Saturday, August 22, 2015

Depleted Soil Economics

© Charles D. Hayes

A strong middle class is like a vegetable garden, requiring a rich economic environment in the same manner that a garden needs fertile soil. We do not say to seeds, “It’s all up to you. Don’t worry about the PH factor or the nitrogen or the potassium in the soil. Just do your thing, seeds.” But this is precisely the economic policy that many people advocate.

Vegetable gardens require constant care. If their soil is depleted, testing may be necessary to ensure the right ratio of nutrients. An economy for human beings is infinitely more complicated than a garden, but vital ingredients like education, living wages, and hard and soft infrastructure, which are essential for growing and sustaining a society, are often the first areas that trickle-down proponents suggest for cost cutting. Rather than testing the soil, they accuse the seeds of lacking the motivation to grow.

Now let’s move metaphorically from the garden into the garage where the car is parked. If the car battery is dead, we don’t drain more voltage, we jump-start it with a powerful charge. If the car idles briefly but runs out of gas, we have to get fuel from another vehicle before we can drive. To do this, we prime a syphon hose with a rush of liquid to get the fuel moving from one tank to the other. Merely getting rid of the fumes does nothing to solve the underlying problem. Far too often in our political disputes we lose sight of the fundamental purpose of our efforts to thrive.

By all existential measures of human decency, an economy is not more important than its reason for existence. Its engines need adequate fuel, and our metaphorical garden has to be sustainable. This means that its long-term viability is more important than any single harvest or any individual or group.

Thus, the constant political cry to elect business executives to run the country often misses the point. The economy is far, far more important than business, although running the government in a businesslike manner is desirable. To reify capitalism, as if it is more essential than its reason for being or the people it is supposed to serve, is a recipe for dysfunction at best and oppression at worst. Sadly, this misguided ethos lies at the core of our inability to achieve political equilibrium.          

The whole methodology of reengineering, rightsizing, downsizing, and creating a workforce of temporary employees was a legal strategy to avoid paying employee benefits. In our garden analogy this might appear to be efficient, except the result over time has been extreme soil depletion. Not enough of the profits excised at harvest are getting back into the ground.

Our garden is not working for all of us, and the abundance at harvest time is unjustly distributed. Political power trumps the labor of those whose efforts made the bounty possible. Claims that unskilled labor is not worthy of a living wage reflect the smoldering arrogance and contempt of tribalism: Our garden, not theirs. We are deserving; they aren’t. We have the power to legislate; they don’t.

The U.S. Tax Code is a finely tuned political instrument shaped with unrelenting influence by moneyed interests. Slowly but surely, over a period of decades, the tax burden has shifted to those less able to pay. Fortunes are made via insider trading. Supercomputers skim the cream off the stock market.

Financial institutions bleed 401K retirement plans with nickel-and-dime fees that amount to huge sums of money by the time the funds are actually used for retirement. The banking industry applies new rules to customer accounts with whack-a-mole frequency by dreaming up new service charges and hidden fees. Banks can legally charge eighty dollars for a five-dollar overdraft.

Government subsidies for big business increase every year. Big Pharma’s lobbying efforts have succeeded in making it illegal in some cases for the government to negotiate drug prices. Student loans are guaranteed profit centers that can’t be discharged through bankruptcy, but corporations routinely use Chapter 11 as a trustworthy way of shedding debt.

The promise inherent in the American spirit of self-reliance and faith in hard work obscures the reality of a system meticulously rigged with carrot-and-stick hype in which the waving of the stick hides the fact that the carrot is more apparent than real.

Consider the European experiment with austerity or the state of Kansas, where the governor’s tax cutting has nearly bankrupted the state. Nothing like the ideology of low, low taxes and small, small government exists anywhere in the world with a sustained middle class because it’s analogous to planting a garden in sand.

Our history offers an indisputable record of how the financial sector has effectively severed the reward connection between productivity and compensation for work performed. Our technological future promises a steady increase in the numbers of white-collar and professional jobs being replaced by software and robotics. 

Simply put, if an individual’s duties can be reduced to an algorithm, they can be replaced with an app. Moreover, there is nothing on the horizon, save the power of organized labor and an informed and activist public, to keep the middle class from perpetual, if not exponential, decline.

Following admirable instincts emphasizing individual responsibility, lots of people believe in trickle-down economics. They are not entirely wrong. Individual responsibility is very important. But over-focusing on the virtue of individuals is inadequate for our garden economy. Most of us have little difficulty in determining that our own families are more important than the business of business, and yet there are many who have great difficulty in applying the same standard to others. This bias serves as a tool for political manipulation.

The historical economic record and current state of the economy are proof that trickle down leads to a disproportionate rate of trickle up. In today’s world, small government is a euphemism for big corporations with the power to do as they please.

The garden analogy for our fiscal policy is a reminder of how our social and ecological interconnectedness is critical for our long-term sustainability. Our growing rate of inequality demonstrates that we need to plow deep and rethink our garden economy.
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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Perils of Preferred Reality

© Charles D. Hayes

The universe is visibly menacing. Our lives were made possible only because of freakish cosmic catastrophes. Our lives are short and fraught with danger, which makes reality scary. This is why we require a significant measure of illusion in order to cope with the ruthless nature of existence.

We seldom acknowledge that escape is a crucial reason for culture, but it’s easy to demonstrate. Many small children, for example, buffer reality by adopting security blankets because life is frightening to them. In the same way, culture helps to shelter us from the stark aspects of reality because we abhor chaos. Park this idea for the moment.

