Sunday, April 6, 2014

Addressing the Mal-Distribution of Wealth

© Charles D. Hayes

In an episode of The Daily Show, host Jon Stewart described reading an essay in Time magazine about healthcare and feeling as though he was moving along, gaining speed, and breaking the emotional sound barrier. I feel the same way about work and the subject of compensation. My dissonance has been growing exponentially for years. But now, beginning my eighth decade on this planet, I've had enough of the nonsense.

The hot air begins with the mantra of free-markets, arguments against a minimum wage, and the misguided notion that low taxes are the only way to expand the economy. First off, there is no such thing as a free market. Never has been, never will be. Nothing is without cost, which means nothing is free, whether it is measured in human stress or environmental damage, and the political muscle to add actual costs to commercial products simply does not exist. The hidden costs of using fossil fuels alone are mindboggling.

Markets create nothing: people do. Powerful people make decisions that affect everyone else. People with enough money to rig the system do so without hesitation. Many years ago, Friedrich Hayek warned that too much central planning would lead to serfdom. No doubt, he was right. But too little planning has the same effect.

In 1914, Henry Ford made his employees the generous offer of five dollars a day in wages and profit sharing. Business boomed. Commerce flourished because people who earn wages spend their money. The same stimulus happens today when the minimum wage is raised. And yet, the worn-out cry that raising the minimum wage will cost jobs is repeated endlessly. Those who shout it the loudest ignore the economic record. They think if they say it often enough and loudly enough, people will believe it. And sure enough, many do.

A few years after Henry Ford raised his employees’ wages, he instituted polices that made working at his automobile plant a living nightmare. The market didn't do this. He did. But you don't need a road to serfdom like that if people are born there.

The misattribution of virtue with its relation to labor has become so severe and so utterly distorted that most people pay no attention to the mass exploitation of wage earners and the fact that taxpayers subsidize the workers of some of America’s largest and most successful corporations. That entrepreneurs can exploit wage earners is taken as a God-given right. They call it freedom.

When Elizabeth Warren was running for her Senate seat, she was very articulate about what it takes to be successful in America. She argued that justice requires acknowledging the debt each of us owes to the system and the mass of individuals whose efforts make business possible. Our educational system, our judiciary, and our infrastructure both hard and soft, she reminded us, all are paid for by taxpayers.  

When you grow up in a world where overt exploitation is viewed as routine, it can seem normal. That's the trouble. I didn't grow up that way. In the 1940s and '50s, when I was young, there was a great deal of equity in working for wages. Ask yourself where in the hell the idea came from that men and women working full-time, at jobs that need to be done, in a country that routinely refers to itself as the greatest country on earth should live in poverty, while their employers live like royalty? Not only that, but how is it these workers have come to be called takers or parasites because they often require some kind of government assistance?

Elsewhere I have written extensively about how our politics is so entwined with our identity that we don't reason about political matters; instead, we relate. When we do this, we are oblivious to facts. When I was growing up, conservatives were a party to be admired for doing the right things for the right reasons. These days, however, they simply ignore the historical fact that raising wages acts as a stimulus. They issue dire warnings about a loss of jobs, and the identity-driven flock genuflects in agreement.

This arrogance ranges from mythic assumptions about Horatio Alger success stories to Ayn Rand's idiotic notion that the only moral virtue that really counts is selfishness. You can stack the reasons for raging inequality so high that we can't see over them, but for people who maintain the ability to see through pretentiousness, you can't make a credible case that ninety-nine percent of people in this country deserve to be serfs, while one percent live like monarchs.

Funny thing about Henry Ford: He thought of himself as a working man and hated the investor class, often referring to them as parasites. We tend to overlook the fact that one of the great rationalizations for going against the biblical injunction about the evils of usury and applying interest to lending and savings was that it enabled the rich to stay wealthy without working.

Another funny thing is how reality defies conventional Wall Street wisdom, which says keeping wages as low as possible is the only reliable path to profit.

Contradicting this view, Costco is beating the socks off its competition, while paying its employees more than two and a half times more than the competitors. Moreover, the company furnishes its employees with health insurance. The result is low-turnover, employee commitment, and increased public support expressed through exceptional customer loyalty. Somehow successes like these are overlooked by laissez faire advocates.  

