Wednesday, September 28, 2016

From Sea to Shining Sea

From sea to shining sea
I watched the US Presidential Nominees debate with that kind of anticipation that causes one to run toward a fire or a plane crash. I expected candidates to shoot themselves in the foot, the arm and the torso like they appear to be doing regularly right now; bickering their way through an overlong nomination process occupying the electorate for a year—and coming up with two people whom almost nobody can comfortably endorse as their next president. 

You’d think they could save themselves a great deal of anguish—and come up with more amenable nominees, probably—if they ran a Presidential Nomination Lottery (PNL) on which anyone could buy tickets.

As far as the debate goes, it amazes me that we’ve applied the zero-sum game mentality to our politics as we Westerners tend to do to everything else from music to sports to art to, well, just about everything where we decide who won and who lost. ((Zero-sum Game: In game theory and economic theory, a zero-sum game is a mathematical representation of a situation in which each participant’s gain (or loss) of utility is exactly balanced by the losses (or gains) of the utility of the other participants: Wikipedia)) If Trump “wins” the debate Hillary “loses”. Give him a plus one for winning and her a minus one for losing, “sum” them and you get zero: the Zero-sum principle in game theory.

Applying that principle to the debate is absurd: the whole world won, if learning about the fitness for office of the candidates started out as the purpose of pitting them against each other face to face. In similar fashion, the final choice will not be zero-sum . . . unless Americans make it so; their federal government exists for the unity and the benefit of the citizens, and the selection of a president without a civil war will guarantee the continuity of democratic government as the founders of their nation visualized it. The fact that either of the candidates could be elected or not according to the ballots cast is the test of that democracy, at least when so many presidents worldwide gain office through fraud, intimidation and/or brute force.
Conservatives, Liberals, Socialists or Libertarians will all continue to be beneficiaries equally of the benefits inherent in a democratic federalism; there will be no “losers” unless the followers of the unelected candidate decide not to abide by the democratically-determined majority decision. The eruption of violence should  Trump “lose” is not unthinkable; the fact that so many lethal weapons are in private hands makes the emergence of dissenting militias with lethal means an eventuality that shouldn’t be off-handedly discarded.
Seen in this light, the American electorate appears to be headed toward a precipice. Choosing between a Clinton who can’t possibly be separated from her establishment, status-quo, been-in-Washington-forever image and a belligerent, combative billionaire who sees everything and understands nothing much beyond loophole business, the urge to stay home on November 8th must be powerful for many.
I sympathize with our next-door neighbours, but at the same time, I can’t help thinking that the old adage fits: You made your bed, now lie in it. 
Unfortunately, we lie in a double bed with them and must always be in fear of being crushed whenever they decide to roll over.
As to the debate, I suspect that if you’re a doctrinaire democrat, you’ve decided that Hillary wiped the floor with Trump; if you’re a Tea Party Republican, it was definitely the other way ‘round. It’s another downside of applying zero-sum game theory to politics: each side appoints its own umpires and referees and the rules are made up as the “game” progresses.
And there’s no arbiter to decide objectively when the puck is actually in the net. 
Except for the ballot box angel. Without her, the demons are bound to creep in.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

American Demons

Every time I go out to coffee row these days for a bit of java and gossip, the talk swings around to Donald Trump. I’m beginning to believe that old Hollywood shibboleth that all publicity is good publicity. In other words, whether your goal is to become a celebrity or its cousin in the political world—a president or governor—it’s not necessarily what you do or say that’s critical. Rather, it’s the number of times your name is mentioned, the number of times your face is on the screen that effectively furthers such an end.

It’s a bizarre turn of events. If telling streams of lies and half-truths as Trump is doing these days serves to gather support, then the world has inadvertently turned itself inside-out, up is down and the other way ‘round.

I’m currently reading Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces That Determine Human Existence by Walter Wink. Although published in 1985, it might have been written for exactly this time. Wink makes a compelling case for the existence of “demonic forces,” but sees these forces as emanating from within the souls, minds and habits of cultures and individuals. Demons from outside of us don’t afflict us, according to Wink, unless we tolerate them, allow them to live and, finally, to dominate our thoughts and actions.

In the public’s attraction to the liar (who among other things, lies about his opponent’s honesty), America is displaying a collective demon that they’ve allowed in and need desperately to exorcise.

I’m reluctant to name their demon because I’m not sure what it is, but it seems to me that if it had a name, it would be something like “F**k all of you; my ignorance is worth just as much as your wisdom.” (I should acknowledge the person who said something like this, but I can’t remember who it was . . . he/she didn’t use the “F” word. I apologize for using it, but it seemed to fit.). Donald Trump wouldn’t say—for instance—that Hillary Clinton started the “birther” myth and that he was the one who ended it . . . unless there existed a large and growing audience that’s willing to accept that lies are bullets, and the establishment is due for a big dose of buckshot. So bring it on!

But America hosts another demon, one that may have given rise to the first. Public education of high quality for all citizens just hasn’t been a priority. Ignorance, illiteracy, illogicality are all demons

It’s no outside, horned beast that causes us to be content with superficiality in these crucial components of competent citizenship. It’s the invitation extended by a lax and lazy populace in which the tripe churned out by Hollywood is eulogized; it’s a culture in which mediocrity has for too long been excused; it’s a society in which the possession of lethal weapons and the right to own and use them are considered to be a right. Worst of all, it’s a society that has allowed materialism to trump spirituality to the point where talk of love, of service, of generosity is swallowed up in the quest for stuff, for the cheap thrill, for freedom from social responsibility, for wealth and recognition. A society where free speech includes the right to emasculate, eviscerate, slander and libel other persons or other people . . . who aren’t ME. Where lying can be a legitimate political tactic.