Now try this: Find a comfortable place to relax, and think about how, at this very moment, the earth is spinning on its axis at the rate of 1,040 miles per hour, while simultaneously speeding around the sun at 67,000 miles per hour. The sun is traveling at 483,000 miles per hour around the galaxy, and the galaxy itself is moving at 1.3 million miles per hour.

So, if you drive two miles to the grocery store, determining how far you have actually traveled in the cosmos is complicated. When you consider the facts of our travels in space, it’s not unusual to feel the need to grab hold of something. In addition, wondering where all of this wayfaring is taking us could drive you insane, if figuring it out were to become too important to your sense of curiosity.

We are blazing through the heavens at warp speed, going nowhere fast, in a universe demonstrably hostile to life, favoring chaos and chance over order. The membrane of observable conditions for organic life in the cosmos is paper thin and rarer than a precious jewel. Our lives represent flickering sparks in eternal darkness, and yet, so much of the precious time we are alive, our cultures are at war over arbitrary folk narratives that are, as often as not, patently absurd.

Now let’s un-park the notion of culture as a shelter from reality. In 1974, cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker published The Denial of Death, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize. Multiple readings of his book offer a never-ending supply of insights into how our lives are profoundly affected by the fact that we are mortal.

Becker observed that embedded beneath our consciousness is a smoldering neurosis, a deep-seated fear of death, and that much of our conscious and unconscious lives are spent in avoidance of, or in reaction to, this condition. Such behavior suggests that unfiltered reality is a burden too harsh to bear without meaningful diversion. We drive ourselves intentionally blind, Becker said, “With social games, psychological tricks and personal preoccupations so far removed from reality that they are forms of madness.”

Further, we tranquilize ourselves with trivia, become creative as a social license for an escape through the formation of respectable obsessions, and search desperately for existential preferences. This explains, in part, why the metaphorical cousins of death, change, uncertainty, and otherness upset us so easily. Mortality, Becker maintained, is humanity’s Achilles Heel because our uneasiness renders us tragically susceptible to folly and manipulation.

Simply put, the human condition is all about management of our mortality because chronic anxiety is inevitable for creatures smart enough to know that death is a relentless stalker, a situation that gets to the heart of the notion of authenticity. To quote Becker, “It is fateful and ironic how the lie we need in order to live dooms us to a life that is never really ours.”

This brings me to The Worm at the Core by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski. These psychologists have continued Becker’s work, having spent decades researching how our lives are influenced by our mortality and how our not being aware of this reality causes anxiety.

Known as terror management theory, their work shows definitively how we depend on self-esteem, group identity, and the shelter of consensus to keep thoughts of our inevitable impermanence at bay. It illustrates how worldviews are fragile, psychosomatic constructions that render us feeling unprotected simply by the very existence of opposing views.

Through membership, our respective cultures offer us a pathway to symbolic immortality by nature of their long-term existence. When our worldviews are threatened, we feel vulnerable, and thus we come together as a self-protective force against existential threats. We are emotionally rewarded by illusions of security, even when our actions lead to conflict.

The authors of The Worm at the Core write, “When confronted with reminders of death, we react by criticizing and punishing those who oppose or violate our beliefs, and praising and rewarding those who support or uphold our beliefs.”

The more you study terror management theory, the more apparent it becomes just how seriously flawed our species is when it comes to dealing with uncensored reality and otherness, especially otherness. It’s almost as if we have been neurologically wired to pay an awful emotional price for being intelligent, for always being aware on some level that we are going to die.

How unfortunate it is for our species that hatred proves to be an acceptable distraction—a readily available substitute for the kind of reality that genuine thoughtfulness could provide. What else could we assume of a creature that derives comfort and solace from a purposeful pursuit of ignorance, since the truth about vitally important matters means much less than the emotional shelter of collective illusion?

When people perceive that their worldview represents truth incarnate, then evidence that they are wrong about anything deemed important carries a mortal threat because it suggests that they could be wrong about everything. What if their most cherished political views or the fundamental claims of their religion are untrue? After all, there are literally thousands of divergent belief systems. They can’t all be true, and because they can’t, the emotional stakes among true believers are apt to skyrocket during periods of rapid change, insecurity, and unrest.

This is why social issues like same-sex marriage are considered earthshaking events, and it’s why so many people act as if the legalization of gay marriage is a metaphor for the end of the world. Indeed, anything contrary to their deep sense of reality feels like a mortal blow to their sense of existential security.

The right of same-sex couples to marry is a human rights issue and a recognition that homosexuality has always been a part of the human condition. In time, most people we will come to realize that homophobia amounts to a moral outrage, that for centuries millions of our fellow citizens have been forced to live in the shadows, afraid to be who they are, unable to honestly express their feelings or make their true affinities known.

It’s time for our culture to awaken from its fear-based prejudice, which up to the present has denied that homosexuals exist or, in some cases, have a right to exist. Belonging to a culture that disapproves of human biology is like a people vowing to disbelieve the wind because they don’t like the way it feels on their face. A preferred reality is no longer an option. Same-sex attraction is not unique to our species. What’s new is that the curtains on this human biological trait are finally thrown open and continued bigotry and denial are not going to close them. 

I’ve been studying the psychology of mortality for decades, and I’m convinced that mankind will never achieve adulthood until it is commonly understood how fragile our human psyche is with regard to our mortality and how we are predisposed to act aggressively toward out-groups when our beliefs are challenged. The political implications for fully understanding this psychological behavior is existentially explosive and could lead to incredible improvements in human relations.