What we have in America with our current wage and tax system is not fair and equitable compensation, nor is it the redistribution of wealth. What we have is the mal-distribution of wealth, motivated by identity politics, driven by arrogance, and made possible by the systemized planning of lobbyists who purchase power from politicians and then call it free market legislation.

Rub an ice-cube over your temples and think about this: Corporations have bought the right to employ people permanently in lifetime jobs at serf wages, with government subsidies, and they are able to deflect criticism by shouting clich├ęs and platitudes about freedom.

I grew up in a country that took pride in the virtue of work at a time when working wages offered enough financial security to live above and beyond poverty. It could happen again, but only after we break the emotional sound barrier of dissent. 

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Sunday, March 9, 2014

Science and Our Brains on Politics

© Charles D. Hayes

For many years I’ve been fascinated by discoveries in neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, especially by what they suggest about our political nature. Much has been learned in the past couple of decades about how our political minds work. We know, for example, that politics can have a definite imprint on brain structure and that the brains of liberals and conservatives can reflect such differences. Unfortunately, so far at least, there appears to be no public benefit as a result.

 People who self-identify as partisan liberals tend to have a greater volume of gray matter in an area known as the anterior cingulate cortex. This brain structure enables a person to be more comfortable in the face of uncertainty. By contrast, self-identifying partisan conservatives tend to have a larger right amygdala, making them more alert to the possibilities of threat or impending harm. Both dispositions are necessary for achieving and maintaining social equilibrium.

What we know for certain is that people on the far left and far right see the world so differently that they have great difficulty arguing because very often they can’t even agree on the meaning of simple words. We know that when it comes to political argument, people with strong political views are adept at tuning out the other side. A flood of emotion effectively blocks reception of the opposition’s view, allowing one to work on a counterargument while the other party drones on unaware.

We know further from split-brain studies that human beings are particularly good at rationalization. We are experts at coming up with explanations for our behavior that have nothing, whatsoever, to do with our real reasons for acting, regardless of the situation or circumstance. It is not an exaggeration to say that when pressured to explain our behavior in any number of circumstances, we will just pull reasons out of a hat.

We also know with some confidence that in children as young as three or four it may be possible to predict with a high degree of accuracy whether they will grow up to be liberals or conservatives. The main criterion is their disposition for being open to new experience. Liberals are inclined to be more curious while conservatives are more cautious, fearful, or less trusting, as the earlier finding about structural brain differences suggests.

We know from studies of twins that humans have a genetic predisposition for left or right political positions, but that this inclination is not destiny. It can be overridden by culture. In other words, a child predisposed toward liberalism can grow up as a conservative in a conservative family, and the reverse can occur with a child prone toward conservatism who is raised as a liberal.

It should be clear from our history that both liberal and conservative values and behaviors are necessary for sustaining culture. Conservatives are demonstratively more tribalistic than liberals, while liberals are explicitly more concerned with achieving fairness and justice. The former brings the group closer together while the latter increases its membership. But moving too far in either direction is a recipe for tyranny. That we strive for balance and appreciate the values of both liberalism and conservatism is crucial for our continued existence. We know these things, but we are not very good at demonstrating that we do.

Neuroscience raises far more questions than it answers, but the questions, by nature of their profundity, should require that we pay close attention to them. From what has been presented so far, it should be considered a no-brainer that we can't be trusted to do politics without safeguards and mediators to make sure that we are listening to our opposition instead of simply concentrating on conjuring a retort. This may not seem so important for you and me, but for the politicians who represent us it is of profound importance. For all practical purposes, though, our political houses of government appear oblivious to the discoveries in behavioral science.

 If a child's natural predisposition for politics can be overridden by culture, is that not proof that all of the parts of one's brain can be utilized if attention is given to subjects that involve a particular part of the brain? Shouldn’t this be an educational objective? If not, why not? If each of us has a part of our brain that hasn't been fully developed, then we are cheating ourselves by not seeing to it that it gets a proper amount of stimulation.

