Tag Archives: Democrat

Understanding Conservatism

This painting of Allies flags hanging by Childe Hassam is in the public domain.

I’m sure everyone has noticed that the divisions between Americans are wider now than they have been in decades.

As far as our attitudes towards each other go, we are all now either “good” or “evil.”

To liberals, those are “evil” who appear to oppose equal protection for all – be that through opposing expansions to Medicare and Medicaid, opposing the recognition of same-sex unions as marriage, opposing a woman’s freedom to choose whether she gives birth, opposing legislation designed to protect minorities, or through blatant racism and sexism.

To conservatives, those are “evil” who appear to oppose traditional values – be it through supporting government redistribution of wealth, supporting government restrictions on free enterprise, supporting the recognition of same-sex unions as marriage, supporting the killing of fetuses, or blatant slamming of those who hold traditional values.

You don’t find any middle ground these days. Everywhere you turn on the Internet, you find increasingly bizarre conspiracy theories about how one side or the other is conspiring to destroy America.

How did it get this way?

I would suggest that the culprit is a lack of understanding.

We seem to suffer both from lack of understanding of the other, and understanding of the self.

Do you understand why you believe the things you do?

Do you understand why you feel the way you feel?

Do you understand why you react negatively to some ideas?

Is your reaction rational? Is it the right reaction for the situation?

As human beings, we are very, very good at lying to ourselves.

Drawing from the unique understandings yielded by neuroscience, we know that the brain is literally designed to tell stories to explain our actions; even when it cannot possibly know the true reason for them.

In studies of “split brain” patients (those whose connection between the brain hemisphere has been severed, resulting in each hemisphere only receiving sensory data from half of the body), the left brain, which contains the speech center, will blatantly lie without even being aware that it is doing so.

“Why did you laugh?” the scientist will ask the left hemisphere of the split brain patient, after showing the right brain hemisphere a funny video which prompted the laughter?

This image of the brain, emphasizing the corpus callosum which allows communication between the two hemispheres, has been generously released into the public domain by its creator, Oliver Stollman.

“I was thinking about the bird outside the window,” the left brain will say, “and it reminded me of something funny.”

Clearly, the probability that the left brain independently laughed about a bird outside the window at the exact same moment when the right brain was shown a funny joke is low. The left brain shows no awareness of the video that the right brain saw; it does not reference it at all.

But it insists that it knows why its body laughed. It makes up stories about the reasons for actions whose true reasons it cannot possibly know.

I think this surfaces quite frequently in politics. More than once in my life, I’ve been speaking with someone who claimed to know why they held a given political feeling; only to have the feeling completely unaffected by the disappearance of their supposed reason for it.

Whether it’s someone who thinks they dislike a Supreme Court ruling “because it’s undemocratic” – and then opposes the same law when it’s passed at the state level by the people, or someone who thinks they oppose something because they care about children, and then ignores mountains of hard evidence about what is good for children – let’s face it.

We all do it.

But why do liberals and conservatives do it differently?

Here again, neuroscience can give us insight into what is normally beyond the realm of our knowledge.

Many scientific studies have been done to see how liberals and conservatives respond differently to stimuli. The overall results are this: that liberals want to believe that the world is safe, and conservatives want to believe that it is dangerous.

Conservatives have stronger biological responses to stimuli which induce fear and disgust; they react with more empathy to members of their “in group” as far as race, religion, and nationality goes, than to members of other groups. They cleave strongly to sure allies.

Conservatives are slower to recognize change and ambiguity; when shown a shape that slowly morphs from a circle into a triangle, conservatives will be slower to change their designation of the shape from “circle” to “triangle” than liberals.

It is easy to see how these traits would be advantageous under certain circumstances. Indeed, the World Values Survey has found that societies which live at high levels of physical insecurity almost universally cleave to traditional values like those espoused by conservatives.

There is good reason for this. If you live in an area of decidedly scarce resources, who your “in group” is could become very important. If you live in an area where you need to fear predation or disease, strong fear and disgust responses will keep you safe.

