Question Authority

I’m on a good sized airplane.  I’m comfortable, in my proper seat, and ready to fly.

So is the aircraft.  The pilots are almost through with their checklists, and the flight attendant is finishing up her required briefing to the passengers.

I look about, and the aircraft is only half full.  I have work to do, and it would be nice to spread out.

Since the attendant is still busy, I unbuckle and quickly switch seats.  In no time flat another attendant comes to hover above me.

We can’t have you changing seats sir.

Why?

I’m sorry, but I’ve been instructed by my superiors that no one can change their seats.  I’m sorry.

Alright.  I move back to my seat, and ponder.

Can’t move?  It’s not hard on the seats – they are designed for many butt touches.

It can’t be the airplane.  This one is large enough so that even an elephant could move around without bothering the pilots.

No, it can only be for the flight attendant’s convenience.  It makes it easier on them.  It’s for making their lives easier, not ours.  The more they can treat us like cattle, the better.

I realize that if the airline could figure out a way to put us to sleep and stack us up like firewood, they would.  No need for food, toilets, and more people on the plane.  Fewer attendants even.  Heck, they’re probably working on the idea even as I write.

More importantly, you and I live in this world, in this society, and are customers of that airline.  To the degree that we don’t question their authority in order that we can have better lives is our fault.  To the degree that we don’t insist on questioning their authority so that our children can have better lives is a sin.

I looked in that attendant’s eyes and said “sorry to have upset you.”

But in my heart, if it had been something important that I was fighting for, I wouldn’t have stopped.  The future is worth it.

 

President Trump

What goes through your mind when you hear these words?

President Donald Trump.

My brainy and / or more liberal friends shudder.  Then they gag.  Then laugh, hug each other, cry, and finally acknowledge that it could happen.

Quite a few other people are counting on it.  In fact, they plan to vote for him.

And why not?  Who’s to say he won’t make a great president?

The sad news is that our country doesn’t have any standards for what make a president good or bad.  Popularity got George Washington in for two terms and he’s voted our best president ever.  But the second-most successful president was also one of the least popular; Abraham Lincoln.

So Trump may become president, and he may be a great one.  At least, by his standards.

We have a pretty crazy country going on here.  It’s run by millionaires for one thing.  And those millionaires take lots of advice from very rich friends who make lots of money off the rest of us.

Anyone can be president in the USA.  Of course, certain conditions apply.

So, my advice to all of you who may be feeling a political chill, is to put on a sweater and deal with it.

Should you still be afraid?  Sure.  But not because Trump got in.  He’s just the symptom.

The reason someone like Trump gets elected (or any other idiot you’d like to nominate) is because not enough of us ordinary people care.

The reason Trump may be president is because there are too many special interests who are allowed to spend as much money as they want.

The reason our government feels like it’s going to hell in a handbasket is because it mirrors exactly what is happening in our society as a whole.  Yes, our poor government is also a symptom of our disease, not a cause.  What is that cause?

We’re getting older.  We’re getting poorer.  We’re getting dumber.

Perhaps worst of all, we are all of us getting tired of fighting the tide.  We don’t want to stand up in public and debate the issues.  We don’t want to demand better performance out of our candidates, out of our government, and out of our journalists.

I’m also getting older.  And poorer.  But I’m fighting the dumber.  And I haven’t given up fighting, not yet.

This is my weapon; the pen, and education.

So, to all of you who also haven’t given up as yet, get up and get out there.  Fight!

If you don’t, you’ll have to live with the alternative.

 

Humility Helps

“Oh! why should the spirit of mortal be proud?”

So begins Abraham Lincoln’s favorite poem.  It’s all about mortality, and poetically reminds us that our time on this Earth is short.  Many act as if they are immortal, yet all of them eventually return to dust.

Why was it that Abe had to remind himself of this fact?  Certainly he already knew this.  Being surrounded by the Civil War must also have been a constant reminder as to everyone’s eventual end.  And he was the first President to start receiving actual death threats (as far as I know).  So what’s with the poem?

Another way to ask this same question is why don’t modern politicians and leaders remind themselves of the same thing?  How many actually acknowledge their mortality, not only in words, but in deeds?  The newest pope comes close, by the way.  Why does admitting their own mortality matter for leadership?

Because the sin of pride distorts your world in your favor, and increases the distance between your view of reality and the rest of us.

If you are proud enough you expect to have a 747 at your beck and call.  You expect to live in a palace with a staff of 100.  You expect a legion of photographers to follow your every move.  And the more you come to expect these things as normal, the more likely you are to make decisions that reinforce your reality.