I have a theory—for which I have no proof, only personal experience and observation—which is that people whose natural predisposition has been overwhelmed by their culture and who have assumed a political posture that conflicts with their inborn temperament are very likely to be the most extreme partisans on the left or right. What they are relying on is conflicted emotion to begin with, and I suspect they may harbor an unacknowledged and subconscious resentment for having had their natural inclinations thwarted. This emotional conflict sets up a pressure-cooker that causes them to suffer exceptional anxiety without knowing why or what is really bothering them.

I don’t know of any research that supports this view or even how researchers might proceed to test for it. I think, however, that this may have been true for me personally. Raised a hard-right conservative, I used to be intolerant, contemptuous, and very angry when it came to the subject progressive values. Now that I’ve embraced them, I no longer feel conflicted.

If liberalism and conservatism are both necessary to attain and sustain civilization, and if citizens cannot learn to appreciate this reality within their own minds, does this not mean in some way that we have been addled, misguided, or ill-educated? If something is demonstrably factual and yet we are unable to acknowledge it as being true in any sense, have we not been injured by culture or circumstance? While it may be to our advantage that people can have predispositions that favor one part of the brain over another, it is not to our advantage to the extent that one becomes completely closed off to recognizing the values of the others.

Where is the Socratic influence to come from if not from science, which clearly demonstrates that our very existence is threatened if we can’t maintain some equilibrium toward political objectivity and the wisdom we gain through the study of human behavior? In my view, the discoveries in neuroscience suggest we have completely fumbled the ball in public education by focusing too much on creating human doings and not human beings.

If one's political opposition is necessary by design but we can’t see our opponents as being anything but evil, is this not, in and of itself, a psychological short-circuit that undermines the very idea of democracy and representative government?

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Thursday, January 30, 2014

Missing Rungs? Flip the Ladder

© Charles D. Hayes

One can hardly read a newspaper or watch a television news cycle these days without hearing about rising income inequality. The attention is beginning to make the very rich fearful. So much so that a venture capitalist recently wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal warning that a progressive Kristallnacht is coming. Comparing the threat of taxing the rich to the anti-Semitic hostilities that led to the Holocaust is both despicable and pathetic. It is, however, very instructive, because it makes clear that, for some, the reification of capitalism trumps religion when it comes to the internalization of scruples.   

 Every society that treats its citizens poorly pays a price. Disrespect comes as a moral tax, and we Americans pay it over time with compound interest that manifests as contempt. Such contempt can easily escalate and pay dividends of divisiveness, animosity, and outright hatred.

Our economic system is supposed to be a means to an end, not an end in itself. In other words, our means of making a living should not be considered more important than life itself. Money is not supposed to be more important than people. The metaphorical lesson here is this: If your ladder is missing some rungs at the bottom and you still need to climb, you have to reverse it. Let me clarify.

Pretend for a moment that we have to abandon this planet. We are beamed up via Star Trek magic to another world very much like ours but without any memory of our current economic system or how we managed to make a living. We have to start over and reinvent our economics, so to speak. 

If we don’t remember what our roles were in the old world, what do you think the chances are that we would intentionally set out to create a new world standard that required a significant number of citizens to work really hard at jobs which serve the populace in many different ways but which pay wage rates that will keep those workers in poverty? I don’t think we would go for it. I wouldn’t. Would you?

I doubt we would ever set out to do purposely what we have become accustomed to accepting as economic reality. Thomas Jefferson argued that every generation should reinvent and rewrite the laws to live by. He would be appalled that our system has not been periodically rethought by citizens, but has instead been rigged endlessly by special interests.

You’ve probably heard the allegory of a frog dropped into a pot of cold water set to slowly reach a boil on a hot stove. The implication is that the frog will wait until it is too late to jump out. The same analogy can be applied to an economic system that has been legislatively cooked to reward the few at the expense of the many.  

So, on our new planet, would we be likely to approve of anyone buying a fast-food fiefdom that employs serfs and pays them poverty wages, while everyone else subsidizes their low earnings with food stamps paid for by our taxes? Do you think those of us who subsidize such a system could do so without feeling like frogs?

How likely would it be that we would bestow on a corporation the rights of a human being without also insisting on accountability? Would we be okay with the notion that the people at the top echelons of publically held companies could pay themselves 500 or 1,000 times what the workers at the bottom were paid and then allow these organizations big tax breaks that amount to taxpayer subsidies? Would we consider money to be equivalent to speech so that the rich could buy elections?

