Saturday, November 7, 2015

Fourth-Down Punt Economics

© Charles D. Hayes

Imagine what would happen if the referees calling penalties in professional football were paid exorbitant salaries by only the richest teams. One thing is sure: we would deem it a sham. If the game was obviously rigged, most people would stop watching. Ironically, that’s precisely what we have today in American politics. Our elected representatives (our supposed economic referees) are being openly bribed because not enough of us are watching and so many of our citizens don’t vote.

Both of our major political parties are unduly influenced by moneyed special interests; one is just more blatant and ideologically open about it than the other. Unfortunately, the reason many people don’t pay attention to politics is that they know the system is corrupt and they feel powerless.

Because of special interest lobbying, corporations never have to punt. They own our referees. Through legislative influence they have effectively devastated labor unions while enabling banks to charge excessive fees for administering customer accounts and to move away from traditional services to casino-like investments where profits are capitalized. They take big risks, fully confident that, because of their size, catastrophic losses will be socialized.

Some of our largest and most profitable businesses pay poverty-level wages with the assurance that taxpayers will support their employees with food stamps. The sheer amount of corporate profits in offshore banks to escape taxation is breathtaking, while lobbying by the military industrial complex is so effective, our generals and admirals can’t even cancel the manufacture of weapons they don’t want or need.   

Inequality has been escalating at record rates for decades, a direct result of legislation on behalf of those with an economic advantage and the power to leverage their influence at every opportunity. One strategy has been to incite public anger at the poor for not pulling their weight and appearing to game the system by getting something for nothing, even when the evidence shows that’s not true. This feeds people’s inherent tribalistic tendencies because blaming the poor allows one to identify vicariously with the rich and powerful.

Capitalism is an incredibly dynamic system capable of both good and ill, but today’s economic playing field is not in any sense level. Capitalism works best with strictly regulated competition. In professional football, we don’t hear arguments about a minimum wage because teams have to compete for players, causing compensation to soar.

The same principle applies to the workplace. Capitalism only works effectively for working people when business has to compete for employees. To assume that human beings should work full time for poverty wages in the richest country in the world is as absurd as it would be to play football without protective gear.  

The notion that free markets magically arrive at fair wages for work performed is a fairy tale. Nothing is free, and our laws for business and labor are biased by design. The commercial usage of natural resources does not remotely reflect its environmental costs. Moreover, elected officials’ dependence on private donations means legislation is never free of partiality. And finally, far too many of the rules and regulations we live by are created in secret.         

Football, of course, is just a game and may seem to be of little significance, but we are drawn to it precisely because of our tribalistic instinct for belonging. Sports fans display near fanaticism in their insistence that referees be fair when calling penalties. Notice how upset they get when a penalty appears unjust. But building an economy where people can earn a decent living is more important by orders of magnitude than scoring points in a game. That we insist on fairness in sports contests, and not in matters where so much more is at stake, reveals a tragic flaw in human behavior.

The only way we will ever achieve a level economic playing field in which the interests of average citizens are matters of real political concern is to publicly fund elections and forbid the bribing of our elected officials. Until this is accomplished, the ideologies of the Left and Right will always matter less than the degree of corruption we’re willing to accept.

The first order of business is to stop cheerleading with the mindset of the 1950s. The American aspirations for hard work and self-reliance haven’t changed, but our methodologies for contracting and compensating wage labor have been radically degraded and diminished over the last half-century. The rules, regulations, and taxes that created the middle class have been slowly but steadily altered beyond recognition.

If professional football had kept pace with our politics these past five decades, the Wall Street team would take the field with equipment and talent comparable to what the New England Patriots have today. The opposing team representing working people, however, would be an assembly of high school B-stringers, who would show up without helmets or shoulder pads. Every time they got the ball, it would automatically be fourth down with a fifteen-yard penalty tacked on and no time-outs remaining.

