Saturday, December 08, 2018

Stripping Bare the False Hopes Behind Climate-Change Complacency


Shortly before the end of the 18th century, a British intellectual named Thomas Malthus made a prediction that turned out to be wrong.  He suggested that because human population would grow geometrically and food production only arithmetically, absent a dramatic drop in birth rates or a dramatic increase in death rates (due to wars or illness), the world would no longer be able adequately to feed itself.   What Malthus didn’t foresee was the tremendous technical advances in food production that would follow the writing of his essay.   Over the past 220 years, we have seen dramatic improvements in agriculture, refrigeration, machines, you name it.  This has enabled us to produce far more food than Malthus could possibly have envisioned, and so now, the poor chap’s name has come to be sullied with the label of doomsayer.  We take him no more seriously than we take Chicken Little. 

And therein lies a problem.  Our world has become dangerously post-Mathusian.  We live in an age where our movers and shakers feel duty bound to ignore doomsayers like Malthus.  Especially in our more entrepreneurial classes, it has become an article of faith that the Chicken Littles should be ignored.   Now, every time a man of letters preaches that the sky is falling, the barons of business simply laugh it off.   “You sound like that silly ol’ Malthus,” they think to themselves.  Or to be more precise, even if we personally have never heard of Malthus himself, we’ve all come to appreciate the existence of thinkers from yesteryear who’ve envisioned all sorts of future horribles, only to have failed to take into account the effects of human ingenuity as reflected in greater and greater technological prowess.   This is why in some circles, it has become almost a religious imperative never again to bet against the ability of the human mind to solve what may appear on the surface to be an intractable technical problem.

Personally, I saw this phenomenon play out when I started my career as an attorney at the Federal Communications Commission in 1984.  Back then, there was a real push to improve communications technology – to usher in the kind of “information age” that has come to characterize the 21st century.  However, the Malthusians among us were warning that if we shook up (deregulate) the telecom industry, we may indeed bring greater prosperity to the rich but the poor may lose their ability to enjoy basic telephone service.   That warning turned out to be bunk – we went ahead with deregulation, and our telecom technology continued to advance so dramatically that rich and poor alike were able to enjoy the fruits of this advance without the need for regulation.   Once again, we all learned a lesson: don’t let the cluckings of Chicken Littles turn us into silly pessimists.  Whenever we really need human technology to come through for us, we can assume that it will advance by leaps and bounds and stave off disaster.

But you know what happens when we “assume” – we make an ass of u and me. And so it appears that our post-Malthusian assumptions are leading us down a path of carbon-guzzling complacency.  The barons of industry and the politicians they fund are well aware of the ubiquity of scientists who make Mathusian noises about the effects of climate change.  But they just don’t care.  They don’t want to hear about Chicken Little.  They are obsessed instead with Mighty Mouse (“Here I come to save the day!”).    Surely, they figure, we’ll be able to improve our technical ability to produce renewal and non-dangerous sources of energy so as to minimize the effects of human-induced climate change.

I don’t think so.  Even if we stipulate advancements in the harnessing of solar and other renewal energy sources, that alone won’t solve the problem.  For one thing, the demand for energy – and for the creature comforts it produces – won’t go away.  You see, demand for creature comforts, once enjoyed, never seems to lessen, and the world’s population continues to rise significantly.   As for the supply of energy, we are deeply addicted to the fuels that threaten our planet.   Perhaps, with a bit more political will we could do away with coal.  But oil?  So many powerful and wealthy companies in so many powerful and wealthy countries are thoroughly dependent on producing oil (as opposed to renewable sources of energy) that it would take a true miracle to stop us from continuing to do so.  Just consider how many people would stand to lose their fortunes – or their jobs – if we attempt a rapid transition away from oil.  These individuals would fight to continue to make their livelihood in the same fashion, politicians would dare not stand up to such a powerful coalition, and demand would continue to surge for their services.  Expecting a dramatic change under these circumstances is like expecting the Titanic to move rapidly to evade the iceberg.  Quite clearly, this is a very different dynamic than the one faced by Malthus in the 1790s (where farmers of all types welcomed improvements in agriculture) or the telecom industry in the 1980s (where AT&T could easily enough transition from old-style phones to improved telephone technology).

I realize that it’s no fun to sound like Malthus or Chicken Little.  It’s far more satisfying either to deny climate change like our President does, or to sound like one of those upbeat social reformers who talk as if we can still stop this freight train as long as we put our collective minds to the task.  I’ll give you this – I think we should try to stem this horrendous tide.  I think we should listen to our scientists, restrict our personal demand for carbon, support renewable energy sources, advocate international climate treaties and domestic regulation on carbon, etc.   But Empathic Rationalism is a philosophy of honesty – both with others and with ourselves.  And I won’t lie to you: I see dire consequences ahead.  I believe we’ve passed the point of no return.  And while I hope I’m as wrong as Malthus turned out to be, I’m no longer living in a post-Mathusian age.  The central “article of faith” I’m following is simple logic.