This map of the cultures of various nations on the scales from “traditional” to “secular-rational” and “survival” to “self-expression” values by Koyo. Licensed under Creative Commons Share and Share Alike 3.0.

If you live in an area where the world is dangerous and uncertain, it makes sense to learn from authority figures and traditions which have worked in the past; if you live in a safe world with little to fear, it makes sense to discard tradition to try new ways which might be better.

This is probably why societies that live at high levels of physical safety and prosperity almost universally move towards liberal values. Characterized by the World Values Survey as “secular-rational” and “self-expression” values, these are values which create new things in safe environments.

It is easy to see why these, too, are good in certain circumstances. It is the mind that has little fear which gives freely to others; which widens one’s “in group” to include all living creatures; which discards tradition in pursuit of better ways, because it can afford to do so.

Both sets of values are essential in the right time and place. Let our wisdom, then, lie in recognizing the correct places to apply each.

Let us recognize what really poses a threat to our society.

Let us question our perceptions when we think that something threatens us.

Let us recognize what a fearless, giving heart would do.

Let us recognize when it may not be such a good idea to simply give someone what they want.

Today’s challenge: name three areas in which you are uncertain of your own motives.

Why Are We Making Ourselves Miserable?

What is necessary to make a better world?

Fruggo_CC_1.0
Fruggo / CC_1.0

One thing that is almost never talked about – and yet which seems to be a huge problem for developed nations – is whether we are wisely allocating our time to make us happy.

We hear about productivity. More of it is assumed to be a good thing. And yet we rarely talk about how we are measuring productivity. Is it in material goods produced? In money spent?

Are either of those things good reflections of happiness or virtue?

In his 2009 article “Can’t Get There From Here?” Stanley Schmidt points out that as automation has decreased the amount of human labor necessary for survival, instead of giving us more free time to live, love, and pursue happiness and virtue, we have created new, completely unnecessary, work for ourselves.

Consider our standards for social acceptability: material goods, which often don’t actually make their recipients happy, are often viewed in our society as markers of competence and virtue.

For all our talk about saving the planet, if someone doesn’t have a car but rather lobbies for better public transportation, it is often assumed to be due to some essential failing on their part; taking the bus is something that poor people do.

Likewise, take the matter of clothes. A professional worker in America is expected by their peers to spend hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on clothes each year. This is not merely a luxury or hobby; it is a necessity into which many people are forced to maintain an aura of credibility.

Take the matter of lawn care. Mowed grass is literally about the most useless plant imaginable. It has no nutritional or medicinal value; it does not improve the soil, but rather depletes it. Yet mowed grass, devoid of pesky “weeds” (which nearly all have greater nutritional, medicinal, and ecological value than untouched grass) is what is expected of a well-kept home or business.

Urban farming initiatives – that is, attempts to use one’s property in a highly efficient way to create a sustainable food source – have been discouraged on countless occasions by homeowners’ associations and zoning boards which deemed useful plants to be “unsightly” or assumed that a biologically diverse yard was a sign of neglect.

LouisXIV
Portrait of Louis XIV by Claude Lefèbvre, from which the Versailles; located at the Isaac Delgado Museum of Art, New Orleans at the time of this photograph.

Interestingly, the practice of mowed-grass lawns was begun by Louis XIV of France, the same monarch who was later beheaded by a populace outraged at his practice of intentionally wasting resources while the French underclass literally starved.

Louis XIV is also largely responsible for the modern concept of fashion. Faced with a highly competitive noble court, Louis had the bright idea to set ridiculously high standards for how a nobleperson and their estate must look if they wished to be considered in good social standing; this prevented lesser nobility from amassing sufficient wealth to threaten his power or popularity, by enticing them to constantly spend it on material excesses that were, in fact, utterly useless.

In our modern era, we may not be intentionally forcing each other to spend money in order to keep each other down. But “keeping up with the Joneses” is keeping us all down! Time, money, and space that could be devoted to building healthy, vibrant, sustainable communities is instead being spent on consumption, which is not only bad for the health of our bodies and our planet, but for our lifestyles.

