the criterion I chose to make my selection or to whom my thoughts were inspired by. These are what brought the mess out there into the sanctuary. Rather amazing, isn’t it?

And for the sin which we have committed before You with an utterance of the lips, with hard-heartedness, with immorality, with deceit, through speech, by deceiving a fellowman, by improper thoughts, by a gathering of lewdness, by verbal [insincere] confession, by impurity of speech, by foolish talk, with the evil inclination, false denial and lying, by a bribe-taking or a bribe-giving hand, by scoffing, by evil talk [about another], in business dealings, by a haughty demeanor, by the prattle of our lips, with proud looks, by scheming against a fellowman, by obduracy, by tale-bearing, by causeless hatred, by embezzlement…

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on October 12, 2016 6:08 PM ::

Bigger Is Not Better

big

Michael Pollan wrote an article, previewed today in the NY Times, about big agriculture and the failure of the Obama administration to act to rein in its excesses. For those interested in the specifics, you should read the article. I am referring to it primarily as an example of a more general problem: the excessive, uneconomic, undemocratic power of the corporate sector. Pollan’s story has a plot that can be found in many cases outside of the food sector: pharmaceuticals, military armaments, commercial banking, retail, drug stores, office supplies, air travel, online retail, online travel accommodations, beer, and more. But here’s one I am sure you never would have included: eyeglass frames. Luxotica provides about 80% of all frames sold in the United States. Not too much political power, perhaps, but, if you have bought glasses recently, you know what economic power they command. Big bucks for a cheap piece of plastic.

Some monopolies are content to squeeze out what the economists call rents, income larger than what they would get if the sector were competitive. That’s what the original trustbusters were after. Today’s problems are much larger and much more threatening. Economic power has been joined by political power. Pollan’s story is one where the use of money to lobby and engage in public relations campaigns stymies attempts to put much needed controls to protect the public. The rise of inequality is due to many causes, but the drive to get bigger and bigger is one of them. The consuming public pays more that they might in a truly competitive market. The rents that result from this go disproportionately to the already wealthy owners and managers.

This disparity is nothing new. It was behind the Occupy Wall Street failed movement and Bernie Sanders’ failed campaign. The argument that bigness brings economies of scale is true only in part. At some level, gains in efficiency are overcome by monopolistic practices. The price gouging attempts, both successful and not, in the pharmaceutical sector are just one example. Have you bought an airline ticket lately? Or, as I noted, a new pair of glasses?

The problem extends far beyond the cost of everything to the choices available to the public. Pollan’s article shows how Big Food controls what we eat, not just how much we pay for it. One thread follows Michelle Obama’s campaign against obesity, which has been tied to the poor eating habits of the American public. When Big Food was threatened by her speaking out for changes, they gathered a pile of money and used it to lobby against any form of regulation and placed what some might say were misleading advertisements to quell public concerns.

I am not a professional economist, but I have enough understanding of the field to know that the current situation and trends are bad news for most of us, poor and not so poor alike. The choices we have are growing smaller and smaller. Some argue that enough competition remains to allow choice. Maybe, but if you want to avoid the hand of Big Food on your dining habits, you are free to go to Whole Foods. Free only in theory because the prices keep all but affluent buyers away. Blackberry, the original smartphone, just has been withdrawn from the market!

I usually don’t write about issues like this. Pollan’s article got to me. My political (small p) juices started to flow. I think this issue should be front and center in the coming election, but the shenanigans of the candidates and the media have focused on trivia. I have no question as to who will get my vote, but am the least engaged this time around than ever before in what has become a pretty long life.

I write, as most of you know, about flourishing. It occurs to me that what I have just written has a lot to do with flourishing or, better about not flourishing. To flourish, one must act authentically, that is, from a source that is owned by the actor. This concept is often hard to fathom because it is so rare today. So let me take the opposite tack. Action today is largely inauthentic, that is, it is driven by the loud, booming voice of society. Most of us, if asked why we did something, would say something like, “Well, they say it is the thing to do.” When choice becomes limited, some agency is in control, metaphorically telling you what you should or can do.

Flourishing as the expression of one’s own self comes, in part, from the nature of the choices one makes. The freer and more self-determined they are, the more possibility of flourishing shows up. The growth of bigness casts a pall over our choices. Their economic power limits the choices we have in the marketplace. In essence, by the nature of the products, certainly in the food sector, we have limited choices. Not only are we not flourishing, we are unhealthy as a result. There is a large irony at play these days. Doctrinaire economists claim the free market and the corporate/private sector that controls it as the way to maximum choice. Nice theory, but a theory only evident in the breech.

The second important place for choice is political; the choices available every time you go into the voting booth. A funny thing happened years ago on the way to the polls. Corporations were found by the US Supreme Court to be a person. Not so good as a principle, but now not at all good in practice. Bigness permits corporations to buy their way into the democratic process of choice. If anyone thinks for a minute that this is a partisan issue, you are wrong. It is an existential issue concerning democracy and, ultimately, the possibility of flourishing.