Ernest Becker nailed it when he observed that leaving the knowledge of human behavior to experts leads to “a general imbecility.” This doesn’t mean that we should ignore the science of human behavior. It means that we need to study it as if the business of being a human being matters to us as individuals as much as it does to scientists.
A preferred reality may indeed offer us psychological shelter—and we might be wise to admit that we require some buffering—but if we remain forever unaware of how our need for agreed-upon illusions affects our relationships with others, we can never truly experience freedom and we will never achieve what we like to think of as civilization.    
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Saturday, June 20, 2015

American Self-Assertiveness vs. Submissiveness

© Charles D. Hayes


When flipping through the cable TV channels, it’s not unusual to find a pride of African lions getting ready to feast on Cape buffalo. Sometimes we’ll see several lions take down a buffalo while the rest of the buffalo in the nearby herd appear to stand around like idiots. At other times, a second buffalo will come to the rescue of the downed and chewed up animal, followed by more and more members of the herd, until finally the lions are sent running for their very lives. Watching this behavior, we want to say, “What took you so long?” Let this scenario percolate.

Elsewhere on cable, the History Channel features a fascinating account of Caligula, an emperor of ancient Rome, who ruled for four years, committing some of the cruelest, deadliest, and most humiliating acts against members of the Roman senate one can imagine. On and on he goes, increasing the severity of each punishing deed, with contempt and utter disdain for the very existence of members of the ruling class in name only. Caligula put people to death arbitrarily and ravished the wives of senate members in their presence, even at one point declaring himself a God and demanding that he be worshiped.

In similar circumstances, murderous dictators like Hitler, Stalin, Muammar Gaddafi, Idi Amin, Pol Pot, and Saddam Hussein, all stayed in power surrounded by people afraid to challenge them, even when it was clear that it would doubtless cost some of them their lives.

Throughout history we can find horrid examples of groups of people being guarded by only a few individuals with weapons as they approach a place where others ahead in the same group are being executed in plain sight. Those remaining meekly allow themselves to be killed without resisting or fighting back, even though, with their numbers, they could easily overpower their guards.       

Now, once you compare these examples and think it through, what jumps out at you is the reality that, compared to human beings, buffalo are more decisive and quick to act. There were attempts on Hitler’s life, and Caligula was eventually assassinated, but you have to wonder why, in the name of human courage and decency, it took so long.

I use these examples to examine the way we Americans relate to power, resist oppression, and react to threats. In The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power, Steve Fraser shows how, over time, we slowly but surely have ceded our willingness to assert ourselves and resist oppression.

The ethos of American identity as being fiercely independent and self-reliant came into full bloom in the nineteenth century with the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, and Henry David Thoreau. It was a time when the lifestyle expectations of individuals were markedly different from those of today. A person from that era would have difficulty communicating with someone now without both being shocked by the divergence of their worldviews.

The psychological and perceptual distance between then and now can best be understood through Abraham Lincoln’s opinion that people destined to work for wages without being able to extract themselves from such restricting circumstances would live in bondage—a new form of bondage that was similar to slavery but not as severe. Lincoln deemed labor a sacred virtue, and his idea of freedom included both the right to strike and the hope that individuals working for wages would eventually be able to free themselves from such subjugation.

Studying the troubled history of labor puts today’s economy in a new light. In the mid-nineteenth century, the vast majority of people lived and worked on farms and in small shops. Even in the worst of economic times, they were still able to scratch out a living. Only a very small percentage of the population worked in manufacturing.

Lincoln believed that it is only through labor that we get most of what we really need and that the very essence of freedom is derived from working for oneself. Leaving the farm and working for wages was suspect, fraught with danger, and considered psychologically traumatic. Lincoln thought labor should always trump capital in value, precisely the reverse of present-day economics. Industrialization had a devastating effect on the actual freedom of individuals.

Earning wages enabled people to buy things in a way they never had before, but in recent times, as thirty-year home mortgages and myriad credit options became a part of everyday life, the loss of independence for individuals has become psychologically threatening. These days, being indentured to debt is accepted as normal, but with it comes a dramatic loss of independence. House payments and credit card debt make it very difficult to defy one’s boss, and the deeper in debt one goes, the more submissive one has to be. Goodbye herd, goodbye resistance, goodbye unions.

If working conditions are dangerous and one is deeply in debt, it is increasingly likely that risks will simply be accepted as part of the job. Drive by a subdivision of nice homes and well-manicured yards, and it’s philosophically worth noting that the occupants of these structures be disciplined but also obedient, often amounting to a blind deference to authority. The most important lessons from history suggest that equitable economics require constant negotiation, and if an imbalance of power moves too far in any direction, freedom for some will be diminished.                                  

Today we witness a continuous public outcry about government overregulation in the workplace, and indeed some of the criticism is valid. But knowledge of the history of labor is critical for perspective. In the ninetieth and early twentieth centuries, thousands of workers died every year when industrialization began to overtake agriculture. As Fraser points out, between 1890 and 1917, 158,000 railroad employees were killed on the job. In one year, 20,000 were injured and 2,000 killed. In the transition to industry, millions of children began working for wages, including toddlers in some cases.

In the nineteenth century, convict labor for private profit was a growth enterprise. Working conditions were in many cases comparable historically to a Soviet prison gulag. Unions were created to give working people a voice. During the transition from an agrarian lifestyle to industrialization, there were numerous public uprisings and protests that turned violent. By comparison, these examples would make the recent Occupy Wall Street movement look like a children’s birthday party.

Group solidarity today, unfortunately, is fractured by diversity. The workforce is too distracted, too scattered, and membership is splintered into so many small factions that a consensus to mount an effective protest is often too hard to come by. Too many echo chambers drown out cries for help.

More importantly, today’s workers are unaware of any other ways to live. Working for wages or starting your own business and being indentured to debt is all they have ever known. The nineteenth-century lifestyle of a very real sense of independence is long forgotten.