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Time for a Zero-Tolerance Policy



Before I begin addressing my topic for the morning, allow me to join in the chorus of those who are sharing their grief at the death of George H.W. Bush.  I never voted for the man, but I have always liked and admired him.  Some of the most fulfilling years of my career were spent at the Federal Trade Commission under a Chairman who he appointed (Janet Steiger), and I realized then that President Bush was someone who respected the civil service and who appointed people to positions in Government who cared about advancing the mission of their agencies, were pragmatic instead of rigidly ideological, and deferred when appropriate to their staffs. 

This country is as great as it because of men and women like George H.W. Bush.  I am proud to have served in his Administration. He was a patriot in the best senses of that term.   He will be missed.

Now, let’s turn to the topic of the day.    

Like George H.W. Bush, I am a huge sports fan.  His favorite sport was baseball, which should not be surprising since he once captained Yale’s baseball team.  My favorite sport is football, which should not be surprising since I have a real mean streak in me.  But at least I recognize it, I’m not thrilled about it, and I would never it let it cause me to hurt anyone or anything other than my own arteries.

This week, football fans all over the nation were forced to remind ourselves about the connection between football and violence.   Subconsciously, we see that connection whenever we watch a game.  Inherently, the sport is violent – perhaps not as violent as boxing or Mixed Martial Arts, but close.  If you don’t hit hard, you can’t play defense, and if you can’t play defense, we might as well be watching basketball or track.  What makes football great is the irresistible force facing the immovable object.  Without the violence, the object just gets moved down the field like butter facing a knife.  Who wants to watch that?

If you love the game as much as I do, you’re probably at peace with watching the hits, at least if they don’t involve gratuitous shots to the head.  But it is difficult to be at peace with the reports that have come out in the past decade about the consequences of these hits on the body, and especially the brain.   I’ve spoken to a lawyer who handles claims on behalf of football players and their families.  The physical devastation he has reported to me is truly appalling.  And yes, as someone who religiously watches these games and frequently attends them, I recognize that I am an enabler of these consequences – the torn ligaments, the broken bones, and all the symptoms associated with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (e.g., early onset dementia, depression, uber-aggression, personality changes, etc.).  Those destroyed lives remain on my conscience.  What can I say?  I love the game.  Always have.

Only in the past decade have the barons of football proposed to do something, anything, to minimize the problems discussed in the previous paragraph. Unfortunately, not enough is being done.  I can’t tell you how often vicious helmet-to-helmet hits go unpenalized, and therefore undeterred.   To be sure, we can expect the league to more vigilantly punish this conduct, yet that won’t change the fact that the sport is necessarily violent.  Maybe fewer players will get CTE, but the number will never go to zero.   We fans have to accept that fact.

All that said, here’s what we DON’T have to accept: that the gladiators who hit hard on the gridiron also frequently hit hard off of it.  We don’t have to tolerate the wife- and child-beating that so many of these gladiators seem to view as their birthright.  We also don’t have to tolerate the “boys will be boys” attitude that comes out of the mouths of the suits who run the National Football League, or the football programs that seem to dominate so many universities these days.    It is one thing to love football.  It’s another to accept football culture.  The former had better evolve, within limits.  The latter had better transform itself dramatically.  Stated simply, violence against women and children (or, in the case of Michael Vick, against dogs) must no longer be tolerated by our society.  Full stop.

You would think it was enough this year when the Washington Redskins, my local NFL team, brought in Adrian Peterson to play running back.  You may remember Mr. Peterson as the 6’1” 220 pound man-missile who a few years ago beat his four-year old son with a tree branch 10-15 times, injuring the child’s back, buttocks, legs, and scrotum.  I used to be a big Peterson fan.  Once that happened -- and once Peterson seemed to show only a modicum of remorse -- my ability to enjoy his exploits on the field ended.    This past week, the Redskins signed another off-the-field tough guy to the team.  The new addition is a 23-year old linebacker named Reuben Foster, who had just been cut by the 49ers.  His reputation was already marred by a well-publicized verbal altercation with a hospital worker, and by separate weapons and drug offenses.  This past Saturday night, Foster was arrested in Tampa as part of a domestic violence investigation.   According to his female accuser, he “slapped her phone out of her hand, pushed her in the chest area, and slapped her with an open hand on the right side of her face.” 

