Sunday, March 11, 2018

What is Enough and Who Decides?

Enough - sufficient to satisfy a need

Sufficient - Being as much as is needed

These definitions from the American Heritage College Dictionary( 4th edition, 2002) are worthy of  more than passing consideration as we face multiple challenges of trying to live well, justly, equitably on a single finite planet and to leave those that follow us the same possibility. To fall short of 'enough' is to live in poverty or wretched conditions in a most fragile state. Too many of our brothers and sisters share that plight. There are more than 65 million displaced persons - families forced from their even most modest homes. More than a billion mired in extreme poverty.

There is modest attention in the developed world directed toward enabling those who struggle at the bottom of the pyramid in their own nations to receive a 'minimum wage' for their labor. But by almost any measure that minimum alone will not lift anyone out of poverty. Thus the call for a 'living wage' that coupled with a sufficiently strong social safety net would provide for 'enough' to live on.

I just finished reading through a new short, but thoughtful book that examines the concept and possibilities and constraints around the idea of a "living wage." The Living Wage, by Donald Hirsch and Laura Valadez-Martinez is part of a new series of short primers that "introduce students to the core concepts, theories and models, heterodox and mainstream, contested and accepted, used by economists and political economists to understand and explain the workings of the economy."

The Living Wage

The authors do an admirable job of getting into the weeds to help us see better what such a concept means, how attempts to apply it have fared, and what  we might also use to assist in meeting the goal of insuring that workers make an adequate income from which to live a modest life. They spend time examining the difference between a mandatory minimum wage and the various ways a living wage has been defined. While I won't attempt to summarize the breadth of their explorations in this short blog, I would like to use it as a jumping off point of something they largely ignored, but which I think is essentially required if one is to realistically provide an economy where all workers make enough income to live a life with "minimum acceptable living standards".

The elephant, that I see standing in the room, in all of this discussion about a realistic living wage is the moral obligation to consider a "maximum wage" or perhaps in the view of Socioeconomic Democracy author Robley George, "maximum allowable wealth." Wealth is obviously the cumulative measure of income, not simply a weekly check or an annual salary. With all the talk and increasing data about growing income inequality you might think that there might be equal discussions not simply about the limits we believe those at the bottom need to have acceptable living standards, but also of the limits at the top. In other words, in this finite world, how much is too much?

As were were struggling to emerge from the Great Depression, which like our most recent downturn a decade ago was driven by the greed in the financial world, there was a debate about what was "too much". President Roosevelt, during the early years of WWII pushed strenuously for a maximum after tax income [the only one that ultimately matters] of $25,000 (the equivalent of some $350,000 today). Although he kept pushing this idea a conservative Congress pushed back. But by the end of WWII there was in place a 94% tax on all income above $200,000. As author Sam Pizzagati notes,

"Americans making over $250,000 in 1944 — over $3.2 million today — paid 69 percent of their total incomes in federal income tax, after exploiting every tax loophole they could find. In 2007, by contrast, America’s 400 highest earners paid just 18.1 percent of their total incomes, after loopholes, in federal tax."

The graph above from Wikipedia shows that the top rate stayed above 90% into the 1960's when it dropped to 70%, and with adoption of the Reagan trickle-down theory in the 1980s a more precipitous drop to below 40%. That last drop also included a collapse of the number of brackets which is similar to what we saw preceding WWI, when we were in our earlier period of gross inequality.

Roosevelt's strategy was to simultaneously support the war effort and build a strong safety net for the citizens who had suffered through the Depression. It's pretty easy to see that the growth in income and wealth inequality we have experienced since the end of the Eisenhower administration is directly correlated with the drop in the maximum tax rate since then further diminished by Reagan and Bush II tax cuts. So we shouldn't be surprised when we see the results of the recent Trump/Republican tax cuts to keep that inequality increasing.

Increasing the marginal tax rates is one approach to shrinking income inequality. Another approach which has been murmured in a few places is the idea of mandating maximum wage ratios. This is the idea that the ratio between the highest paid employee and the lowest should not exceed a certain ratio, e.g., 20:1. The founders of Ben and Jerry's ice cream initially had a self-imposed 5:1 ratio that they held for 16 years before it shifted to 17:1. Once they were swallowed up by Unilever that practice evaporated.

CEO to worker wage ratio has ballooned in the past few decades peaking during the Clinton bubble years.

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The most recent study from the Economic Policy Institute on this issue from 2016 showed the average ratio of the 350 largest public corporations to their median wage employee (not the lowest paid - the one in the middle) was 271:1.

A report last week from Equilar of 356 corporations for 2017 puts the average CEO to median wage worker at 241:1. We can expect more reports as the 2010 Dodd-Frank legislation require this figure to be reported by public corporations starting this year.

The AFL-CIO looks at the average pay ratio between the CEOs of the Fortune 500 and their production and non-supervisory workers and found the ratio for 2016 was 347:1. The various studies note  that corporate CEO's also usually get many more benefits that are not tabulated into these compensation studies.

If we were to decide how much was enough at both the bottom and the top, how might we do that? Who gets to decide? Robley George has offered and very intriguing possibility worth some serious consideration. To really appreciate it one should read his book length review of these issues in Socioeconomic Democracy. A short, but well done summary of his arguments and suggestions is available here. George suggests that all voting citizens of the nation discuss and vote simultaneously on the "Guaranteed universal minimum income" and the "maximum allowable wealth" [note this is wealth not income. He discusses the rationale for this distinction and approach].