After all, everything we discard unnecessarily is not only an example of material waste; it is an example of wasted time. And time, I think we can all agree, is more precious to us mortal beings than material or money. Somebody had to make everything you throw away.

It speaks to the backwardness of today’s society that we are taught to think of this as a good thing. We are encouraged to buy things we don’t need, that won’t make us happy, because we are told that this creates jobs, which allows somebody else to get paid enough to eat.

This fails to consider the question: if those goods are not necessary to our society, why is it necessary to pay somebody to do them?

If all of our society’s needs are met without employing everyone at 40 hours per week, why in God’s name do we have the expectation that everyone needs to be employed at 40 hours per week?

Why are we struggling to create jobs – things to do that are not necessary, or we would not be struggling to create them – at the same time we’re fretting and bemoaning as a culture the lack of time we have to spend with our families?

The ideas that “jobs = money” is so deeply ingrained that we now largely view it as immoral to get paid – and subsequently enjoy food, shelter, and healthcare – without working.

Which would be less nonsensical if we weren’t openly struggling to come up with enough jobs for people to do at the same time.

Our society does not have a productivity deficit; if anything, it has an excess, spending millions of hours and billions of dollars each year on things that are not actually making us happy. We are told that this excess consumption is good because it creates jobs, without considering the fact that creating unnecessary labor is actually a very bad thing to do.

The obvious question that readers will ask upon reading this post is “how do we get people paid if they are not working?”

There are a few methods to consider.

The immediate problem with the idea of eliminating unnecessary jobs is that this will leave some people completely jobless, while others remain employed at the same gainful economic level. Some entire industries may be phased out or drastically reduced in size if people stop buying things that don’t make them happy.

And yet, isn’t finding a way to distribute time and wealth to maximize everyone’s happiness preferable to upholding the vaguely vindictive principle that “if I have to work to make a living, so should they?”

Isn’t it a more promising prospect to find work for these newly unemployed people to do that actually matters – such as community improvement or learning useful new skills – better for our society as a whole than treating them as useless because they don’t presently fill an existing production niche?

Isn’t it more appealing to reduce the number of hours of labor required of everyone by equally distributing work and resources, rather than creating unnecessary and counterproductive tasks to consume our short lives?

People will say that this smacks of communism, and that communism doesn’t work. However, there are two important caveats to that:

1) There is nothing about this concept that precludes a free market. It may communities to take a less competitive approach to distributing wealth – but making sure that everybody’s eating in a world where farming processes are distributed between the home garden and automated commercial farms run with minimal human labor should not be a large challenge.

Jesus_Livioandronico2013_CC_4.0
Photo by Livioandronico2013 / CC 4.0

2) Communism has only gone badly when it has been enforced over large scale by a government. These remote governing bodies, predictably, failed to anticipate both the needs and abilities of their people (hence causing “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” to fail miserable.

Historical practicioners of voluntary communism include the disciples of Jesus and Ghandi. Motivated by care for the well-being of people whose needs and abilities they actually knew, these people practiced communism quite successfully until they were eventually forced to integrate into a wider, competitive world.

“Competition” is the name of the vice, here. It is what is making us all miserable. Competition for the best lawn; for the best clothes; for the best paycheck to brag about; for the best car.

Competition for things which are probably the true passion of only a tiny percentage of the population; and which for the rest of us represent burdens on our time, energy, money, bodies, and planet.

Some top economists are recommending a solution to the problem that sounds downright blasphemous to our deeply ingrained “work = wealth = virtue” sensibility. Their suggestion? A government-enforced maximum work week of 20 hours.

The logic is surprisingly straightforward: in a world where we suffer simultaneously from some people lacking any employment at all and others working so many hours they do not see their families, limiting the amount of work any one person can do will force a redistribution of labor and pay.

