Universal Translator

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

With Respect to Rationality


            By and large, humans are not good at thinking rationally, but, really, who can blame us? We have not had much practice at it. According to the accepted wisdom of anthropologists and paleontologists, by no later than 12,000 B.C.E. – approximately 14 millennia ago – humans already had spread to and settled in every continent on the planet except Antarctica. Yet we only started to make rational sense of our existence a few hundred years ago. Prior to the mid-seventeenth century, nearly all human understanding of ourselves and our world arose out of a mythic, poetic, narrative sense – not a rational one. Of course, that is because “rationality” – properly understood – is not a concept easily embraced by humans. We are drawn to certainty and to firm, fixed answers, but for an idea to be rational it must be capable of being proved false. To embrace rationality means to embrace uncertainty, rationality’s essence.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Confessions of an Aspiring Buddhist


I am an idiot.  I think it is important to get that statement right out there, from the beginning, so that anybody reading what comes next understands how amazingly dumb I really am.

I started reading up on Buddhism for the same reason I tended to do anything when I was younger – for a girl.  Well, okay . . . for a woman.  I was desperately in love (unrequitedly) with a woman for whom Buddhism had become very, very important, and I decided to learn about Buddhism so that I could understand better what she was thinking about.

And it was an easy sell for me.  Ever since I was a child I have been fascinated with the idea of consciousness.  What does it mean to be self-aware? What does it mean to be sentient? Can we create artificial intelligences and, if we do so, will we recognize them when they speak to us? What does it mean to be human?

These are all heady questions, and yet the same basic ones we all have been asking for millennia.  We dress them up with code words like “epistemology,” “ontology,” and “consciousness,” and we give out degrees for stringing the correct words together in the correct way, but really they are the same questions that any reflective person asks as a child and for which we have yet to find a completely satisfactory answer.

In Buddhism I discovered an unbroken tradition – stretching back 2,500 years – devoted to thinking about these very things.  I was hooked!  I have spent more than a decade since studying and reading Buddhist teachings, and I am constantly amazed at the insights these teachings have about the nature of consciousness, reality, and perception.  I cannot think of a sutra that has not made me sit back and think, Whoa . . . . that’s a new way of thinking about it.

The thing is, I’m not a Buddhist myself.  One of my standard lines, whenever somebody is so gauche as to ask me about my religion, is to tell them that I am an “aspiring Buddhist.”  It is kind of a funny line, if you think about it, because in itself it indicates that the speaker recognizes the value of Buddhism, but also acknowledges that the speaker doesn’t quite think he is worthy of claiming the title.  It is like saying one is a “lapsed Catholic,” but in reverse.

Now, here’s the thing . . . it is impossible to study Buddhism strictly for the reasons I did.  (And I’m not talking, now, about the girl.)  Yes, Buddhism does have an unbroken tradition stretching back for millennia questioning the nature of consciousness.  But that isn’t Buddhism’s main concern.  It is impossible to read and study Buddhism without being powerfully affected by what it has to say about compassion.  Compassion is the center of Buddhist teaching, and it is the core of everything the religion/philosophy is about. 

I began by explaining that I am an idiot, but even I am not so idiotic as to fail to take away at least something from Buddhism about the compassion we owe each other.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

More Free Advice for the Democrats

Mitt Romney's refusal to disclose his tax returns has gotten some media attention lately, but I don't see that this attack has successfully migrated out of the pundit zone and into the heads of most average American voters.  I think a lot of this has to do with the way Obama and the Dems have pushed the story so far:  "Every other presidential candidate in the modern age has released more than two years of tax returns," and "If there's nothing to hide than there's nothing to fear," and etc.


So far, Romney and his surrogates have responded to the demand for the release of additional tax returns by simply lying about precedent.  For example, Romney claims that John Kerry only made two years of tax returns public before he ran for president, a claim that John McCain repeated a few months ago on Face the Nation.  In fact, by the time he ran for president John Kerry had actually released about 20 years worth of tax returns -- not the two that Romney and McCain claim.

The fact that McCain has been shilling for Romney is telling.  After all, 4 years ago when Romney was angling to be McCain's running mate Romney made 23 years worth of his tax returns available to John McCain as part of his vetting process -- a vetting process that Romney failed to pass.  Indeed, John McCain ultimately decided that Sister Sarah Palin would be a better running mate than Mitt Romney.

If you look at it that way, the way to get some traction for this story is simple:  make it a conspiracy.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

First Thoughts on the Healthcare Ruling

Wow.

A surprising victory for the Forces of Light and Good.  Romney seemed unable to articulate a response other than to repeat that healthcare repeal will be his first job if he wins the presidency -- that even if the ACA is constitutional that doesn't make it good law.  Notably, Romney did not say that he would replace it with anything.  Presumably he is appealing to that extremely large constituency that wishes we could go back the days when college students were kicked off of their parents' plans, when people could be denied coverage for any pre-existing condition, and insurance companies weren't required to spend any particular portion of the premiums they receive solely on reimbursing health care expenses.