Years ago, Martin Buber helped us to better understand society’s moral relating convention when he described human relations as a continuum from a posture of I–Thou to one of I–It. In the first one, we treat people as equal human beings; in the other, as things. When a large percentage of the population are treated as if they’re nonentities, the result is a festering of anxiety, distrust, contempt, and disdain by both rich and poor as each escalates their derision for the other. When that happens, being cooperative is considered unpatriotic to one’s respective group or tribe, and thus, alienation and inequality is accepted by those who are more fortunate simply as a just comeuppance for those who aren’t. Keeping this in mind may help explain the way the richest one percent must view the rest of us. We are nobodies, and any effort to make us equal in terms of opportunity or status, if not in actual wealth, is comparable in their view to an act of violence.

If our species is to survive long into the future, it will be because today’s insane mania for growth has given way to an ethos of environmental sustainability. The median step on the economic ladder contains all of the resources one person needs or could possibly consume. If our knowledge is what grows, instead of our footprint on the earth, then we have a chance for a maintainable future.

It’s time to pay our bills, refurbish our crumbling infrastructure, and return to tax rates that will allow a person to easily manage and maintain a middle rung on the economic ladder. In that kind of economy, successive rungs near the top of the ladder would be attainable only by furthering one’s investment in the system that makes such successes possible. So, Mr. Venture Capitalist, your fears are warranted, but your pathetic attempt at self-victimization is not. 

When 85 people can attain the wealth of the bottom half of humanity, it’s time to flip the ladder and time for us frogs to jump.

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Saturday, December 14, 2013

“We the People” or Us vs. Them?

© Charles D. Hayes

I grew up immersed in locally based politics. Most often this was expressed as us versus them in regard to people who showed any signs of being politically progressive. We felt that our group had a franchise on moral truth. The key word here is felt. We weren’t doing a very good job of thinking. Our intentions may have been noble, but our views were skewed locally and our antagonistic posture imposed a greater emotional tax on us than it did on the ones we opposed. Unfortunately this ethos is still pervasive in America.
Over the years, I’ve learned that digging deep beneath conventional textbook history is the best chance we have to create enough dissonance in our minds to rethink antisocial political attitudes that are based entirely on feelings. When we do that, it becomes clear that mainstream Americans celebrate a past that didn’t happen as is commonly believed, a West that never was, and an economy that doesn’t work as promoted. After all, much of what we believe about ourselves is based upon what we’ve been told happened historically.

In the early days of radio and television, limited transmission focused public attention and gave everyone something in common to talk about. Today, people use technology to switch between gadget-driven isolation and ideological echo chambers.

In a little over a century, we have gone from a strong ethos of self-restraint to one of self-indulgence and instant gratification. Even so, the nineteenth-century Emersonian idea of self-reliance remains a very important part of our folklore. Self-reliance is an individual aspiration to be encouraged because, when it is genuine and not hype, it is the communal grease of authentic guidance that can make the wheels of cooperation turn without squeaking bitterness and resentment.

That said, the Horatio Alger notion of widespread success being mostly due to rugged individualism is a myth. The American frontier did indeed include lots of hard-working individuals, but by today’s standards, this epoch was far more socialistic than is portrayed in popular culture, especially by Tea Party conservatives.
Socialism in America in the nineteenth and early twentieth century was a movement fueled by despair and by people like writer Jack London, who sought to stop the savage exploitation of the working poor. The term socialist was always treated as pejorative, but it didn’t become radioactive until the Cold War. As a result, it still evokes an irrational and overly emotional response, regardless of the context.

The phrase “We the people” in our Constitution is socialistically aspirational because the implication is that we are all in this thing called America together. The Cold War, however, overtly prejudiced us against those things we depend on collectively by associating them with an enemy considered diabolical. The experience rendered millions of our citizens incapable of stilling their emotions long enough to reason with any sense of objectivity about anything that appears to be tainted by association with our former nemesis.
And yet, those things that make our lives both possible and worthwhile—like our military, Social Security, Medicare, the Veterans Administration, and our legal, regulatory, transportation, and postal systems—are overt acts of social cooperation. Giving a community control over aspects of the production of things that affect their daily lives is not an evil act. Moreover, our military makes it clear that a sense of patriotism more powerful than self-interest is commonplace in public institutions.