We don’t have to go out on a limb to guess what Lincoln, Emerson, Thoreau, and Melville would have said about America’s most successful companies legally paying wages so low that their employees are eligible for food stamps. They would be appalled, just as we should be. They would likely have deemed it a form of feudalistic slavery. Moreover, they would have scoffed at the notion that this is an issue about market freedom. It’s legally contrived exploitation plain and simple.

Today’s labor concerns make a mockery of Emerson’s notion of self-reliance. When minimum wage jobs are all that’s available, and demand for goods and services are severely depressed, self-reliance defaults to a matter of survival in circumstances that make the notion of self-sufficiency subject to cynicism and sarcasm.

During America’s labor uprisings, the majority of citizens shared the same lifestyles, expectations, and aspirations about work and leisure. Today, we have echelons of economic classes with nothing, whatsoever, in common.

Making an effort to understand history is a good way to put our collective behavior in the kind of context that will garner more cooperation and make us more vigilant and assertive. It’s time to come together and stand up to those whose economic advantage has been legislated into existence as a privileged entitlement. It’s time for the herd to come together and act decisively.

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Saturday, May 2, 2015

Free Riders, Parasites: Perspective

© Charles D. Hayes

Contempt for free riders—people who cheat or who game the system by taking more than their share of anything in short supply—is an innate human trait that appears to be deeply imbedded in our DNA. We witness the same sentiment in our primate cousins. Give one chimpanzee a plum and another a grape, and the chimp that feels cheated is apt to throw a fit. In our own society it seems the most effective free riders are found, not at the bottom economic rungs of society, but at the top. I will explain. 

Equity and fairness are human aspirations, and achieving fairness requires constant mediation. Capitalism as an ideology is often revered as a system so righteous and so inherently just that its most fervent supporters consider capitalism the essence of the natural world, something very nearly divine in its operative value. But divinity in Nature is a difficult notion. Life eats.

The biological forces of the earth’s living creatures are so complex in predator-prey relationships that we have barely begun to understand the extent of their ecological impact. By human standards, cruelty in the natural world is both hideous and ubiquitous, while Nature is morally indifferent.

On television we witness lions on the Serengeti Plain eating large game animals, feasting slowly even while the prey remains alive. In the insect world, scores of parasites consume their hosts carefully so as to keep them alive to ensure a continuous supply of future meals. Some insects take prisoners, keeping slaves for food or labor. Some bird species lay their eggs in the nests of another, tricking those species into raising their young. The cleverness of the natural world is as astounding as it is amoral, and deceit is one of Nature’s most ingenious schemes. 

Even though we human beings are regarded as the most sophisticated creatures on the planet, our behavior in general is fairly predictable. We operate pretty much as Abraham Maslow said we do. We experience a hierarchy of needs from basic food, shelter, safety, and security, to social acceptance, and ending with what Maslow called self-actualization.

Now, if a team of alien anthropologists were to visit our planet and spend most of their time America, it’s easy to see how they might be fascinated by our behavior and how they might mistakenly assume that every country in the world lives as we do. I suspect these explorers would quickly observe that by orders of magnitude human beings depend more upon trickery to function in the world than do any of the earth’s less intelligent creatures. One can imagine the visitors returning to their own planet thinking that what they had discovered was a celestial body full of swindlers, tricksters, cheats, opportunists, and advantage-seeking individuals.

The observers would be surprised that an extraordinarily large percentage of Americans are in prison, but that the slickest white-collar thieves get much better treatment, even though the costs exacted by their crimes are astronomical. 

The team would also note that we are intensely social creatures and that without extensive cooperation, our species would not survive. So perhaps they would think of us as being gregarious but not entirely trustworthy. If the aliens belonged to an advanced civilization, I suspect they would find our deviousness very clever but also frightening and inconsistent with logic, since our losses often outweigh what we gain by illicit deception.

Our visitors would likely note that our species even admits that its marvelous brain development has been more dependent upon acquiring the ability to outfox one another than on learning the truth of anything. We are so psychologically insecure that we are easily manipulated in spite of our devious predilections. If we are judged by standards we deem unfair, it still won’t stop us from applying the same values to ourselves and others. Moreover, with regard to the environment, our guests would likely perceive that humans readily sell out their long-term future for short-term gains.

So the extraterrestrials return home and deliver a report on our species saying, “You are not going to believe this. The earth is a cesspool of deceit and skullduggery. We saw evidence of cooperation and love and kindness as well, but on the whole, these creatures are too immature to be trusted with the advanced weaponry their formidable technology has produced. If the rest of the people on earth were to use and waste resources as those who call themselves Americans do, they would need four more planets.

“In addition, there are large numbers of earth creatures whose lives are spent being preyed upon by parasites. And that’s the most interesting aspect of the whole trip. The beings that call themselves human are so emotionally unstable and insecure that the individuals who are often thought to be successful are actually effective parasitical predators. They emulate bloodsuckers in a deceitful but ingenious manner.

“They cloak themselves as employers dedicated to providing a public service, referring to themselves as ‘job creators.’ They pay their employees just enough to keep them low on a needs hierarchy defined by a psychologist named Maslow. They live lavish lifestyles while bleeding their workers of their labor, robbing them of their time, and causing them to view themselves as unworthy of being attributed the dignity that any civilized society would grant to human beings.

“From birth, these ideological captives are indoctrinated to ignore the unfairness of the rigged economic system they are part of, adopting the notion that they are fully responsible for their own poverty, unjust system be damned.