In November 2016, it will be time for a new lineup of referees to take the field. Let’s make sure they have an edict for public funding of elections and are individuals who will strive to overturn Citizens United legislatively. Let’s elect representatives who will look out for average Americans with an implicit understanding that, if they fail, they will be held accountable. The penalty will be that they’ll be deemed off sides, out of bounds, and soon out of office.         
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Saturday, October 24, 2015

Literature, Philosophy, and the Alaska Highway

© Charles D. Hayes

My fascination with Alaska began in Irving, Texas, in the 1950s, when my fourth-grade teacher read to her class every day from Jack London’s Call of the Wild. Some sixty years later, I’m now a resident of Alaska and have been for more than four decades. Perhaps it’s my fate that, as a result, I would have the opportunity to drive the legendary Alaska Highway, not once, but seven times, four of those times by myself. I never tire of the drive and always look forward to another trip.

Constructed in 1942, the year before I was born, as a war measure in America’s defense against Japan, the highway extends 1,390 miles through the Yukon to the heart of Alaska. It traverses wilderness so breathtaking and spectacular that at times it doesn’t seem real, almost like something created by the special effects department for a movie production. My experience has been that if you have a philosopher-self hidden beneath your consciousness, it will likely surface when you travel this road alone.

Not surprisingly, the fiction I write is largely shaped by these influences. More than two decades ago, while studying Alaska history and philosophy, I began crafting a futuristic story featuring the Alaska Highway. In 2003, eight years after I began, I published Portals in a Northern Sky, a science fiction novel envisioning a revolutionary technological breakthrough that allows people not to travel back in time per se, but rather to look back in time and observe any location on earth during daytime hours on a cloud-free day at any time in history.

The Gadsden Times, a newspaper in the Deep South, described Portals as “a science fiction novel, a history lesson, a guided tour of North America’s beauty and a thought-provoking work of philosophy.” In places like Dawson Creek, Fort Nelson, Summit Lake, Whitehorse, and other key locations along the highway route, characters in the novel discuss the rewards of reading literature. Among other classics, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick features prominently in the conversation.

As part of a philosophical exploration into the notion of fate, one of the protagonists offers an intriguing comparison of the lives and works of Herman Melville and Jack London. These two authors were obsessed with the concept of fate, and their novels reflect their fascination. They were deeply aware that both wilderness and the sea dramatize and magnify mankind’s fear, frailty, and sense of existential insignificance.

London was born out of wedlock, Melville with a pedigree. Both men’s mothers had been raised in wealth, only to marry into hard times, and would ultimately rely on their sons for support. Both men were drawn to the sea at an early age, and both signed aboard vessels as deck hands or common sailors. As one character in Portals points out, the sea makes us radically aware of our profound insignificance as individuals, even as it amplifies the mystery of the vast knowledge we store beneath consciousness.

Both of the authors were self-educated, voracious readers who wrote to earn a living, each thinking they were capable of greater work than the public demanded, especially Melville. He lived to write, while London wrote to live. Each of them earned money by lecturing. London was a skilled self-promoter; Melville was not.

At the same time, both men were moody and prone to depression, frequent disillusionment, and cynicism. Both had detractors who declared they were insane. Still, both were capable of writing the kind of prose that penetrates the public psyche in ways that stir an emotional response as not much else has before or since.

London and Melville had a way of exaggerating every aspect of our lives to compensate for the important little things that so often go unnoticed. They were also very much aware of how often we are influenced and motivated by our shadowy and immensely mysterious unconscious. Both men were involved in butchery: Melville with whales, London with seals. Both witnessed human brutality at its worst.

These men produced work with deep allegoric implications beyond their own understanding of the connections they were making. Both created magnificent, original, larger-than-life authoritarian sea captains, Melville’s Ahab and London’s Wolf Larson, who afford us a vision of all that is right and wrong with humankind.

Melville captured the human predicament and the psychosomatic essence of the American experience in Moby-Dick, making all of us passengers on a metaphoric ship named Pequod. Although it was written in 1851, Moby-Dick has been described by author Nathaniel Philbrick as a book written for the future because it contains “the genetic code of America.” He characterizes the novel as “America’s Bible,” declaring that every time we encounter a new crisis in this country, Moby-Dick is relevant.

Jack London read the works of Herman Melville, and his stories transport Melville’s epic primordial struggle with the unconsciousness symbolism of the sea to the wilderness of the far north, where the brutality of the natural world takes center stage: the weak perish and the strong survive.

Politically, Melville was a capitalist who clung to the economic security of civil service employment. London was a socialist who despised human inequality and railed against arbitrary authority until the end of his life. It should be pointed out, however, that he held racist views common to his time and place. And although he was a socialist, he lived like an extravagant capitalist.