In justifying the Redskins decision to sign Foster, team executive Doug Williams responded, “We got people in (high) positions that have done far worse.  This is small potatoes (compared to) a lot of things.”  Probably true – for example, what Adrian Peterson did to his FOUR-year old son is worse.  But let’s just say that when I turn on a football game, I’m not signing up for either.

Later this week, Kansas City Chiefs fans were treated to a video of their star running back, Kareem Hunt, kicking and shoving a woman.   The incident had been reported months ago, and Hunt was allowed to remain on the team.  But after the video came out, the Chiefs had reached their limit – they said that Hunt had lied to them about the incident and were therefore cutting him from the team.   Perhaps the Redskins will want him too – Adrian Peterson is getting older, so maybe Hunt would make a fine replacement on and off the field.

When will the leaders of this sport get together and impose some rules?  When will they create a zero tolerance policy?  And when will my local team, the Washington Redskins, move the hell away from my city so that they can pollute some other environment? We already know that their franchise history is mired in racism – from their unwillingness to hire any black players (they were the last all-white team in NFL history) to their racist mascot (the Indian on the Warpath), no football team says “Bigots” quite like the Redskins.  But do they have to stand for woman and children abuse as well? 

I could go on and on about this topic, but I’ll spare you.  Suffice it to say that if there is any decency left in this sport, can we please change the culture now?  Can we please confine the violence to the field of play?  Can we please tell these players that if they want to beat up on defenseless people, they will have to figure out a different way to make a living than one that pays millions of dollars to play a ball game?

Enough is enough. 

Saturday, November 24, 2018

An Essay for Your Perusal

This past Monday night, I delivered a talk on a topic that still captivates me, even though I supposedly have "finished" the project.  It focuses on the following paradox in Spinoza's thought: How can a world characterized by  supreme complexity spring from a cause (God) that is supremely simple?  Stated differently, how can God be equated to Nature, which is supremely complex, and to Substance, which is supremely simple?  This paper will get you thinking about both God and politics, and was inspired by a prayer delivered by my daughter Hannah to open a pro forma session of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Why is this topic so intriguing to me?  Above all else, because it deals with a doctrine that is hardly unique to Spinoza -- divine simplicity.  Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus are two other philosophers who supported that doctrine even before Spinoza did.  I must say that it's far afield from the way most people think about God.  But is it reasonable?  Is it compelling?  Does it give us sustenance?  I'll leave those questions for you to think about when you read an essay based on Monday night's talk.   You can find the essay at the following page of my website, under the title:  "The Complexity of the World, the Simplicity of God:  A Spinozist Perspective" -- www.danielspiro.com/spinoza.html.

I hope you enjoy it.  

Saturday, November 17, 2018

A Jew Grapples with Thanksgiving


Last evening at Shabbat Services, my rabbi spoke about the concept of Thanksgiving in the Jewish faith and the Jewish culture.  She addressed a topic that isn’t discussed nearly enough: that despite the myriad of occasions during a Jewish service when we give thanks to God, gratitude doesn’t come as easily for Jews as you might think.  As the rabbi pointed out, Jews are the people of Israel – the so-called “God-wrestlers” – and we find ourselves constantly struggling with the world like ours that is so terribly far from anyone’s idea of utopia.  Adherents of other faiths might not be so dismayed by that prospect for they are taught that virtue in this life will be rewarded by euphoria in the next.  But we Jews don’t tend to think much about what happens after we’re gone.  We’re taught to focus on the here-and-now, with all its imperfections, none of which we sugar coat.  So you can understand why, when it comes to interacting with the Holy Name, Jews may be skeptical, cynical, even angry, rather than appropriately grateful.

My rabbi pointed out that in Jewish culture, wrestling spills into every facet of life.  Jews are inveterate complainers; my mother’s friend once asked her to start a business together called “Rent a Kvetch” in which gentiles can hire them to complain to local businesses who mistreated people.   Jews are prone to interrupting others in conversation.  And we tend to be attracted to litigation – both as a possible profession and as an activity in our private lives.  Go visit Israel and you will find a whole nation of people dedicated to the proposition that whether or not the meek will “inherit the earth,” they’ll have all sorts of trouble finding a seat on a bus from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv.  (Just ask the rabbi who dealt with that very same predicament when she was pregnant.)