Do small airplanes get in the way of your 747?  Tell them all to stop flying wherever you fly.  Are the parks around your palace looking dingy?  Ask the government for a few million to tidy them up.  Are the paparazzi getting a bit too close?  Ask for laws to keep them at bay, or decide you’re above the law and do whatever you want to mislead them – like speeding.

But if you’re serious about making great decisions and seeing the world as the rest of us, then mortal, be not proud.

Don’t be afraid of your public, take a regular flight from Washington to Chicago in the economy seats.  Palace park has litter?  Go pick it up yourself!  Paparazzi want your pictures?  Give it to them, and stand there till they get bored.  Heck, hire some yourself and make some money yourself.  Better yet, lead a modest, quiet regular life and bore them to exhaustion.  If you really want them to go away, that is.

Abe was humble because he wanted to be the best leader possible.  He knew he was smart and powerful, he didn’t need sycophants for that.  But he also knew he had to understand, to the best of his ability, what the world looked like for ordinary Americans.

He may have been afraid that fateful night when he went to the theater.  He certainly knew he had enemies and crazy people threatening him.  But he also knew that he could not live in fear, not if he wanted to be a great leader.  Especially when his country needed a great leader the most.

I like to think that Abe would still go to the theater that night, even if he knew what was going to happen.  And to me, that is the greatest attribute of leadership – humility and the loss of fear.

Thank you Mr. Lincoln.

 

50 shades of self-loathing

There’s a popular book and movie running around at the moment that features a young woman being sexually manipulated.  The fact that he’s a older man is not important for now, because the subject of today’s observation is the fictional young woman. [1]

Many cultures have ways of keeping themselves organized.  The British have always been good about tracking their families; what schools they go to, what lands they own, what titles their ancestors have carried.  In Britain, you can be part of the nobility and upper class, or an ordinary person without status.  How they indicate this is both obvious and secret.  Obvious signs of status might be your title, or your school tie, or the fact that you live on an estate.  Secret signs might be the very way you pronounce “heredity” or “worcestershire.”

Signs of status are more numerous in India, where the caste system has been in effect for thousands of years, well before England even spoke English.  And in Japan, there is a very well engineered caste system embodied in the language itself!  Women speak to each other differently than men speak to each other, speaking to elders is different, and speaking within your social rank is different from speaking up or down in rank.

Now we have a popular fictional character submitting to acts of sexual stimulation for another person, and as a culture we find this acceptable.  What does it say about us?

It says that a new form of status expectation is forming.  It reinforces the stereotypes of young versus old and woman versus man.  It re-emphasizes the importance of sex as part of that relationship, and sends an unambiguous signal to everyone that these are considered acceptable behaviors.

As an indifferent observer, I’m not going to label these developments “good” or “bad.”  They simply exist, and whether or not society is a better place because of them will be for others to decide.

But as a parent and husband, I choose to teach and reinforce self-respect and confidence in my daughter and wife.  They never need to bow or pretend for anyone.  They stand equal with anyone on this planet, including the queen.

And in this there is no grey – only black and white.

 

 

[1]  Spoiler alert: I know nothing about this story, and don’t have enough popular culture curiosity to find out.  I do know it makes older women giggle and whisper among themselves.  And I’ve read the first few paragraphs on wikipedia.

 

Foster Parenting for Fun and Profit

Want to drive a social biologist crazy?  Look them in the eye and ask them to explain “altruism” in 25 words or less.  It’s fun to watch them stammer and melt.  Have a drink handy, they’ll need it.

Altruism means helping others even though it hurts you.  It’s love in its most extended form, because sometimes those you help aren’t related to you.  Heck, you may never even meet them.  They might not even be alive yet!  I call this long-distance altruism.

People who practice long-distance altruism are the kind of people who believe that being good today has great effects on all of society down the road.  An economist could argue that this is ultimately selfish, because if you are part of society this means that you or your offspring will ultimately profit.  Economists are big on selfishness.

I’ve recently met several people who are very active foster parents.  In one case he and his wife had 4 of their own children, have adopted four others (youngest is only 12), and have fostered over 20.  Incredible dedication and investment on their part.  Yet they are not revered by society, heck we hardly even notice them.  And there is a tragically large backlog of children of all ages who need a safe haven from their current conditions.  Foster parents are in short supply.  What are we to do?  From the perspective of a great nation that staunchly believes in profit,

Let’s open up the profit gates!  Let’s calculate the cost to society for abusing and tormenting children today, because tomorrow they may have to be retaught, or worse, simply caught and put away.  Let’s pay these wonderful people a significant fraction of what we think the long term cost is, and let them use the money as they see fit.  Of course there will be oversight, but let’s bring this out in the open!  Let’s have a reality show featuring the best and worst of these foster homes.  Let’s make it a competition of sorts.  Why not?  We’re a competitive society, let’s see if it can’t be entertaining?  After all, if we enjoy watching families swap their wives, what’s wrong with swapping out a few kids?