A mandatory 20-hour work week would also fundamentally change the bargaining scene when it comes to wages; every worker would have to reckon for wages they could survive on at 20 hours/week, and employers would have to expect to pay them.

We might also see a “reverse inflation” (since inflation is largely a result of competition for goods and services among consumers) whereby the price of everything is forced to drop according to what people can afford.

Of course, as with the endeavor of raising workers’ wages to increase the health of your business, enforcing a mandatory work week cap would likely not be successful by itself. As with the restaurants who drastically reduce workers’ pay and then see profits rise, other initiatives would also be necessary to help workers, consumers, and employers make the best use of their resources.

But perhaps such measures could work towards the demise of Louis XIV’s influence in our culture. A mandated shorter work week could, at least temporarily, substantially reduce pressure to appear rich through wasting unnecessary resources.

What do you think?

Does increasing workers’ pay also increase profit?

Bradley J / CC 2.0
Bradley J / CC 2.0

We have been hearing a lot lately about the cycle of poverty and the desire to raise minimum wage.

Proponents of the measure say that a $15 per hour minimum wage will give more purchasing power to a huge swath of workers, leading to an overall economic boost; opponents say that simply increasing the dollar amount ignores the real problems and will only lead to inflation. Worse, opponents say it will bankrupt many small businesses and raise the price of basic goods and services for all consumers.

That’s why I found this article so interesting. Fortune Magazine becomes one of many media outlets covering Bar Marco, a restaurant in Pittsburgh that decided to do away with tipping and raise all of its employees’ wages to $35,000 per year. The result? The restaurant’s profits have tripled in just two months.

Of course, increasing wages is not the only change Bar Marco made in those two months. Before drastically raising wages, the owners spent a great deal of time researching and brainstorming ways in which more invested, better taken-care-of employees might be able to increase the restaurant’s profits. In addition to the higher wages, all employees are encouraged to think of ways to improve customers’ experiences and reduce waste and spending.

These ideas are shared at a weekly staff meeting, when staff are also expected to hand in their “homework”: book reports on non-fiction books. The logic is that more educated workers are better able to contribute to the success of the business, and better able to make inspiring conversation with customers.

In addition to all these measures to maximize employees’ contributions along with their well-being, Bar Marco also switched over to local ingredients, which were apparently actually cheaper than outsourced ones, and smaller portion sizes, reasoning that Americans care more about quality of their dish and dining experience than about consuming 1,000 calories in a sitting.

Some still question whether Bar Marco’s model is generalizable. After all, although the owners have vowed to ensure that menu prices don’t increase as a result of these changes, they weren’t exactly low to begin with – most menu items fall around the $15 range. How much of that is a product of doing business in a big city with high property costs is hard to say.

The Washington Post reports on several other restaurants nationwide that have done away with tipping in favor for higher wages for employees. New York City’s Dirt Candy and Michigan’s Moo Cluck Moo are among other restaurants who have done away with tipping and begun a policy of paying employees $15 an hour – about twice our national minimum wage.

These restaurants, like Bar Marco, also made important changes to their workflow structure to maximize employee contribution and cut costs in other areas.

MooCluckMooMoo Cluck Moo trains all staff in a myriad of culinary tasks, making them less burger flippers and more bakers and chefs. This way, all staff members are prepared to perform a variety of duties, all of which contribute to a high-quality dining experience. These guys, unlike Bar Marco, still manage to serve $5 burgers.

Dirt Candy saves from the outset by serving vegetarian cuisine designed to be as delicious as possible, meaning that the restauranteurs don’t have to pay for meat and have a built-in appeal to a niche audience. Dirt Candy’s menu prices also hover in the $15 range, but again, that may be partially a function of paying for property in New York City.

So, could every restaurant improve employee and customer satisfaction alike by paying their employees $15 per hour, in combination with smart measures to cut costs and increase productivity? Could they continue to do this while offering $5 menu items that will fill you up? It’s hard to say.