“Seriously, fellow space travelers, these earth creatures seem intelligent, and yet as a species they are so malleable that many of them can be easily convinced that their lot in life is to accept slave wages for performing tasks that truly need to be accomplished, thus guaranteeing a lifetime of poverty. The whole American economic system has come to depend upon a foundation of indentured slave-wage workers for a wide variety of goods and services absolutely necessary for the success of those considered the upper class.   

“Ant species on the earth also attack and enslave other species, but the ingenious method of the human employers is that they use the psychological vulnerability of their targets to get them to subjugate themselves in the name of freedom. Worse, the poor souls even vote to ensure their own continued subservience because they would prefer to think of themselves as free rather than accept the reality of their situation.

“Now, it must be said that many of these employer types do improve the lives of their employees, even making some of them wealthy. But the overall economic system exponentially favors advantage, bleeding equity in favor of the already rich. For the so-called job creators, though, as hard as it is to believe from a galactic perspective, the stingy employer strategy is sheer parasitical genius.

“Still, as we know from our space travels elsewhere, truly intelligent species do not confuse success with a process that threatens the very sustainably of their long-term existence.”  

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Saturday, March 7, 2015

American Sniper Takes On Democracy

© Charles D. Hayes

Whether intended or not, one of the most successful war movies in decades very subtly makes the case that America is increasingly undemocratic. American Sniper brings this message home. I’ve both seen the movie and read the book, and as is often the case, I have mixed feelings about how the two compare.

First, a little background may be helpful. I’m an ex-Marine and an ex-cop. After four years of service, I was honorably discharged from the Marines in February of 1964. Six months after I got out, enlistments were automatically extended because of increased military involvement in Vietnam.

During the Tet Offensive in 1968, I felt so guilty for not being in the war that I submitted a letter of resignation to the Dallas police department and began the process of reenlistment in the Corps. As a homeowner, however, I determined that financial realities would prohibit me from following through because selling wasn’t an option and my mortgage cost more than military pay would accommodate. So I wound up staying with the police department.

Needless to say, I was a hawk during the Vietnam War, but today I view that war as a colossal mistake. The political assumption during the Cold War was that if we didn’t stop Communism, there would be a domino effect as country after country would follow suit. It didn’t happen. Instead, Americans today are eager to do business in Vietnam.

The American Sniper story is disturbing for a multitude of reasons, some of which are deeply contradictory. Chris Kyle’s book, written with the assistance of ghostwriters, has an adolescent feel that is morally too black and white. He gives the impression that killing is fun and expresses a sports-like enthusiasm for always being on the lookout for some payback. But Kyle is no longer here to defend himself, so those of us who are tempted to criticize him personally might want to pause and offer him the benefit of the doubt, acknowledging what it means to have been awarded two Silver Stars and five Bronze Stars. 

The movie shows how hard combat is on service members and their families. Seldom do we acknowledge in this country how so many men and women sacrifice so much for so little acknowledgment or reward. The monetary compensation for many members of the armed forces is so meager as to make some of them eligible for food stamps. Moreover, those who are seriously wounded in combat with lasting consequences are virtually guaranteed to be afforded the economic status of second-class citizens.

That the number of suicides among service members has climbed higher in recent years than the losses of life in combat should get our attention. Wounded Warrior commercials make me furious at times, not because they aren’t a good thing but because they are needed at all, after the sacrifices made by members of our armed services. Wounded veterans shouldn’t have to depend on charity to get what they need, period. The fact that they must ask for additional assistance is, in my view, a national disgrace.

My point in this piece is not to add to the numerous reviews both positive and negative about American Sniper as a book or a movie. Plenty of divergent opinions worth reading are already available. My aim is to focus on the real culprits: the American public at large, who salute the flag and sometimes vote but otherwise tend to rely on under-rewarded volunteers to carry out the rest of their patriotic duty.

Being patriotic involves helping to share the load of obligations and decisions in matters as important as war, and every able citizen in a democracy should accept this responsibility in some form or other. Democracy requires common ground, which literally means having something in common. And yet, we have echelons of social and economic classes in America who don’t have enough shared experience in common to engage in five minutes worth of viable conversation, let alone share the same political and economic concerns.

A country with nothing more worthwhile to do than to go shopping when they send their troops off to war is democratically dysfunctional at best. A voluntary army means that the general public has no skin in the game, so to speak, which allows our military to be abused and used as a political tool without public consensus or protest.

In a capitalistic society with an all-volunteer military, a declining economy is an incentive for poor people to enlist in military service as a matter of survival. If those with real economic power have no obligation to serve, whatsoever, then decisions about sending troops in harm’s way are likely to occur without truly democratic concern among the general populace.

An all-volunteer military results in a fiendishly disingenuous exhibition of phony appreciation that appears to celebrate a class of self-sacrificing individuals as especially patriotic, except when it comes to actual economic compensation for their service and sacrifice. In the meantime, we have a virtual army in the numbers of executives in publicly owned companies who make more in an hour or a day than what our service members earn in a year, a situation that owes more to the system rigging of crony capitalists than laissez faire economics.

In his free to choose economic ethos, the late Milton Friedman often made a compelling case for the dynamics of capitalism, but he compared a military draft with slavery. He was wrong, egregiously wrong.

Serving one’s country as a matter of routine obligation, whether in the military or another kind of public service, is a means of living up to the inherent responsibility required of citizenship in a democratic society. Accepting low wages initially, for a short period of time, in service dedicated to a country that defends opportunity and upward mobility is something that ought to be seen as a rite of passage for everyone. Universal conscription would democratize concern for the safety of everyone while creating a common ground of experience and of personal accountability.