Not enough praise can be given to today’s foster parents.  They do it for themselves, with only a small amount of help from the government.  But as a society we leave them alone, and as a result many children “fall through the cracks.”

Anyone want to join me in patching up the cracks?

 

Altruism, for fun and profit

July is a great month for birthdays; birthdays of Democracy, that is.

The US of A was effectively born at the beginning of the month, and the next great democratic experiment was born in the middle.  That second country was France, and we here in the US owe the French a bit of a debt for our birthday.  They were sort of a midwife, helping us into the world.

From there our paths quickly split; France got an emperor and had lots of middle age nonsense to deal with.  Even today they are pretty big on letting the central government decide everything (not always a bad idea) while here in the US we try to go to the other extreme.  Keep decision making local, because many times it’s the person closest to the problem that knows what to do, and how best to do it (also not always a bad idea).

Another way the US and France differed back then is what we consider the best motivation.  The US went the way of laissez faire – free enterprise.  The French pretty much stayed back in the middle ages, telling people what to do and letting them grow into their professions through family associations or apprenticeships.  The fact that today’s France fully embraces the idea of profit and risk means that they also think it’s a good idea to run a society.  Let’s make money!  That get’s a whole lot of us motivated.

But there’s a lot of things that go on in our society that don’t really lend themselves to this whole “making money” thing.  Like giving women the vote.  Or trying to prevent child abuse.  Or cutting back on residential drug use.  Or reducing our carbon footprint.  So what’s a good modern society to do?

Let’s get creative!  It is one of the best things in our nation that we are allowed to get creative.  And it’s about time all citizens start exercising that right.  Tomorrow, I’m going to exercise my right and see if we can’t take a behavior that is very hard, very much in demand, and yet imposes a heavy load upon those who perform it.  Foster parenting.

Got any ideas?  Let’s hear them!

 

Growing Politicians

Here we are, back at the beginning.

These are our axioms so far:

1 Politicians make lousy laws.

2 Politicians are mostly lawyers.

3 Lawyers become politicians because they are trained in laws.

4 Politicians protect themselves and are resistant to change because of how they are trained, and because of the ecosystem they have built around themselves.

Now what?

It’s time that other academic institutions start fighting back.

Medical schools, hear this!  Create a scholarship program that anoints one student every year for FREE medical school training.  This student will not only be required to take the full suite of medical courses, but should also be taking a few courses in practical law, morality, philosophy, and communication.  Their commitment?  After medical school and a few years of training, they must run for office.  With the full backing of the medical profession, they will find out what their chances are in the political arena.  After they have served at least 4 years, they can return to a ‘normal’ life.  But if they can survive and thrive, they can rise through the ranks.

Does this mean they will rise to a position of power untarnished, unblemished, and be able to cure all the ills of our democracy?

What it does mean is that there will be more members of an honorable profession active in politics.  These honorable members can act as a slight deterrent against those less honorable members we currently support.

You don’t think it will work?

Consider this.  If every medical school put out only one political hopeful every year, that would be hundreds of medical politicians within a decade.

Now, don’t stop there.  What about engineering schools?  What about math departments?  What about English programs or theater departments?

It’s time academia woke up and smelled the frying pork.  In order to change our world, we’re going to have to start standing up for it in the only place that matters – Congress.  And the only way to do it is to start fighting the law schools in the same way that they create politicians.

Grow your own.

 

Political Ecology

We choose what to study, and we choose how to study that thing.  There’s nothing stopping the creative student of behavior from treating Congress like a jungle.  Let’s study it using the tools of ecology, biology, even ethnology.

And what do we find?

We find a culture that is quite at odds with the greater embedded ecosystem (society at large).  For instance, society calls for a politician to represent the people and make laws that further the common good.  This is what we call a job function.  In a well-defined job, the function, the tasks, and the skill sets of all the participants work together to make the job’s performance perfect.

In the case of politicians, we find that even though the function (making laws) is explicit, the task that are called for and the tasks they do in reality are very different.

The tasks we ask politicians to accomplish are listening to constituents, working with fellow law makers, learning all they can about related technologies, and then crafting laws that further our nation.

In reality, what we see is that the denizens of this ecosystem spend their time fighting each other, talking to lobbyists and other special interests, and most importantly, judging their performance based on their ability to ‘survive’ in the ecosystem – get re-elected.

And this is the ultimate equivalency to our ecosystem.  Survival.