Melville died in obscurity at 72, having struggled financially most of his life. His recognition as a novelist smoldered in fits and starts, but his work didn’t really take off until after his death. London died famous at age 40, having achieved almost instant rags-to-riches wealth and celebrity.

As fate would have it, I once heard Alaska Congressman Don Young say that it was Jack London who brought him to Alaska, echoing my own reasons for choosing the forty-ninth state as my home. So, when I heard him being interviewed on a local radio show, I took the opportunity to phone in. I asked Congressman Young if, as a conservative Republican, he found it ironic that he was in Alaska because of a socialist. Thinking I had him in a bind, I wondered how he would talk his way out of it.

Not missing a beat, Young said, “Jack London? My father knew Jack London.” I was the one who was speechless.     

London’s work confirms John Muir’s observation that “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” Indeed, London claimed that he found his perspective for becoming a successful writer in the wilderness of the Klondike. In the same way, I’ve observed that ideas and the Alaska Highway go hand-in-hand. The awe-inspiring scenery, the isolation, and the absence of available radio signals invite deep contemplation.

The sweeping and at times overwhelming scenic grandeur puts our human frailties and our brief existence into a stark light. The natural beauty of the landscape is so formidable as to give an appearance of permanence in contrast to our fleetingly short lives, and feelings of insignificance often follow. It’s an existential dilemma that begs perspective.

Portals in a Northern Sky is set in 2021. The sequel, A Mile North of Good and Evil, takes place in 2028, seven years into widespread use of the Portals technology. In this story, the Alaska Highway serves as the hunting ground for a serial killer whose behavior represents the personification of evil. The malevolence of his crimes gives rise to penetrating questions about whether his nature qualifies as an inevitable part of the natural world. In a concurrent storyline, an impending doomsday scenario offers a group of individuals, as well as every reader, a unique perspective on morality and mortality.

This second book took me twelve years to complete, which means the two works together were on my mind for a full twenty years. During that time, the only things I can relate to that haven’t changed dramatically are the Alaska Highway and the beauty of Alaska.

In September 2015, I made the drive again, all the way from Dallas. Except for the highway having been paved, the trip was much like my first one more than forty years earlier. Services and facilities are still few and far between, giving the pervasive sense that one is detached from civilization. The wilderness remains a clear summons for philosophical reflection.

In both of my novels, most of the action takes place in interior Alaska near Mount Denali, a landmark symbol worthy of its own genre of philosophic contemplation. Seeming to represent permanence, or even eternity, the majestic mountain elicits thoughts about mortality, morality, and fate, eternal questions at the heart of the human condition. Considering these ideas with Alaska wilderness as the backdrop offers a perspective with philosophical echoes that can last a lifetime.

Drive to Alaska, visit Mount Denali, and you will see what I mean.   
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Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Tax of Social Media

© Charles D. Hayes

The pace of change has always delineated differences among generations. As often as not, each generation longs for something they grew up without. For this reason, in my view, the not too distant future promises a rediscovery of the rewards of solitude as something that will suddenly seem astoundingly meaningful because it affords so much time for thought. With thought comes perspective, and with that comes wisdom worth passing on.

Most of us know people whose interest in life seems to grow richer and stronger with age, coming ever closer to achieving a level of awareness that we commonly think of as wisdom. We also know people whose lives seem to shrink with time, gradually becoming less and less of who and what they once were.

Life stage researcher Erik Erickson characterized the years north of middle age as a tipping point, with one direction moving toward perspective and the other toward despair. Twenty-first century technology is ratcheting up the process for many people, pushing us further and faster in whichever direction we are leaning.

My observations suggest that openness to new experience is a key characteristic for those who strive for perspective as they grow older. Watching friends and family members withdraw into a shell of growing angst and despair is one of life’s great disappointments. When this is someone’s chosen path, efforts to get the person to change course are rarely successful.

We know the effects of change in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were astonishing. Generations who grew up traveling by horse and buggy died witnessing rocket ships and satellites in space. Now, in this century, we are experiencing even faster change with communication technologies effectively having nullified geographic distances, resulting in a retribalized world based more on ideology and political class than ethnicity.