For decades, men and women in the lower economic rungs of society have shouldered most of the responsibility for American military objectives worldwide, while the vast majority of our citizens remain disinterested if not downright indifferent. That we do not have enough of a sense of duty in this country to demand the sacrifices necessary to sustain ourselves democratically with a universal contribution is appalling. Worse still is that, save a global catastrophe, this is not likely to change.

A country whose politicians never seem to miss an opportunity to refer to ours as the greatest nation on the earth should cringe with shame and embarrassment that any members of our military require food stamps to get by. We should heed the words of George Washington who said, “When we assumed the Soldier, we did not lay aside the Citizen.” Sadly, it seems that this is precisely what we have done. We have allowed the ethos of our economic system to erode the character of citizenship, and we need to make it right, beginning with reinstating the draft, making service mandatory without exception.

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Saturday, February 7, 2015

Developing Bias is What Brains Do

© Charles D. Hayes 

A primary function of the human brain is to record an accurate snapshot of reality so as to improve the odds that the rest of the organism will have an opportunity to reproduce. Our brains work 24/7 to keep us safe from danger and free from surprise and embarrassment. Although genetics research suggests our species may be continuing to evolve, we have the same physical hardware that we had when we were on the menu of large predators. Because surprise can spell danger, our brains are hyperaware, still making lightning-fast assumptions based on very little information.

These days most of us no longer have to worry that the snapping of a twig means we are about to be pounced upon by a hungry beast. But our brains still mimic paranoia in their need to nail reality quickly. A mistaken assumption about an approaching stranger or a new hire at our business can prove costly. The stranger might be a mugger and the new employee might be a thief.

In a nutshell, we all have biases about all sorts of subjects and circumstances, and it’s a good thing because we couldn’t live without them. We rely on having an enormous record of seemingly accurate snap-judgment assumptions archived beneath our consciousness and available instantaneously, convictions about every possible kind of cause and effect, especially about people: how they behave, who can be believed and trusted, who can’t and why. For our sentinel awareness, our observations seem to represent straight-up reality. In other words, that’s how it looks and how it seems, so that’s how it must be.

As we grow up, our brains pay careful attention to millions of things deemed significant but unworthy of being called into our conscious awareness. Just because we aren’t knowingly aware of everything going on around us, however, doesn’t for a minute mean that our gray matter is not focused on keeping meticulous records of anything and everything that might prove helpful in the future.

Bias can be positive or negative and as simple as if you see that, it means this. So, if we are raised in a culture where a demonstrable negative bias directed toward a minority is a common experience, if the bias expressed stigmatizes the minority as being lawbreakers or untrustworthy in general, the brain is keeping this as a deep-seated record for reference to avoid unsatisfactory encounters in the future.

If when we are children the adults in our presence bear a racial prejudice toward a minority, even if they try to hide it, we will read their body language. We will record the looks on their faces, their eye-rolling gestures, the tone of their remarks. We will internalize the imprint of a social bias when the adults think we aren’t paying attention to their tacitly shared assumptions about stereotypes.

Our brains strive persistently to read our peripheral social interactions, soaking up sentiment as effectively as dry sponges absorb water. Internalization of the culture we observe as children is confirmed by research studies in which young black children show a more positive attitude toward white dolls than black dolls. Their views have been ever so subtly formed by internalizing the prevalent bias of media and their social environment.              

Regardless of our conscious opinions about equality and justice, most of us will feel an intuitive tug toward our internalized record of life experience when confronted with the need to make a decision. If we’re interviewing applicants for employment, for example, or asked to approve of a person who wants to date our son, daughter, or other family member, our subconscious take on reality will likely weigh heavily in our decision making.

We are all masters of a form of rationalization referred to in academia as confirmation bias. If the family member’s potential date is of the wrong ethnicity or social class according to our internal database, but saying as much would be considered publically offensive, no problem. We can easily come up with ingenious alternative reasons to show why this person is still not suitable. Racial bias becomes especially suspect when we come down hard on a reason for disqualification with more aggressive emphasis than we would apply in similar situations with persons of our own ethnicity or social status.

Our unconscious emotional self is so formidable that psychologist Jonathan Haidt uses the metaphor of an elephant to capture its dominant nature. The rider on the elephant represents the relatively limited power of our conscious reasoning self in comparison. When in conversation or reading text, recall how quickly your elephant is apt to jump to conclusions that amount to instantaneous emotional validation before you’ve had a chance to fully digest the subject at hand. Our elephant never sleeps.       

Unfortunately we pay too much attention to formal education and too little to the experiential learning that shapes our worldview for life. If we are oblivious to the subtle nature of bias, then our elephant rules. Whatever we come up with as a rationale, regardless of how prejudicial our judgment might be, we will still perceive ourselves as being completely fair and impartial, even as our bias masquerading as intuition will cause us to offer cautious rationalizations that carefully conceal our deepest and most morally incorrect feelings.

Our justifications may very well result in our not hiring a minority applicant or not giving our approval for someone to date a person we’ve subconsciously stigmatized, while we still remain absolutely convinced of our total objectivity. There are mountains of irrefutable employment data showing statistical proof of an employment bias and of persistent racial profiling in law enforcement in America that very few people who manage these processes will admit is occurring.

It is impractical and counterproductive to ask people if they harbor a racial bias. We can’t expect an honest answer because we don’t have direct access to the subconscious record with its millions of bits of data any more than we have access to the neurological programming that enables us to tell up from down, left from right, and hot from cold.

Biased information based on years of subtle observations will be fed to us consciously as intuitive feelings or explicit knowledge, and these inclinations will require very few visible or audible cues to enable us to instantaneously match and confirm our internalized data, all the while maintaining that we don’t have a prejudiced bone in our body.  