The ultimate goal of a politician is to survive, and this means reelection.  It does not mean doing good, or listening, or even having morals.  It all depends on the vote.

For this type of ecosystem there are certain personalities who do better than others.  People who have been trained to subjugate concepts like truth to sophistry.  Or justice being secondary to winning.

In this type of ecosystem, it should be no wonder that the denizens create a lifestyle that benefits themselves at the expense of their electorate.  So why do we get angry when we learn that Congress does not have to abide by any of the workplace laws they impose on anyone else?  Why are we upset when we learn that their pensions are far better than anything in the private sector?  Why should we be annoyed when we learn that their health care benefits are fully paid for by us, even when certain ‘conservative’ elements rail against government helping the poor with their health care needs?

In this ecosystem, the inhabitants need to feed, and because of the way we have structured our society, the best sources of food are large economic interests: Energy, processed foods, transportation, drugs, communications, automotive manufacturing, and many others.  In order to keep feeding at the trough of special interests, the inhabitants of this ecosystem must pass laws that allow them access to this food.  Does this bias their decision-making?  Of course.  Will they ever admit it?  Of course not.

Now, what do we do about it?

Tomorrow.

 

Time Travel Forward

Ranging through time has allowed us to see that children have it much better than they used to.  They aren’t treated like property, and have a much better chance of living to adulthood than they did a thousand years ago.  Even only a hundred years ago.  Getting away with murder is pretty much a thing of the distant past, as far as children are concerned.

And then there’s physical abuse.  Our society is getting better at finding out those people who are hurting their own children.  If you’re an anti-government fundamentalist who believes your home is your castle and you are the lord, tough.  A child is not property, and the rest of us hope that your child becomes a productive and happy member of society.  You may have created that child, but the rest of us are going to be working with him, meeting him for lunch, and maybe even marrying him.  It’s in our best interest to make sure you don’t deliver damaged goods to the rest of us.

And here’s where it gets interesting.  Because our time machine has shown us that parents can be tricky.  When murdering children got unpopular, parents simply sold their children off as apprentices or slaves.  And now that physical abuse is going out of style, those same parents (though born hundreds of years later) are turning to more subtle, less physical means of abuse.

I know of a young lady who is carrying some extra weight.  She’s young, and she’s had a tough childhood because her parents are idiots.  But the real issue for her is that her father is making his love (and financial support) conditional upon her losing weight.

To her credit, she has a good attitude (at least to me) and is making some effort at losing weight.  But she is also having to bear this handicap bestowed upon her by her father.  For the rest of her life she will think that it’s normal to play these tricks upon children, possibly her own children, in order to make them do what she wants.  Or worse, these psychological abuses will hurt her chances of having her own happy life.

We don’t know, and can’t, yet.  All I know is that this form of parenting is considered acceptable in our day and age.  Perhaps someday the father would be found guilty of abuse and stopped.  I hope so.  Perhaps we can use our time machine to make the world better for my young friend.

Except it only goes forward at one speed.

Normal.

 

Political Ecosystem

A brilliant doctor has pointed out the latest legislative folly; some states are trying to tell doctors what they can and can’t ask patients. [1]

How can we stop the idiot politicians from making so many idiotic laws?

First off, we have to understand them.  Not the laws, the politicians.

Second, we have to understand the ecosystem in which they live.

Let’s start with number one.

So many politicians come from the legal profession.  Why is that?

Creating a lawyer means immersing them in laws.  It means training them in historical and theoretical aspects of the process of law making.  Perhaps most important, it trains them in the practical and tactical aspects of law making.  It teaches them how to make money at law making.

So, armed with this knowledge, what is a young lawyer to do?  One of the pathways to becoming economically successful is to become a politician.

Then why should it surprise us that so many lawyers become politicians?

What should surprise us is that these lawyers are not given a better understanding of the importance of laws, or taught more respect for other disciplines, or have a better underlying appreciation for things like Truth or Justice?  Instead they are taught how to win their case at any cost.  Winning is what counts.  Not Truth.  Not Respect.  Not Justice.

Are you a lawyer?  Do you want to debate this?  Offer evidence as to the sensitivity of lawyers, or their respect for the truth, or how they continue to improve both their profession and the law.

Can I point to such laws as what our good doctor has written about?  Can I point to the divisiveness and pettiness of Congress?  How about the lack of scientific understanding within our legislative and judicial system?

Lawyers are trained in laws.  They are trained to make a living in the law.  And they are trained to win at all costs.  This is why they can be successful politicians.

Now, let’s look at where they live.  Tuesday.

Hold your nose!

[1] http://koharjones.com/2014/05/18/what-are-your-health-risks-sorry-cant-ask/