The solitude of daily life experienced by earlier generations has been replaced by unrelenting communication and media distractions. Thoughtful correspondence is increasingly overwritten by tweets. Time spent looking at snippets of text on small screens is overtaking time spent reading serious books. In-depth reading is giving way to Cliff Notes and one-page summaries.  

Nevertheless, if we don’t keep current with technology, the world seems to pass us by. We have less and less in common with younger generations. Our music, tastes in fashion, and preferences in entertainment are deemed obsolete and out of touch, and as aging friends and family pass away, we become ever more isolated.

Each of us can probably relate to having family members who never signed on with computers. Now they are likely alienated from social media. I’ve used computers since they came on the market, but only just recently did I change from using a flip phone to a smartphone. For a short time, it was a traumatic experience as I felt a complete loss of control over my ability to use a telephone. (I’m over it now.)

We can easily lose sight of the fact that Marshall McLuhan was right when he said, “The medium is the message.” In other words, our tools shape our behavior. Facebook, for example, has created an environment where we are subtly and not so subtly encouraged to like things. The downside is that doing so makes us much more aware of what we dislike, so much so that Facebook is adding a Dislike feature. This existential experience tends to motivate people to seek out echo chambers where political viewpoints narrow and contempt escalates and smolders.

Needless to say, for a species as tribalistic as we human beings are, manipulative media is something to be constantly aware of, simply to keep ourselves from being unduly influenced. Social philosopher Eric Hoffer was correct in declaring that hatred is one of our greatest unifying forces. And thus, the strength of communications technology is also its weakness: it brings people together while it alienates and ostracizes others. 

Some people take pride in not watching or even owning a television, not having a cellphone, or not using computers. On the other hand, some people express pride in not reading books. But purposeful isolation and alienation of any kind shortchanges perspective. Without common frames of reference, relating to others becomes more difficult.     

Now that I’m accustomed to my new phone, I view it as something short of magic. It’s the equivalent of having a personal assistant 24/7. Social media and smartphone apps for seniors are tremendous aids for keeping in touch with family and assisting with medical issues. Even so, today’s political environment suggests the world needs much less chit-chat and much more thoughtfulness and deep reading.                         

Ralph Waldo Emerson put our current dilemma in perspective more than a century ago, pointing out that “every advantage has its tax.” So, if you are feeling alienated by your lack of technical savvy, Emerson is still good company. His work is all about gaining and maintaining perspective. Read his essay “Compensation,” and you will be rewarded with a riveting example of thoughtfulness.

In Emerson’s time, solitude was a big part of life. If you read the letters and prose of ordinary citizens during that period and compare them with today’s social media, you may perceive that we need to rethink and relearn the importance of solitude.

The tax for using the media available to us is paid in lost opportunity for thoughtful reflection. Wisdom these days will likely be found by discerning and maintaining the right balance between technological wizardry and enough silent contemplation to keep from being manipulated politically and to maintain a level of perspective that makes life worth living.  
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Friday, September 11, 2015

Education for Civilization’s Sake

© Charles D. Hayes
“Education is a defense against culture,” said educator and critic Neil Postman. An education that doesn’t result in a lifelong desire for knowledge is an education that didn’t take. If one’s efforts cease, the battle is lost to those who use political anxiety to manipulate vulnerable people.     

Consider John, the accountant, police officer, engineer, attorney, welder, electrician, or any other occupation that requires learning, skill, and talent. He sailed through school with ease, taking the hard subjects and shunning electives as a waste of time. At work, he stands out; most everything he does is judged to be quality work. John’s political views are fairly black and white. His worldview is heavily influenced by his occupation and the geographic region where he lives. He has little patience with people who do not seem to be doing what is expected of them.

As he ages, John is increasingly more comfortable in his work and less in his element at home. His wife has her own career, and over time their interests grow apart, leaving them fewer and fewer things to talk about. After a hard day’s work, John loses himself in televised sports and watches just enough biased political reporting to have developed a slow-burning level of contempt for all the people he believes are ruining the world.

Simply put, John is more of a human doing than a human being. All of his life, he has been told how to do things, mostly without asking why. He is like a satellite put into orbit and set to spinning with such velocity that he can’t stop or spin in a way that goes counter to his cultural indoctrination. Does this sound like anyone you know, male or female?