Let’s face it – we Jews dedicate holidays to remembering atrocities.  We have no tolerance whatsoever for injustices of any kind.  And we are unusually well trained as to how to confront them.  Even those of us who are 90 pound weaklings tend to be successful at wrestling with our tongues or our pens.  We teach our children to grapple with whatever tools are at their disposal.   And though we dispute that the Messiah has ever walked this earth and await (metaphorically) his arrival, we are religiously commanded to bust our butts to fix this place on our own, so that when the Messiah comes, he won’t even have been needed. 

So how, given all this sturm and drang and all the kvetching that flows from it, can we make room for gratitude?   How can we be expected to launch Jeremiads one moment, and berakhahs (prayers) of thanks the next?

These questions are especially important to ask this time of year -- a time when the entire society is asked to take a moment to give thanks.   For me, the key is to reflect on just how incredibly much there is to be thankful for.  If you look at all the death and destruction in the world, the only reason we view that as such a tragedy is because we all recognize so much beauty in life.  If we weren’t so blessed with the knowledge of what a healthy, happy life looks like, we wouldn’t be so heart-broken whenever we see it taken away. 

Personally, I became a grandfather for the first time this year.  How can I not be grateful for that?  I’ll know if I ever get to Heaven, because there I’d have plenty of grandchildren.  Such a gift. 

And whether you are a grandparent, a parent, or an orphan who has never either dated or procreated, you likely know what it means to have enjoyed a meal.  Or listened to great music.  Or watched the sun set.  Yes, we can go on for minutes listing atrocities.  But we can go on for hours or days listing sources of pleasure.  The problem is that we tend to take them for granted.  We’re all hard wired to respond more to destructive stimuli than to pleasurable ones; that’s one reason we’ve survived so long as a species.

Well, my friends, we’re about to enter the week on our calendar in which we must not take any source of joy for granted.   If you are religious, then by all means – thank God for all the Divine sustenance you receive.  But whether or not you’re religious, feel free to thank your people – relatives and friends alike – for the gift of love.   Love among people comes in so many varieties.   We receive it every day whenever someone makes us smile.   That person deserves to be thanked.  If you are too shy to do it out loud, then do it quietly.

But if you’re Jewish, and you are used to being aggressive when it comes to injustice, you have no excuse for being shy.  Give thanks where it is deserved.  Let the world know that your truest vocation in life is to love and to appreciate.  Let the world know that your kvetching is just a hobby. 

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Amy Klobuchar for President



I have a dream.  In my dream, Donald Trump is on the stump.  He’s doing one of his patented hit jobs on an opposing candidate.  Only this time he’s not talking about Lyin’ Ted, Low Energy Jeb, Little Marco, Crooked Hillary, Pocahontas or Crazy Bernie.  He’s dissing a person he’s never bothered to insult before, trying somehow to find the perfect name to dehumanize her.

In one speech, Trump calls her “Sleazy Amy,” grasping at straws based on some mini-scandal he has drudged up.  But as they say on Fox News, that dog won’t hunt; it turns out Trump’s opponent is clean as a whistle.  So in his next speech, he calls her “Amy the Schmoe” and “Amy Whobuchar?”  But in my dream, because this Amy has already won the Democratic nomination, people aren’t really buying into the idea that she’s a “nobody.”    In fact, the press is starting to call her Trump’s Kryptonite, because none of his insults is catching on.  By contrast, she is coming to be seen as the anti-Hillary because she comes across in so many ways as Hillary’s opposite.  Yes, those two are both Democratic women politicians.  But at least in the Rust Belt – the place where Presidential elections seem to be won and lost in this country -- Hillary is seen as cold, calculating, partisan and integrity challenged, whereas Amy Klobuchar seems warm, authentic, bipartisan and honest.  At least she does in my dream, and in my opinion.

Right now, it is safe to say that Amy Klobuchar is a household name only in Minnesota and in homes that are passionate about politics.    While she is a U.S. Senator with a slew of legislative accomplishments, thanks to her ability to work across the aisle, these accomplishments tend to go unnoticed because she has not been one to hog the limelight.  During the Kavanaugh Hearings, everyone was expecting Cory Booker or Kamala Harris to seize the moment.  But it turned out to be soft-spoken Amy Klobuchar who scored the most points for the Democrats, at one point causing the nominee to get out of character and apologize to her.  She was the up-and-comer to draw blood.  Quietly and with dignity she drew it.  What’s more, nobody had anything bad to say about her performance, not even the most partisan, right wingers.  Amy Klobuchar was class personified.  