Now, if the notion of racial bias and negative stereotyping were not complicated enough, we also have to contend with the fact that we human beings are a tribal species. We have an innate sense of fairness which can easily translate to an aversion to people who do not work to pull their own weight. We are always on the lookout for enemies and cheaters. In a nutshell, we are evolutionarily rigged for an in-group versus out-group worldview. Ironically, as anthropologist Jack Weatherford points out, “The communications industry has retribalized the world.”

We seek the shelter of group consensus, and our group identity is reinforced and reassured when we can collectively identify those who qualify as being outsiders. A divisive delineation of us and them is literally in our genes, and today’s exponential increase in diversity makes us hyperaware of otherness. The tribal instinct is how we construct an us, while the ability to readily identify a them helps us bond.   

We are innately wary of outsiders and strange customs, and yet, at the same time, we are profoundly social creatures, eager to form groups based on similarities and appearances. People given different colored hats on entering a room will show signs of bonding by color in a matter of minutes. Just consider our propensity to take sides in professional team sports, where the players aren’t even from the regions they represent.

My point is that all over the country we have people swearing that racial prejudice is a thing of the past, and yet we have myriad statistics that show racial bias is very much alive and firmly established in the present. Everywhere people sincerely believe that because they don’t harbor a conscious negative racial bias, they obviously don’t have one.

Until we truly understand the deep-seated nature of racial bias and the fact that it takes enormous intellectual and emotional effort to overcome it, we are doomed to failed social interactions and the resulting communal strife. One of life’s most underappreciated and underutilized lessons is that, more often than not, things are not as they appear, and we pay an enormous social price for not constantly heeding such wisdom.

I don’t know if a lifetime of subconscious assumptions can ever be completely overwritten, but I do know from personal experience that a strong effort to deconstruct one’s own racial bias can be psychologically transforming. To me it’s clear that the future of human relations depends upon a sincere effort to overcome our ignorant assumptions based on our biological predispositions for misunderstanding one another.

It’s very important, however, not to underestimate how much determination is required to objectively understand the nature and debilitating social effects of racial prejudice. Moreover, it’s crucial to understand that when children grow up internalizing prejudicial views that are not successfully challenged, their bigotry can be prevalent and socially corrosive for most of a century.  

American demographics are changing at the fastest pace in our history. In the near future, white Americans will become a minority, and signs of discontent lamenting this reality are already being heard. There is deep-seated irony in the fact that the overturned tables of racial discrimination are making a truism of the old notion that what goes around comes around.

If as a culture we were resolve to wage war on ignorant assumptions and learn en masse what is already well known about the nature of bias, we might have an opportunity to inspire enough empathy and goodwill to set some of our negative tribalistic inclinations aside, or at least mitigate them, long enough to behave politically like enlightened adults. We could expand the membership of our tribe without incurring so much angst.

You may have heard a warning to senior citizens that if you had chicken pox as a child, then you have a one-in-three chance of getting shingles. Similarly, if you internalized a racial bias growing up, the odds are much higher that the bias still exists. Even people dedicated to equal rights are often shocked to discover they still bear a hidden bias.

Numerous psychological test instruments in cyberspace can help you check to see whether you harbor a hidden racial bias. Simply Google testing for racial bias, consider the reputations of the psychologists who authored the test, and proceed. Harvard University and the University of Virginia both offer tests online. Many people report being able to detect their own hidden biases as they answer the questions. This kind of experience can result in an enhanced sense of mindfulness. The only thing you have to lose by taking such a test is your illusions.  

We have evidence that our species has continued to evolve since our days as hunter-gatherers, and it’s clear that nothing like our present society has ever existed. There is, however, some similarity between our current situation and the period in which the danger of being eaten alive was ever present. The threat today consists in being under constant assault in, by, and through the media and electronic communications that make our lives easier while simultaneously subjecting us to every conceivable kind of scam that the criminals and cheaters in our midst can dream up.

Danger in a cyber-mediated world simply replaces the snapping of a twig and the threat of being eaten with the clicking of a communication device and chance of being scammed. The level of distrust generated by cybercrime aggravates our tribal tendencies for paranoia and bias based on very little information.

In a world driven by hypermedia, a viable future requires that we acknowledge our shortsighted tribalistic dispositions and compensate with the intelligence required to put an end to the curse of human conflict that has plagued us for eons because of egregious social misperceptions and ignorant assumptions.

In other words, our default neurological bias hardware requires an emotional and intellectual software patch for dealing with unprecedented change. We’ll need to apply the patch ourselves until evolution sees fit to adjust for our hypermediated lifestyles, if we want to increase the likelihood that our species will survive.

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Saturday, January 10, 2015

Not the Country I Grew Up In

© Charles D. Hayes 

Now in my eighth decade, I find that my confidence in America’s future no longer resembles the enthusiasm I grew up experiencing in the 1940s and ’50s. My first job in 1956 was a paper route delivering the Dallas Morning News. My district manager’s name was John Galt. He was an affable man who seemed to work hard, but he was not without faults that were obvious, even to a teenager. The very next year, Ayn Rand would publish Atlas Shrugged, featuring a flawless fictional capitalist character also named John Galt. I didn’t get the irony until years later.

More than two decades would pass before I read Atlas Shrugged, but one thing became immediately clear when I did: there are no such persons with the virtue Rand attributed to John Galt, her ideal man. There are, however, plenty of wannabes, and America is increasingly a greed-based plutocracy that reeks of the ethos of selfishness, while the growing disparity between the super-rich and the middle class is rapidly becoming grotesque.