What does seem evident from business models across the globe is that invested employees contribute far more to a business than those who feel “if these guys could pay me less, they would, but it’s illegal.” The return to an invest-in-employees ethos also promises to create more skilled, motivated professionals, and better-quality product for customers.

Income Inequality – We Need to Talk

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Lanekenworthy – CC 3.0

This blog is normally devoted to spreading positivity, peace, love, understanding, and all of that. We get more than enough negativity and combativeness in the outside world.

Indeed, we are here specifically to fight that combativeness which turns person against person.

But today, there’s something we need to talk about.

An increasingly divisive issue, in the United States and globally, is that of wealth inequality.  While that term may have seemed ridiculous a few years ago, it has been increasingly used as more people have become aware of the fact that a tiny percentage of the world’s people control most of its resources.

Protesters for income equality are often described as “waging class warfare” because they are “envious” of the rich and/or want “free handouts.” One recent article went so far as to suggest that poor Americans should stop complaining because they already have so much more than most people in the world. “How dare you complain about the top 1%,” the article asked, “when you are IN the top 1% from the perspective of millions of starving people?”

Dissecting this argument is interesting. On one hand, it is absolutely true that average Americans, including those who are upset about not being able to afford healthcare or higher education, do have access to many amenities that most of the globe does not. We eat better than most of the globe; we suffer from fewer infectious diseases as a result of having good hygiene and healthcare infrastructure; we have more opportunities to move up than many people.

The logical implication of the argument seems to be that average Americans should, if anything, be willing to sacrifice more to bring better lives to those overseas.

That’s not a bad sentiment. But let’s think for a moment about who controls the resources in America.

IncomeInequality2
M Tracy Hunter – CC 3.0

It is an unsettling fact that the richest 500 people in America have the same amount of wealth as the “bottom” half of the American population. On the surface of it, this would seem to suggest that these wealthy 500 are equipped to do as much good for the world as the poorest 150 million people in America combined.

That in itself is deeply unsettling. If money is power (and it is), we are effectively looking at a differential in which a single person among the elite has the same amount of power to change the world for better – or worse – as 300,000 low- to middle-income Americans.

But the situation is actually even worse than that. Because the 500 richest Americans only need to procure food, healthcare, shelter, etc. for 500 of themselves.

With the same amount of resources, the bottom half of America has to procure food, healthcare, shelter, etc. for 150 million.

As such, while it might be an admirable sentiment that everyone should devote some resources to creating a more equal, sustainable global system, it is clear that the wealthy are vastly better-positioned to do that than America’s poor or even its middle-class earners.

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Guest2625 – CC 3.0

Where this becomes particularly important is when we are examining the critics of people who champion wealth inequality. The article referenced above suggests that Americans should stop complaining about wealth inequality because there are people starving overseas.

However, the people who use that line of logic are often the same people who say Americans need to stop envying the wealthy and waging “class warfare” against them.

This suggests that critics of American inequality protesters are more upset about “class warfare” against the rich than they are about starving children in Africa.

What does that say about our priorities?

What do your reactions say about yours?

The issue we face goes even beyond the question of middle-class Americans, or lower-class Americans, or starving children in Africa, having all their basic needs met.

The question is one of global sustainability – research shows that when power is held by an “elite” class, that class is often so isolated, by choice or by accident, from the needs of everyday citizens, that they have no sense of what society needs to sustain itself.

This poses an obvious problem when the same people who control most of the world’s resources lack either the knowledge or the motivation do to what will sustain society.

This is why a NASA study recently found that a great civilization has, on average, about 125 years between the development of an “elite” class and utter collapse due to a combination of exhausted natural resources and violent social unrest if the trend is not reversed. America started showing signs of developing an “elite” class around the year 1980.

That means we’ve got a little less than a century to fix the problem, or go the way of the Roman, Gupta, and Han empires.

This blog will, by and large, be reserved for positivity and unity. But we can’t ignore facts in the name of unity. Pretending malaria does not exist won’t cure it.

And in fact, this subject matter is in keeping with this blog – insofar as we need to realize who our true enemies and allies are.