President Obama's statement was dignified in its understatedness.  He outlined - again - what the bill does and does not do (necessary, as I've been seeing a lot of Romney ads that grossly misrepresent the bill) and suggested that everybody should now move on.  It'll be interesting to see if the GOP can do that.

Finally, the big news is that the 5-4 decision upholding the bill was decided by Chief Justice John Roberts, and not by Kennedy.  Indeed, it appears that Kennedy would have ruled that the bill in its entirety was unconstitutional.  So can we now please dispense with calling Kennedy the all-important "centrist swing-vote" on the court?  One every significant 5-4 decision rendered over the last few years, Kennedy reliably comes down on the conservative side of the court.  He gets called a "swing-vote" and a "centrist" because he makes a pretense of hemming and hawing and being open to suggestion, but he always votes with the conservative bloc.  Let's just acknowledge that the Supreme Court as it currently stands is dominated by a reliably conservative five justices:  Roberts, Alito, Kennedy, Scalia and Thomas.

And speaking of Roberts . . . . look, I'm glad he cast the deciding vote to uphold the law, and maybe I'm getting a bit cynical in my old age and I should just count my winnings and shut up.  But it occurred to me to wonder where this decision came from.  (Chris Matthews seems to believe that Roberts simply did not want his name associated with something that killed healthcare reform; the argument that Roberts ruled this way based solely upon considerations of his legacy seems unlikely to me -- he certainly wasn't worried about his Citizens United ruling).

Then I remembered that the one main reason Roberts generally is known for being "conservative" is that he is overwhelmingly pro-business.  I remember I saw an analysis a few months ago about the Court's decisions (sorry, I'm not going to bother to try and track it down again today) that found that the Robert's Court seemed to follow two main rules in its 5-4 decisions:  (i) always back big business, and (ii) always back the federal government over the individual rights of non-rich people.

One of the things that most bothered liberals like me about the Affordable Care Act is that it basically operates by requiring people to purchase money from the same insurance companies that have economically raping the American public for years.  Sure, it's supposed to also regulate those companies more, but the essence of the deal -- the reason Obama thought he could get it through Congress in the first place -- was that in exchange for insuring almost everybody, the insurance companies were going to get a whole lot of new, low-cost customers.

So within about 15 minutes of the decision being reported, I immediately wondered whether this was simply another example of Roberts going along with what Big Business wants.  I mean - hey! - maybe the Teabilly rubes do think requiring everybody to enter into the private market and buy insurance from private companies constitutes "socialism" and so are against the ACA on ideological grounds, but I wonder if Roberts is simply thinking that - in the end - this is going to be good for business.

I know, I know . . . I'm an ingrate.

The Lucky Ducky Older Generation

Speaking of Kevin Drum, a post he wrote the other day triggered something I’ve been thinking about for a while now:

          Both the boomers and the generation before them were enormously lucky to have started their careers in the postwar world, roughly from 1950 through 1980.  Good jobs were plentiful; retirement benefits – both public and private – increased steadily; and a variety of factors kept middle-class growth high.  But the beneficiaries of this good fortune, like all beneficiaries of good fortune, became convinced that they had done well solely through hard work and native talent.  If today’s kids aren’t doing as well, it must be because they’re dumber and lazier.

This sounds exactly right to me.  My grandmother is 81 years old, and is interested in discussing only a very few topics.  One of those is how godawful poor she and her family were when she was growing up in the 1930’s.  Seriously, it doesn’t matter what your opening conversation gambit is, she will find a way to turn it into a diatribe about how dirt poor she was when she was growing up.

Another of her favorite topics is how the world has gone to hell in a handbasket over the past couple of decades, how people spend too much money and take on too much debt, and how unjustifiable are their complaints about the state of their financial affairs.  “Nobody helped me and Papa,” she’ll tell you, “we came from nothing and we did all right.”

It never occurs to her that maybe in the 80 years of her life some significant things have changed.

For example, she was born into the Great Depression.  Don’t get me wrong . . . her family was dirt-poor to begin with, but the fact the country was mired in the Great Depression and she was born to a rural family and that rural family lived in one of the least developed of the states (North Carolina) certainly didn’t help.

But shortly after she was born FDR started implementing the New Deal and Keynesian economics.  Government spending was increased, even though that led to record government deficits.  Social Security and Medicare were signed into law.  By the time she was 12 World War II had started – an absolutely huge federal spending measure – and the amount of economic stimulus that deficit-financed project required lifted us out of the Depression.

By the time she was 20 and had married my grandfather, America was still pursuing Keynesian economics.  The highest marginal tax rate was very high (91%) and the money being raised by taxes was being plowed back into the economy.  Military spending continued as the Cold War boomed, the national highway program was taken up, and money was provided by the GI Bill to get millions of people a college education and get them started in middle-class professions.