Federal funding was the real pay-dirt of the American frontier, as sociologist Stephanie Coontz points out in The Way We Never Were. Frontier settlers owed their very existence to huge federal land grants, railroad expansion, and many other government actions taken to seed prosperity.

Settlers could get a 160-acre homestead for as little as ten dollars. Sharing work and tools with neighbors was a predominant way of life. Even volunteers for civic projects expected to be compensated by the government. Most of the families that were isolated and truly alone ended their adventure in failure.
In 1945, another massive expansion of government spending combined with high taxes made it possible for record numbers of people to enter the middle class. Rural electrification, construction of the Interstate Highway System, the GI Bill, the FHA, and many other programs like them made America the envy of the world. For lack of a better term, let’s call these historical occurrences facts.

It is also undisputable that some of our highest rates of economic growth occurred during a period of high taxes. And yet, no matter how many times these historical occurrences are mentioned, those who would rather not believe it choose not to.
When an ethos of self-indulgence overrides self-restraint, the goodwill necessary to continue the cooperation that made this country a place of envy disintegrates. When you add the ethnocentric impulse to believe that one’s group is special and that most others are undeserving, the result is an us-versus-them mentality by an opposition so emotionally enraged that they would rather shut down the government than cooperate.

Some of our most successful corporations reward their permanent employees with wages so low that they expect taxpayers to subsidize them with welfare and food stamps. This is not an exercise of freedom; it’s more feudalistic than capitalistic, and the practice must stop. Any business that relies on social contempt so that the public will turn a blind eye to the institutionalization of poverty doesn’t deserve to survive.
Our social relations are problematic because we are a tribal species. The cooperation necessary to function successfully as a sovereign nation depends upon how big and how diverse a tribe our citizens are willing to accept. That’s what a civic education in American idealism is supposed to achieve. In a nutshell, our ideals are supposed to trump our genes and tribalistic selfishness. Our common allegiance is supposed to supersede our local differences.

If social relations were software, core American ideals would be a virus patch for the ethnocentric tribal bug most commonly expressed thoughtlessly as them. That was the hope and the promise of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and it’s the affirming value of the Pledge of Allegiance.
Allowing ruthless politicians to provoke us emotionally so that we view those with opposing political opinions as the embodiment of evil is egregiously self-destructive. Both conservative and liberal values are crucial for attaining and sustaining democracy. Cooperation is just as important as self-interest, and in many cases much more so.

“We the people” is the founding principle of the American tribe. It is nothing to be ashamed of or squeamish about. If it’s not a social aspiration, what is? If not “we the people,” then who or what is more important? Politicians who forget the people they are supposed to represent and citizens who are easily distracted by divisive politics and fail to hold their representatives accountable pose the greatest threat to America’s future.

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Sunday, November 17, 2013

Hating the Government Bandwagon

© Charles D. Hayes

Lately I’ve been preoccupied with novelist Saul Bellow's observation that people, especially Americans, seem readily willing to hate the very things that make their lives possible. But alas, I think the reason is so simple and straightforward that it's easily overlooked. Bear with me while I explain.

We have an enormous volume of psychological research available on the difference between the worldviews of liberals and of conservatives. The simplest and most consistent criteria for discerning the variance seems to depend on whether or not a person is open to new experience.

Testing this theory, numerous studies have shown that it’s possible to determine with significant accuracy whether toddlers as young as three or four will grow up to be liberals or conservatives. Children who relish autonomy and are drawn to novelty grow up to be politically liberal, and those who are fearful, wary, anxious, and distrustful about change and uncertainty grow up to be conservatives.

Given our history, it’s clear that both of these postures are useful and necessary in order to sustain and maintain society. There are times and situations in which both approaches are critical to the well-being of society.

More basic, though, than our political inclinations is the compelling mound of evidence that we humans are a tribal species. It is in our nature to pay sharp attention to differences among our fellow human beings and to associate food shortages and pathogens with strangers. We are predisposed to favor our own customs and our own kind, period. The notion that cultural differences should be celebrated does not fare well globally.