Your enemy is not your neighbor who has slightly different ideas about taxation, or personal responsibility, or what industries should or should not be socialized.

Your enemy is not the opposing political party, who in all likelihood holds extremely similar goals to your own.

Your enemy is those who turn neighbors against each other in the name of social issues. Your enemy is those who demonize others in your eyes by telling you how they are greedy, or lazy – how they intend evil.

Let’s be honest – almost nobody intends evil.

Our enemy is ignorance as to what is the right thing to do.

Sometimes, all people need to do good is a wakeup call.

Consider this yours.

Bad Company Part I: Libertarians vs. Socialists

In the vein of common goals, Dr. Scott Rodin has written a wonderful article about a conservative, evangelical Republican’s take on why we must address climate change now.

His post is very insightful – getting to the root of why people, myself included, often have negative knee-jerk reactions to ideas that the should endorse.

Rodin speaks about the problem of “us vs. them” and the extreme power of subconscious associations.

As a conservative evangelical Republican, for many years he laughed at environmentalism because he associated it with people who he felt did not share his values. The loudest champions of environmentalism were, after all, big government liberals, atheists, nature-worshippers, and Democrats. He couldn’t possibly espouse a view that they also held – right?

I find myself frequently in this same boat. I’ll find myself reacting with instant disgust or suspicion to an idea solely because of who proposed it; even if it would help to make a better world, if it is proposed by someone who I perceive as somehow different from myself, I am likely to view it in a very negative light.

Let’s look at some of these differences, and how they blind us to our common goals:

Bad Company Part I: Big Government vs. Small Government

One remarkable thing I learned during the era of Occupy Wall Street was how much Libertarians and socialists have in common. When they were on the ground speaking and working side-by-side, they described almost identical visions of the future. Soon, a very happy camaraderie was formed.

Why, then, do these groups react to each other with revilement, disgust, and suspicion?

The idea seems to come down, essentially, to a difference in tactics. Both parties want a world where the individual is free. To socialists, that means that the individual has the resources they need to pursue happiness; to Libertarians, that means that the individual is not weighed down by laws that prevent them from pursuing happiness.

They’re both right.

At the end of the day, their disagreements come down to disagreements over tactics.

Libertarians believe that government, when entrusted with power, will always become corrupt; they advocate individual power and responsibility as the only way to prevent this from happening.

Socialists believe that profit interests, when entrusted with power, will always become corrupt; they advocate social responsibility and governing power as the only way to prevent that from happening.

Why can’t we have both?

Both sides seek to protect the people from those who would curtail their freedom – but they disagree about who is the bigger threat.

So why don’t they come to the table and talk to each other more? Why not compare notes and statistics? Why not find compromises that appease the fears of both?

The answer largely comes down to what Dr. Rodin discussed: the deep-seated psychological problem of “us vs. them.”

There is a certain image of the Libertarian. In the minds of non-Libertarians, Libertarians are most frequently white men, often wealthy, who are afraid of losing their money and power and don’t understand the larger threats to society. In the minds of non-Libertarians, Libertarians are inherently violent and dangerous; they love guns and will find any excuse to be angry at other groups. In the minds of non-Libertarians, Libertarians are delusional; they believe, against all evidence, that poverty stems purely from laziness and that capitalism always produces good results.

To listen to anything a Libertarian says, then, would be to place oneself in bad company.

There is a certain image of the socialist. In the minds of non-socialists, socialists are most frequently young people who are too young to understand how the world really works. Often, they are poor and desire “free handouts,” or wealthy and delusionally self-righteous. In the minds of non-socialists, socialists are inherently dangerous: they talk of violent revolution, and would blindly place power in the hands of a deeply flawed government. In the minds of non-socialists, socialists are delusional: they believe, against all evidence, that government is ethical and wise.

To listen to anything a socialist says, then, would be to place oneself in bad company.

And yet, any socialist or Libertarian will tell you that these stereotypes are far from true.

So why do we give them such power over us?