In my dream, the Democratic candidate isn’t overshadowed by Donald Trump.  Rather, both individuals capture the attention of the media and the nation.  Klobuchar, you see, presents a vision of – get this – making America great again.  The prospect of her victory evokes an America where Democrats and Republicans speak to each other respectfully, again.  Where they identify great projects in which there is a national consensus and work together on them, again.  Where they tackle economic inequalities and not merely economic growth, again.  Where they come up with new initiatives to protect the environment, again.  And where they seriously tackle the scourge of racism without playing identity politics, again.  Klobuchar presents a vision of a unified America, sold by a person of high character who promises to be a pioneer in the White House if only because of an obvious demographic feature.  We had that same vision in 2008 and elected Barack Obama.  That led to what has been, unfortunately, ten years of increased polarization.  This time, Klobuchar says, we’re really going to bring this country together.  In my dream, I start to believe her, as na├»ve as that may sound.

When Obama was elected in 2008, he was 47 years old and had four years of experience in the U.S. Senate.   By contrast, if Klobuchar is elected in 2020, she will be 58 years old and will have had 14 years of experience in the U.S. Senate.  Plus, she’ll have had more than two decades of prior experience serving as a practicing attorney, including as a D.A.   Surely, she has already learned plenty of lessons that Obama had to learn on the job.  One of those lessons is when to use the carrot and when to use the stick.  Those prosecutorial skills were on display during the Kavanaugh hearing.

Amy Klobuchar is known as a “moderate” but her voting record is generally liberal.  In short, she promises to be able to unify, at the very least, the two wings of the Democratic Party.  Her moderate “Minnesota Nice” brand makes her electable.  And the fact that she is a woman in a nation that has been around for nearly 250 years and never had a woman President makes her candidacy truly exciting.  Is it just me, or are you sick of the fact that we have never had a woman President?  Is it just me, or are you ready for a change?

My friends, let’s try to learn a bit from recent history, even if the lessons are unpleasant.  Hillary Clinton was a flawed candidate for obvious reasons of her own making.  But it’s also true that her run for office revealed an incredible amount of sexism in the extent and the nature of the vitriol that was heaped upon her.  This country doesn’t appear ready for a strident, liberal woman to take the reins.  Elizabeth Warren would undoubtedly get the same nasty, sexist treatment that Hillary got.  I’m afraid Kamala Harris might as well.  But not Amy Klobuchar.  Sexism in America today leaves a very narrow lane for a liberal woman candidate to drive, but Klobuchar is in that lane.  In fact, she defines it.

What about Bernie and Biden?   Both of them are so old that they’re not even Baby Boomers.  Can we really expect a man in his 80s to be ready to take on the most grueling and difficult job in human history?  In Bernie’s case, he already has a reputation in the Midwest of being a crazy leftist, and you can believe that Trump would punch away at that point like a fighter who sees a cut above his opponent’s eye.  As for Biden, we’ve seen his act so many times that he’d be about as exciting as watching old men play golf on TV.  Seriously, I think I’d rather watch Bernard Langer play Kirk Triplett on the Champion’s Golf tour than listen to Joe Biden shake his fist one more time and talk about the middle class.   

I will admit that there are other decent choices aside from Klobuchar.  Sherrod Brown comes quickly to mind.  But why not Klobuchar?  Why not nominate a woman, but this time pick the RIGHT one – the one that earns check marks not only for experience and intelligence, but also for personality as a campaigner, a scandal-less history, bipartisanship, and popularity in perhaps the most key region of the country.  Plus, can’t you just dream with me?  Would there be anything more beautiful than the prospect of Donald Trump flailing away at yet another woman only this time in vain?  You see, in my dream, not only does Blue America and Purple America fall in love with Klobuchar, but even in Red America, the same people who used to rip into “Crooked Hillary” look in the mirror and realize that they have a choice.  They could acknowledge that Amy Klobuchar is not Hillary Clinton and is, in fact, the kind of Democrat they should actually respect.  Or they can acknowledge that they are bigoted, closed-minded, bile-spewing partisan jerks.  And when push comes to shove, most people don’t like to admit that.  That’s why this country voted so strongly for Barack Obama in 2008.

So yes, I realize it’s too early to know who will end up being the best person to take on Donald Trump in the summer of 2019.  But if I have to make a premature suggestion – and after all, what else are blogs for than speculative spitballing? – I’ll go with the senior Senator from the Land of Lakes.  The woman who impressed everyone during the Kavanaugh hearings, who recently outperformed Hillary’s margin in Minnesota by a whopping 22% in winning re-election, who has garnered the respect and affection of Republican and Democratic politicians alike, and who would make Donald Trump look like a complete &^%*^  if and when he reprised his Don Rickles schtick at her expense.

I truly think Amy Klobuchar has a chance finally to break the glass ceiling.  More importantly, we would be lucky as a nation to have her serve in that pioneering role.  So what do you say?  Want to join the bandwagon?