To see how these tendencies play out, consider the state of the economy. Since the partial financial meltdown in 2008, every media source informs us constantly that America's middle class is in free fall. What does this portend? In a nutshell: scarcity. What happens when we face the scarcity of anything of value? Simple: scarcity is a call to focus.

This brings us to the crux of tribalism. What are people who are fearful about change and uncertainty likely to focus on? You guessed it: the other. Outsiders are perceived as freeloaders simply because they are outsiders. And who stands in, both figuratively and literally, for the other? Again, you guessed it: the government because the government caters to everyone, including strangers.

Granted, all human beings have a built-in wariness against free riders. People who don't pull their own weight threaten our success. But there’s something most people simply do not get— especially hard-right conservatives—and it's critical to furthering the goodwill necessary to sustain ourselves as one nation.

Yes, we have free riders in our midst, people who expect something for nothing and who whose mission in life is to game the system. Short on virtue, these individuals are found among the rich and poor alike. They will always be with us, and we do indeed need to take steps to curb their behavior.

But, if we’ve paid attention to our actual history, we know that we are way ahead of the free riders. It’s not a contest, and this is something liberals are much more likely to observe and acknowledge. Free riders in our society are simply rendered unimportant because they are overshadowed by those in our past who have sacrificed their very lives for the rest of us. The cost of free riders is dwarfed by the contributions of our fellow citizens who remain strangers only because we lack direct knowledge of their sacrifices.

Up against Arlington Cemetery, the free riders don't even warrant a mention. Our men and women on active duty in the armed services, those in law enforcement, and firefighters stand ready and willing to risk their lives in service of the rest of us. Millions of our citizens are dedicated public servants, and millions more spend their whole lives working tirelessly in the shadows for the betterment of society.

We have the lowest tax rates in a half-century, and yet the carping about high taxes is unrelenting. We are more than $2 trillion behind in the maintenance of our hard and soft infrastructure, but that doesn’t stop the thoughtless handwringing about being overtaxed. Nor does it burst the fantasy bubble of ideologues who envision a dynamic country with a strong middle class, a small and powerless government, and very low taxes, even though there has never been an example of this kind of economy in the history of civilization.

That our government is in need of reform is painfully obvious, starting with the uncoupling of its entanglement with special-interest lobbyists and corporate influence. But hatred of government among egregiously ill-informed citizens is so pervasive today that it results in political support for underfunding successful government programs and then using the diminished capacity of the government agencies as proof that they weren’t needed in the first place. That critics can use this approach to enrage ill-informed people against the very thing than sustains their way of life is a tragedy that defies adult logic.

We are free in America because of our government, not in spite of it. If you doubt this, take a quick look at Somalia. Without the stability behind our laws, regulatory agencies, social programs, and public services, we are anything but free.

I share Saul Bellow's torment and sense of irony over those whose major contribution to society is to whine constantly about a government that they clearly could not live without. And yet their limited involvement is to jump on the government-hatred bandwagon. Then, in their next breath, they declare we are the greatest country on earth, believing themselves to be totally self-reliant citizens who owe everything they have to their own glorious efforts and to no one else.

I don’t deny the enormous amount of waste in government programs perpetuated by corruption and kept in place through a standoff somewhere between spite and contempt. We can’t even stop the military industrial complex from making weapons we don’t need. But all one has to do to imagine the country without a federal government is to envision professional football without rules or referees. If enough people would get off the hate-the-government bandwagon, we could fix it without the anguish of perpetual punting.
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Saturday, October 19, 2013

America’s Adult Learning Crisis

© Charles D. Hayes

For three decades I've been writing about the merits and rewards of self-directed continuing education. Having spent so much time and effort trying to better understand the world before checkout time, I can attest without hesitation that the intellectual exhilaration to be had from a willful determination to learn adds immeasurably to the pleasure of living.  

At the same time, my hopes for broadening the reach of lifelong learning among adults borders on despair, because much of what is characterized today as patriotism, especially in hard-right politics, really amounts to a celebration of ignorance. Worse, an in-your-face brand of simple-mindedness is at war with science, the humanities, and most efforts to fight inequality. 