Most of us grow up constructing a worldview so heavily influenced by our geography and our social affiliation that we believe our personal outlook constitutes straight-up reality. Some of us are virtual prisoners of an internalized regional ideology, which means broadly that we’re certain who the out groups are—namely, the people we imagine are keeping us from living better lives.

The target may be immigrants, welfare recipients, or the ethnic outgroup of the moment. The list is long, and the irony is that many citizens allow those in power to rig the system to their own advantage, often through the process of vicarious identification. They delude themselves into believing that they have more in common with the very rich than with those who are struggling to survive.

 For decades I have been arguing that what citizens need in today’s politically partisan and fast-changing world is an existential education. By this I mean a deep level of knowledge that’s based on immersion in the humanities and behavioral sciences. Such an education enables a person to fully appreciate the range of differences within our species and to recognize that, as mortal beings, we are subconsciously aware and upset that we are going to die. It teaches us to deal with these harsh aspects of the human condition without the need to find scapegoats to distract us from this mostly unconscious but smoldering anxiety.

In other words, an existential education enables a person to create one’s own meaning in life with some genuine independence from the conformist demands of one’s culture. It also fosters sufficient reasoning ability to dissipate the inevitable angst that comes with being mortal.

A fundamental goal of an existential education is the ability to burst rigid conformist worldview bubbles and to prevent new ones from forming. The idea is to increase one’s capacity to discern a more objective sense of reality, while remaining fully cognizant that we are locked in an inescapable mode of subjectivity, the only solution being nonexistence.

An existential education should enable a person to deconstruct the collective lies and cultural myths we grow up accepting as absolute truth and to see through the pretense of manipulative advertising and political ploys designed to have us act against our own interests. It teaches us to always be alert to the reality that, more often than not, things are not as they appear and to be autonomously impervious to the perception that human beings have value only in economic terms.

Curiosity lies at the heart of a successful existential education by cultivating a continuous thirst for knowledge and for a better appreciation of our subjective existence. Understanding that we will never nail reality to the wall, we know that if we quit trying, our perspective suffers and our anxiety festers.

Without the benefit of an existential education, we, like John, are apt to see the world exclusively in terms of our respective means of earning a living, and our local economic concerns will likely trump the interests of anyone we consider outsiders. If lumber is the primary industry, then those whose income depends on it don’t want to hear about the need to save trees. If it’s oil, they don’t want to hear about global warming.

If people are unfamiliar with the divergent customs of others the world over, they are less likely to empathize with those whose interests conflict with their own. They’ll be eager to believe everything negative that they hear about those they consider to be the opposition.

History makes it crystal clear that studying the humanities won’t humanize those whose attitudes and predispositions don’t allow it, but the inquiry most certainly helps those who strive to be better human beings. I know this to be true, not from theory, but from personal experience. Some people can alleviate existential angst through religious faith, but for others, such conviction has the opposite effect and leads to tribalism at its worst. 

One thing we know for certain is that no ethnic group, no country, no nationality, no religious affiliation has a lock on morality and virtue. Even so, most everyone assumes their own culture is superior to all others.

Growing up with a narrow worldview and without the ability to expand one’s understanding is to be a prisoner of time and place. It sets one up to be easily manipulated by those with a political agenda, as evidenced by the current state of politics in a country where inequality is growing fast by lobbied design.

Clinging to a constricted or parochial worldview is a recipe for engendering the kind of contempt that offers relief only when it’s redirected as scorn toward others. Uncertainty fosters bigotry among ignorant people. Through collective contempt, people let their kind off the hook from bearing any accountability for their illiteracy. To place blame is to effortlessly escape responsibility.  

When worldviews clash, an existential education offers alternative points of view for reflection, comparisons, other possibilities, and the knowledge that even cultures with very different customs share fundamental values and have similar needs. A deep resource of accumulated knowledge can diffuse pent-up anxiety by supplying something else to consider besides the usual arbitrary accusations that come with our tribalistic predispositions.
In a nutshell, an existential education can help human doings become better human beings. Our penchant for tribalism appears to be innate, and existential contempt remains the Achilles heel of our species. This needn’t be so if we seek the knowledge and the will to dissipate our own cultural angst.                                  
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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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