In the first three years after the 2008 economic downturn, 95 percent of income went to the top one percent of the population, while the gap today between executive compensation and the hourly pay of blue-collar workers makes a mockery of the very idea of fairness. The current state of inequality brings to mind an observation by former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: “We can have a democratic society or we can have great concentrated wealth in the hands of a few. We cannot have both.”

In the 1950s, income tax rates were extraordinarily high, over 90 percent, but few people actually paid the top rates. Business owners avoided the high tax rate by reinvesting heavily in their enterprises. America’s high wages and rapidly growing middle class were the envy of the world. Working for one company and receiving a gold watch upon retirement was accepted as being doable if that was your goal. Career expectations for people willing to apply themselves and work hard were wildly optimistic.     

America was making huge infrastructural investments in the 1950s with an interstate highway system, rural electrification, the GI Bill, and the FHA for home mortgages. There was an explosive increase in affordable housing and a boom in manufacturing. In the arena of science and engineering we were on the threshold of going to the moon.

At the same time, though, our society in the ’40s and ’50s was sexist and overtly racist. We saw segregated housing, residential redlining, and egregiously unfair employment opportunities for women and minorities. Voting rights for minorities were threatened by poll taxes and excessive difficulties in registering.

In those days, we were not commonly aware of a psychologically devious self-deception at work in our own minds, and we failed to take into account the fact we see mostly what we want to see and what we expect to see. We didn’t understand the psychological dynamics of bias. We thought what we were experiencing was straight-up reality. Sadly, even now, many people still don’t get it.

In the decades since that time, lifespans have increased and medical miracles are now taken for granted. We have Dick Tracy communication abilities and are one click away from more information than was ever thought possible. Technologies make our lives easier than our ancestors could have dreamed.

And yet, today, the expectation of long-term employment is history. Unions are dying off. Good-paying factory jobs are going the way of the buffalo. There is a resurgent threat to voting rights in what we now call red states. Working conditions have improved, but women and minorities still do not receive equal treatment in employment.

Automation is decimating the job market. Low-wage jobs are growing like weeds, and taxpayers are having to supplement wages for workers in some of the biggest and most profitable companies in America. It’s not unusual for people to juggle several part-time jobs because they can’t find full-time employment, while major employers are allowed to set reduced hours specifically to avoid paying additional benefits for full-time workers.

Productivity is going up as wages stagnate or go down. Individuals making $10,000 an hour are crying crocodile tears because working people are asking for $10 per hour. Corporate executives whine incessantly about America having high tax rates, even though most corporations pay nothing close to the maximum rate because of loopholes legislated by paid lobbyists. Many create headquarters in a foreign county to escape taxes altogether.

A cracker-box house in many of our big cites will cost from $700k to over $1 million, while a 30-year mortgage is a bigger risk than ever before. Even among families with health insurance, a serious disease will likely bankrupt most because of the necessary copay. Homelessness is a growth enterprise, as are tent-shack encampments, itinerant shelters, food pantries, soup kitchens, gated communities, and private security companies.

The financial sector is increasingly parasitic. Whereas it used to specialize in lending money for startups, it now just siphons off the investment cream with supercomputers. Ideologues cheer them on as if they have something to do with the idiotic notion of excellence. The credit card industry is increasingly predatory, while the payday loan industry could teach the mob a thing or two.

Our infrastructure is crumbling. Regardless of the fact that we are nearly $3 trillion behind in required maintenance, those on the extreme right of the GOP are looking for ways to lower taxes. This, in my view, makes these folks the biggest something-for-nothing crowd ever.

Meanwhile, even though the basic social employment contract has been gutted, voices on the Right still whine about a deficit of moral virtue, as if all people have to do is just start acting responsible. They seem to think if that were to happen, then tomorrow the old jobs would be back and everything would be just fine. Not so. They won’t admit that the playing field has changed beyond recognition.

For a fraction of what we spend on a bloated military, college education could be free and we could have a social safety net that, instead of being punitive, could actually reward initiative. But to do such things remains beyond our reach with so many of our citizens living in mortal fear that some poor fool is going to get something at their expense.

All the while, corporate executives are hauling off money by the wheelbarrow load with a thumb up for success. Wannabes genuflect in approval as they dream of getting their own wheelbarrow load and joining the club.

The economic statistics over the past half-century tell the story of what has happened to America in a clinical sense, but if you want to get a personal feel for the troubling conditions we find ourselves in, Bob Herbert’s Losing Our Way is a brilliant account in terms of the human cost of growing inequality.       

To me, the most disturbing aspect of this whole scenario is that it took me so long to see this hypocrisy and pretention for what they amount to, namely tribalism. We’re witnessing tribalism on steroids as groups try to prove their superiority over everyone else. Because of what they believe is stellar behavior, they deem their kind to be worthy while others aren’t. It’s that simple.

Reversing our escalating inequality, however, is anything but simple. Instead of paying attention to the politics that directly affect their lives, millions of our citizens cling to clich├ęd versions of an American Dream mythology that have been sold short by Wall Street interests.

The people with the power to rig the system own the politicians of both parties and the major media sources that influence the general public. The richest one percent now own almost half of the world’s wealth, and their rate of ownership increases annually.  

To wrest power away from those who have spent the last three decades purchasing favorable legislation and who have now been given the ability to buy elections by none other than the United States Supreme Court, at times seems impossible. Let’s hope it’s not too late to recreate a more equitable society.

Both liberals and conservatives are likely to agree that the economic trajectory we are currently on is not sustainable and that rising inequality shows no signs of abating. The shame of the matter is that while solutions may not be simple, all it would take to solve most of our economic problems is for people on all sides of the political divide to care more about solutions than whose side gets credit.

My Books and Essays on Amazon
New Fiction: The Call of Mortality
My Other Blog