Low-information citizens get much of their authoritative sense of virtue from a stream of hearsay and contemptuous innuendo coming from those with whom they already identify. This renders them oblivious to critical but factual evidence about the nature of cause and effect.  

To be sure, these are otherwise wonderful people. They would give you the shirt off their back, shelter you in a storm, and feed you if you were starving—unless, of course, they somehow viewed you as other. And even then, they might make an exception, since up close you might not seem as bad as they have been led to believe. If we were at war, these people would be first in line to volunteer. 

You and I know them as parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, and neighbors. Where these individuals come up short is in understanding the human predicament on a much larger scale than their own small sphere. These low-information citizens don't read much, and if they listen to or watch newscasts at all, it's likely from a partisan source. 

Many of these citizens regard critical thinking as an obligation to be overtly judgmental of others. They develop most of their opinions by talking to people who mirror their own political certainty about things that, for all practical purposes, they know nothing about whatsoever because they never examine anything in depth. 

I know about this subject first-hand. I grew up in a low-information culture, and for years in my youth I was an active participant. Active participation in low-information culture means that one is belligerent for nonsensical reasons and forever on alert for acts of disrespect by those considered outsiders. 

In my region of the country in the 1940s and '50s, racism was rampant, social conformity was expected, and a fundamentalist religious community was thought necessary to sustain morality. The sad reality is that things haven't changed all that much in some parts of the country; this kind of social ethos is still representative in many localities all over America. The bigotry and racism is still there. In most cases, it's not as blatant as before, but in some, it's as bad as ever. 

Millions of uneducated people claim that their religion and their worldview is the only virtuous path to the truth, whatever that might be, and their only rationale for holding such beliefs is one borne of local consensus. This identity-based way of life leads people to form an us-and-them mentality, and it fosters a kind of conceit that closes group membership at the mere appearance of differences or questioning of the status quo. Any and all cultural criticism is viewed as sacrilegious, subversive, or treasonous behavior.  

Attitudes like these result in an exaggerated sense of self-importance that manifests itself in religious defensiveness, Constitutional illiteracy, ethnic prejudice, and partiality toward military aggression, pseudo-history, economic misinformation, and political paranoia.  

Now, it doesn't take a university study to figure this out. If you suspect you live in a region of the country that sounds like the above, go to your nearest street corner or grocery store and ask the people you meet there a few simple questions. You will likely meet some very articulate and well educated citizens. But you will also meet many individuals whose political opinions are so farfetched from reality that they sound paranoid or schizophrenic. Chances are, the less they know about the real world, the more strident and boisterous their views will be.  

Elsewhere I have written extensively about the need for an existential education, not just for a few of us, but for everyone. An existential education simply amounts to learning enough about humanity and the human condition to disabuse a person of the notion that one’s respective culture has reality nailed and that all of the other poor fools in the world are simply lost or potentially evil. An existential education enables us to deal with the angst that comes with the human condition without the need to blame others for our own insecurities. 

In his book Who Owns the Future, computer scientist Jaron Lanier argues that digital networks are decimating America's middle class. He maintains that our technology is eliminating jobs faster than it creates them in an environment where better technology results in more and more unemployment. In support of this view, books are being published every month sounding the alarm that America's middle class is dying economically. 

If we don't find the political will to address the growing needs of legions of low-wage workers, it doesn't take a lot of imagination to guess how this will play out with low-information citizens. The blame game could easily escalate to the point where people take to the streets. Arab springs may one day soon be eclipsed by American winters.  

This is indeed ironic because there is a lot to be legitimately upset about. Washington DC has become a bastion of corruption for which both of our major political parties are responsible. Simply put, we may be in for a tsunami of misplaced anger and an attempt to topple our government without the goodwill and knowledge to map out a system of redress that works for all Americans. Aggressive, wide-ranging education for all adults and soon-to-be adults may be the only remedy. Let’s hope it doesn’t take a catastrophe to inspire such a movement.
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Saturday, September 21, 2013