Unions were strong.  By and large, wealth was not being concentrated only in the hands of the CEOs and a few upper-level executives, but was spread out amongst working-class Americans too.  As more and more people’s standard of living increased, they spent that money and provided a further boost to the economy.  Moreover, as Drum points out, back then people could be secure in their retirement because so many could actually count on receiving a pension, and – of course – America led the world in oil production.

My grandparents directly benefited from only  a few of these economic factors (for example, my grandfather served 20 years in the Marine Corps, and they lived next to Camp LeJeune), but they indirectly benefited from all of them.

Since then . . . let me see.  America no longer leads the world in oil production, but is the greatest importer of oil.  The assault on the New Deal has proceeded apace, and it is anyone’s guess whether Social Security and Medicare will be left standing five years from now – despite the fact workers have been overpaying into the Social Security trust fund for 30 years.  Unions have been gutted, and almost nobody has an actual pension to rely upon.  At the same time, income taxes have been reduced and flattened, and the capital gains tax has been slashed to 15%.

Keynesian economics is sneered at, federal investment in infrastructure and education has been increasingly cut back, and wages stopped keeping up with rising American productivity 35 years ago.  Now almost all the gains in American productivity are concentrated in the hands of only a tiny fraction of the American population.  And if you have the temerity to want to lift your social standing by getting a college education, you will almost certainly incur an enormous amount of non-dischargeable debt to carry around for the rest of your life.

In short, the economic factors that control much of one’s ability to earn a decent living, set money aside for retirement, and provide for one’s family have changed significantly over the life of this one woman.  In the beginning, those factors were almost entirely negative.  Then, for a brief couple of decades, they were incredibly favorable.  And now, they are once again very negative.

It is as if when she was born my grandmother were a tree seedling slowing dying on the ground in the middle of the desert, but then was suddenly picked up by a breeze and carried to the fertile plains of Iowa.  In that place she was able to grow strong and prosper, but it never occurs to her that most of the reason she was able to thrive is because she was surrounded by such a rich environment.  And now that our political system has been so thoroughly captured by short-sighted people whose only concern is to exploit that environment until now it too is almost a desert, she cannot see how hard it has become for most seedlings to grow strong the way she did.

I’ve tried to explain this to her on a couple of occasions she’s already settled on her narrative.  And as with the vast majority of people, having settled on her narrative it is extremely difficult to get her to give that up.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Cynicism (cont'd) and Political Mendacity

In my last post I discussed two substantive areas of my life in which I’ve experienced a real disillusionment over the decades – the law and finance – but I neglected to mention one other important area of disillusionment:  politics.

I know, I know . . . I am revealing myself as a naif and a heretic from the Church of the Savvy, which is the only way one should properly understand politics:  with a knowing cynicism that the only thing worth discussing in politics is Who is Up and Who is Down.

But as I’ve mentioned before, I didn’t really start paying attention to politics until the 2000 presidential race.  Until then I had assumed that everything I had been taught in what passes for civics class these days – high school social studies, undergraduate political philosophy classes and, I suppose, my Constitutional Law classes – was more or less accurate.  Specifically, that different groups of people have different ideas about how the country should be run, that they argue these ideas in the legislature and in election campaigns, and that this by and large is how the will of a majority of American citizens is implemented.

Like I said . . . naive.

It is simply astonishing to me how baked in our acceptance of deep political mendacity and a refusal to engage in good faith debate has become.  For example, Kevin Drum has argued several times that there is nothing surprising about the GOP’s decision to abandon its previous support for a health insurance mandate and to insist instead that such a thing – originally a Republican idea – is, in fact, an unconstitutional blasphemy. 

Friday, June 22, 2012

Cynicism

Via Kay, at Balloon-Juice, I see this:

When I was reporting out my New Yorker piece, I spoke with Akhil Reid Amar, a leading constitutional scholar at Yale, who thinks that a 5-4 party-line vote against the [Affordable Care Act’s] mandate would be shattering to the court’s reputation for being above politics.  “I’ve only mispredicted one big Supreme Court decision in the last 20 years,” he told me.  “That was Bush v. Gore.  And I was able to internalize that by saying they only had a few minutes to think about it and they leapt to the wrong conclusion.  If they decide this by 5-4, then, yes, it’s disheartening to me, because my life was a fraud.  Here I was, in my silly little office, thinking law mattered, and it really didn’t.  What mattered was politics, money, party, and party loyalty.”

(empasis added).

Uhhmmm . . . yeah.  It’s sad that Professor Amar is having to go through this, but it is only what I went through years ago.  If you devote yourself to a profession like the law for any reason other than money, then you are a fool and a naif and real people should kick you in the ribs and laugh at you.