If you think I have just made a huge leap connecting democracy and flourishing, you are mistaken. I haven’t got space to go into great details but the inherent idea of democracy, of choosing the government that will guide the polity where you live bears on the ability to care, to live authentically, to avoid domination, and more. For those who have been following me, I think you understand where I am going. For any new readers, there are about 20 recent blog posts on the right-hand side of the webpage. Pick a few at random, and you will begin to find the reasons I tie democracy and flourishing together. My cynical side has broken out today, but pay no heed and make sure you vote in November.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on October 5, 2016 9:33 PM ::

Care and Politics

new year symbols

The Jewish New Year is upon me. It is a propitious time to restart writing posts to this blog. I have finished a draft of my book and now have recovered some time to do this. I have thought about what would be the most appropriate subject to begin again with. The main book themes are flourishing, complexity, and care. Care, or, better, the lack of it, in the immediate political campaign strikes me as most relevant at this moment.

Care for both worldly and transcendent phenomena is central as part of any movement toward flourishing. Care, as I write, is a way of acting that focuses, as does human consciousness, on some object and acts accordingly. The substance of a caring act takes into account what is going on at the object instead of the needs of the actor, unless the object of care is also the actor. If this system works, everyone’s needs do get taken care of, similarly to the outcome of the actions of the self-interested human being of Adam Smith, but with a huge difference. To keep these two very difference ways of being, let me call actions of care, relational, and acts of need, transactional.

The context of care is connectedness and relationship; that of need is independence and transactional. In the latter, the others involved take on only instrumental features; their own essences fade from view. Caring requires a sense of the targets and, consequently, a sense of their essential features. People, who are involved show up as other humans, just like the actor. Other living beings also carry a sense of the wonder of life itself. Whatever artifacts are involved are employed transparently and serve as tools, not masters of the situation.

An invisible hand is at work here just as in Smith’s economic model. He wrote about it earlier when he coined the phrase, invisible hand, but it was about a different model of human being. It was relational, not transactional. Years earlier he saw the essence of humans as sympathy, but used in the same sense as we use empathy. I try to picture the difference. Hugs instead of e-cards. Conversation instead of text messages. Cooperation instead of competition. Not always, but a world where the balance has shifted toward the first action, not the second. A world where flourishing for all can come forth.

That is the world I write about, a world of possibility, but what about the world of the present. Hardly. I cannot dredge from my memory a more opposing image. What I am about to write transcends my particular position. I am and have acted as a liberal Democrat all my life, but that’s not the base of the following comments. I find the political rhetoric of today completely lacking in any sense of care. Care is completely absent from Trump’s talk and promises. There is not much evidence either in Clinton’s. Bill Clinton is remembered for many things, but one was this utterance “I feel your pain.” Making America great again is devoid of any sense of the humanity of our citizens.

We always will need new policies because the world is always changing, but policies based on some set of metrics, usually economic in nature, can never incorporate pain or any other human quality. Hillary represents policy wonkdom, whose ways are the ways of numbers. It is possible that both candidates are caring humans, but, if so, that sense is missing. I could go on with many more examples, but I can turn to my real concern without them.

Our political campaigns have always served to paint pictures of the great currents of beliefs about what is against what should be. The “what is” is not a pretty picture if one looks at the sweep of American history. The “what should be” has been the centerpiece of American politics from the get-go. It served as a rallying cry even before the nation was constituted, but it needs to be questioned, something that is missing.

A right to life is indeed very clear and inalienable, but rights to liberty and happiness are not so clear. That makes their inevitability equally unclear. Worse, it makes their meaning in practice the result of power differences, instead of some coming to an agreement that works for all citizens. Liberty as complete autonomy aligns with Smith’s needy individual. So does happiness when measured in any quantitative factor. Means to acquire either are transactional, not relational. Unfortunately, the rhetoric of politics springs from just this reading of the declaration of independence.

I have no easy answers, not even complicated ones. I do know, however, that until and unless top-level political rhetoric changes its tune toward the inclusion of the language of care, the amount of pain, real and metaphorical, will continue to increase. Whether some difference exists or not in the caring hearts of the candidates, what matters is what they say and how we interpret the words as signals of what they will do. Neither has been effective in their appearances in the media is conveying any sense of care. People are hurting all over the world. They need a hug as well as a hand.

For all who read this, “L’shana tovah.” Have a good year. This is an abbreviated use of the real phrase in the liturgy, but the meaning is the same. Here is the whole: “l’shana tovha tikateyvu,” which means literally, “May you be written [in the Book of Life] for a good year.”

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on October 1, 2016 12:55 PM ::