The False Allure of Gridlock

© Charles D. Hayes

Pretend for a moment a medical checkup reveals that you may be on the verge of a heart attack if you don't receive medical attention. The matter is urgent. You have one of two options: bypass surgery or a new regime of drug therapy. Both approaches have a proven track record, and you find the choice to be a tough one. But it turns out your opinion doesn’t even count. You see, in this scenario, the country you live in has only two doctors, and the two can't agree on which approach to take. One doctor’s vote can block the other’s. Your only option is to wait and wait and wait. You could die before a decision is reached.
This is precisely the predicament many people find themselves in today. Millions of our citizens are being negatively affected by orchestrated gridlock: legislative stalemate, funds for education cut, construction projects on hold, political appointments blocked, unemployment payments denied, crumbling infrastructure with no money allocated for maintenance, and scores of unfunded or underfunded government programs that are vital to our middle class and to people who are barely hanging on economically. These situations range from inconvenient to life-threatening.
I have friends who take a great deal of satisfaction in the idea of legislative gridlock as a viable political strategy. There was a time in America when I believed their views were justified because it was intended as a temporary tactic, not a permanent solution. Divided government works if politicians want it to work and if they act accordingly. Democracy depends upon compromise and, in point of fact, cannot exist without it.
But when ideology becomes immersed in identity and fuses with the notion that we are right simply because of who we are, the process is no longer democratic. When the parties declare that if you oppose us you are evil, and that the sole objective henceforth is to stop the opposition, regardless of what is proposed, there is nothing to do except wait for cardiac arrest.
Our history makes it plainly clear that neither political party has a lock on the truth of how best to govern. Both liberal and conservative approaches are necessary at times. Some plans work and some don't. But to take the position that everything one side proposes has to be stopped—even if the government is shut down and needless suffering among the citizens will be the result—is a form of political mockery that undermines the democratic process.
Democracy works only if the desire for solutions to our problems can trump ideology. Ideology is something all of us have that can be measured in degrees. But when the rigidity of one’s politics becomes a closed system, any hope of achieving consensus is lost. Our three branches of government are supposed to provide checks and balances, and yet today ideology is so stringent that Congress makes every effort to prevent many appointments to the judiciary from even taking place.
Democracy is a dangerous political system because there is always the risk that it will allow things to happen that will abolish it. Balancing power is a precarious pursuit simply because of what power is. When citizens don't pay attention to political reality, a vacuum exists and power rushes in to fill it, as essayist Isaiah Berlin so often explained.
Our elected lawmakers add thousands of tweaks to the legislation they produce to rig the system on behalf of special interests, who then give their clientele exceptional treatment. When criticized for such tactics, the corporate interests call it "freedom," and if pressed further, "moral truth." There’s a simple reason that Obamacare is under unrelenting siege by legislators, who are themselves under pressure from lobbyists: Obamacare hamstrings the ability of the health insurance industry to profit at the expense of medical treatment.
That things are not as they first appear is one of life's most important lessons. At the same time, it is also one of the hardest lessons to act on—especially when it comes to politics—because we are too often blinded by emotion. People imprisoned by ideology are easy to recognize when they show up on television news as suicide bombers, but they are much harder to spot when they parrot views we agree with.
Most of the problems we face are much more nuanced and complicated than they are made to seem by both liberals and conservatives. Media pundits and politicians offer simplistic explanations to complex problems too often. If we were to delve into these matters in deeper detail, we could discover things that shed new light on the issues and perhaps reveal new solutions. Yet most of our citizens get caught up solely in the emotion and look no further than how wrong the other side is, based upon superficial hearsay.
We can have gridlock in which those with heart conditions get no treatment, or we can try more than one procedure. I would prefer to let either liberals or conservatives try what they think is the right approach (without keeping the other side from voting), and then hold them accountable at election time, rather than let myriad problems continue to stagnate from gridlock.
The sad truth is that liberals, conservatives, and libertarians all want pretty much the same things in life; they just disagree about solutions. Contrast their behavior today with the way we cooperate in wartime when we have a common enemy. If we can ever awaken to the realization that our problems are our common enemy, instead of each other, we might actually solve our problems through democratic means and move ahead.
Television interviews frequently feature pundits who offer smug satisfaction about political gridlock, claiming it is better than the alternative. These people obviously are not having chest pains. Supporters of gridlock have one thing in common: they all benefit from things as they are.
If ideology continues to obstruct our ability to function, our future as a viable nation is seriously in doubt. 
My Books and Essays on Amazon
New Fiction: The Call of Mortality
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