America is not alone in having admitted this legion of demons, but America is the country at present whose demon-possession is on display. If I had to name just one similar demon in Canadian society, I’d have to point to our inability to discover a way to mend the injustices we’ve perpetrated against our indigenous population, to set the settler/indigenous relationship on a wholesome path. One of the demons preventing it is racism, but like the demons that drowned with the Gadarene swine (Mark 5:1-20), a renewal of that relationship is probably hindered by a legion of demons we’ve 
allowed in and are fearful to name.

My next post will be about exorcising the demons; but I haven’t finished reading those chapters in Wink yet.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Get a Job, You Lazy Bum!

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
“Get a job, you lazy good-for-nothing!”

Generally, that admonition means, “Find employment; search out a person or company that needs someone to do work you can do and for which they are willing to pay . . . and stop expecting others to feed, house and entertain you while you sleep late and pick at your navel.”

There was a time when our self-sufficiency was directly tied to our work, when eating a potato followed planting, hilling, hoeing and harvesting that potato. When buttering your bread followed milking a cow, separating the milk, churning the cream and adding the right amount of salt. Whether a long day’s activities included catching some fish, hunting down a few rabbits, nailing boards together for a shelter or pulling weeds under a hot sun, our time and our energies had to be given to jobs, and the thoroughness and efficiency with which we did these jobs paid off directly in our well-being.
People who slept late fared poorly; people who worked hard had good shelter, good food and probably a surplus they could trade for luxuries.

Except that with the industrial revolution, the view of people as production inputs initiated a new view of humanity that tied people to the factory, to a dependency on the "charity" of the owners of the means of production. 

The drive in research and development has always been to produce more with less work. It appears that as a human species, we abhor work, that we acknowledge less and less the premise that our food, shelter and recreation must come at the expense of work, of putting in time at a demanding, possibly tedious job for someone else. But in a world, finally, where robots build self-driving cars, where tons of flour can be milled in a day by one man sitting in front of a console, where giant machines with a few operators plant and harvest our food crops, where computers and printers can churn out perfect copies of all the great literature of the world with a modicum of work (as we used to think of it), getting a job can become more and more uncertain.
Physical work, particularly, is not needed nearly as much as it once was. Granted, mental work is still required in the communications/technology and service areas but there too, the drive is toward rendering jobs an obsolete concept. Finally, a super computer can build a far better system in far less time and with far less effort than can a bunch of people on a factory floor or office complex juggling widgets, typing in data for 48 hours a week. (The only sectors I can think of where work is increasing and jobs are still offered in agreeable measure are the service and hospitality sectors; with an aging population and the increase in leisure time, healthcare, education, travel and fast food are thriving.)

So where are the newly unemployable to go to earn their daily bread?

Because we currently measure the health of an economy by Gross National Product, Trade Surplus/Deficit, Employment, House Prices, Stock Market Indicies and other statistical data, the true purpose of an economy is easily forgotten. An economy is—in the final analysis—the means for distributing resources among people so that the necessities of life are made available to everyone. Were we to plan our economies on this basis, our world would look much different.

The need to patch up the failures of our economies through food banks, soup kitchens, social assistance grudgingly and skimpily given, “free” health care, etc., provides a far more pertinent measure of our economic success/failure than does the Dow-Jones index. As good as the charitable act may feel to those who are able to perform it, there is no way to avoid the degradation the recipient experiences. The indignity of accepting the necessities of life through charity because one is unable, unwilling or unprepared to earn what one needs . . . is unavoidable.

Charity—in the end—produces the need for itself. If meaningful jobs are the standard of worthiness, of the deserving of the necessities of life, then we have missed the point of economy. At the same time, we’ve sacrificed our insistence on dignity, self-esteem for everyone.

What’s better: handing out clothes to a person who can’t afford them when winter sets in, or enabling the individual to walk into a store and choose the clothing he/she will wear? The cost economically speaking is the same; the politics of the choices is very, very different.

As job offerings and opportunities change, as the spread between those who have means and those who don’t widens, we need to pay close attention to the reasons and the consequences of what we allow and don’t in our economies. In a world where a single government policy can undo a mass of charitable effort, the principle that Christians, for instance, ought first of all to be economists and politicians if they wish to emulate Jesus’ concern for the poor surely presents itself. To be “in the world, but not of the world” is, in the end, a doctrine of spiritual self-preservation.

As Christians (and all others who embrace a spiritual understanding of life), we need to continue to be at the forefront of charitable endeavour, especially as it relates to natural disasters and desperate populations. But our focus must include a working toward the end of the need for charity.
Progress has been made: we no longer have poor houses, debtors’ prisons, beggars in the streets. We do have Old Age Security, Child Benefits, Income Supplements, Universal Healthcare, Social Assistance, a patchwork of remedies for destitution caused by sickness, poverty, age or handicap. 

A guaranteed annual income could eliminate all these supports at less cost, with less administration and with the prospect of greater self-worth, dignity for all.

Let’s, at least, talk about it.