If a citizen feels that there should be no maximum they could vote for the cap to be at infinity. If they decided that there should be no floor, than can vote for zero. Using a system of preference voting the votes are tabulated and collapsed until a figure is reached at each end for which 50% +1 is achieved and the benchmarks are set until revisited at the next general election where they can again be changed by the popular vote.

Of course this seems radical to our well-seasoned eyes. But a year long public discussion might lead to some businesses, local governments or communities, or even states giving birth to approaches that accomplish some of the same goals in a democratic fashion. While this approach might help us move closer to a more equal society within one nation, this still leaves us the serious and moral dilemma of how to address global inequality that is so much more severe. While the difficulty could easily steer us away from addressing what to many appears intractable, we need to address this with the same commitment to fairness and justice for which we seek it within our own country.

There is only so much of this planet to share and yet preserve for those generations to follow. Grappling with these issues will require all of us to dig in, to study, to listen and to seek solutions that perhaps we cannot yet glimpse from where we stand. When we do this in a spirit of solidarity with all we share this planet with, the outcome must improve our current state. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to reach senior citizen status especially owe our remaining days and years to seek solutions for those we love and the residents of planet earth we leave behind.

Let's get on with it. Up off the couch.

AN ADDENDUM: Monday, March 12.

In 1935, Marine Major-General Smedley Butler wrote  "War is a Racket" . In it he offered the following relevant advice pertinent to this blog entry:

     "The only way to smash thus racket is to conscript capital and industry and labor before the nation's manhood can be conscripted. One month before the government can conscript the young men of the nation -- it must conscript capital and industry and labor. Let the officers and the directors and the high-powered executives of our armament factories and our munitions makers and our shipbuilders and our airplane builders and the manufacturers of all the other things that provide profit in wartime as well as the bankers and the speculators, be conscripted -- to get $30 a month, the same wage as the lads in the trenches get. [That soldier's wage would be $526.56 in 2016 dollars. The monthly wage for a modern E-1 (enlisted soldier) is $1,599.90.] 
[as cited in Gar Smith, The War and Environment Reader (2017) p.266.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Who Me Worry? I Believe We All Should.

"It is not light that we need but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder." 
Frederick Douglass


I signed into a webinar this week hosted by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. The webinar was presented by Jessica Gehl   on “Sustainable Development Goals(SDG’s) – How Will They Impact Your Business?”

The bulk of the webinar was based on some extensive survey work done by PwC with responses from 986 businesses from 90 countries and more than 2,000 citizen responses from 37 countries. Business, not surprisingly,  sees  Goal #8- Decent Work and Economic Growth as most important goal of the 17 SDG’s. They also see opportunities with Goals  #9 -Industry Innovation and Infrastructure, Goal # 7- Affordable and Clean Energy,  Goal #12 -Responsible Consumption and Production,  and Goal #13- Climate Action. While this is heartening on the face of it, when you compare it to the citizen responses there appears little shared vision.

Citizens see it a bit differently. Goal  #2, -Zero Hunger was highest priority followed by Goal #13- Climate Action,  Goal #4- Quality Education,  Goal #1 - No Poverty, and Goal #6 -Clean Water and Sanitation. Admittedly all goals are important and no country has met them all yet. An interesting attempt to visualize this was produced at the University of Leeds.

The following morning I was reading further in Michael Walzer’s most recent book A Foreign Policy for the Left(Yale University Press, 2018) in which he makes a key observation worth holding while looking at this disjuncture between business and the public good that PwC has reported.

Capitalist corporations and their governmental servants will never by themselves address avoidable hunger and disease, works towards the elimination of global poverty, defend the environment, or accede to the empowerment of their workers. They must be challenged by social movements and subjected to the political control of a mobilized demos.” (p.43)

Ms. Gehl’s webinar in fact went on to show that Goal #1 No Poverty and Goal #2 Zero Hunger  were among the least important goals reported by businesses in the survey. That seems to confirm Walzer’s point quite clearly. I would like to offer another consideration that both points to confirming Walzer’s observation, but is rarely discussed.

Research done at the University of Leeds referenced above that tries to help us visualize the challenges of meeting all the SDG’s simultaneously, shows a striking reality we must surely confront.  Given that we have only a single finite planet to call home there are limits we are forced to face. When the researchers at the Sustainability Research Institute at Leeds looked at seven environmental indicators and eleven social indicators for 150 countries that closely parallel the SDG’s they found that:
Based on the social thresholds that we chose, we concluded that resource use would need to decline by a factor of two to six times for all the world’s people to live well within planetary boundaries.[emphasis added]

That is one heck of lot of resource reduction needed. While technology improvements (efficiency) will surely be essential in a hurry, the size of the necessary reductions also demands substantial behavior changes (conservation). Technological optimists typically brush off the need for, or value of, conservation efforts. This tendency exists despite the fact that conservation is almost always less expensive and a quicker response to the problem.

A couple of  local examples make this point for me.

At Michigan State University where I worked for 30 years we struggled to increase both efficiency and conservation to reduce our carbon footprint. On a campus of 5,000 acres hundreds of buildings including many research facilities housing and feeding 15,000 of the 50,000 students getting to neutral will be a long haul. Yet even while investments in efficiencies and conservation measures were heartfelt, much of the resulting gains were lost to a combination of continued growth of the built environment and questionable exceptions to the energy reduction plans.

Under construction currently are in excess of 130,000 additional square feet of building space to be heated, cooled, lit and powered. In recent years additions to the football stadium have added giant scoreboards and other lighting that are not on simply on the few days the football stadium hosts an event. The softball and baseball fields have added electric field heating systems to help speed up thawing of fields for Spring baseball and softball. Somehow the limits to growth seem beyond the administration's comprehension.

Just across city limits, the local municipal utility, Lansing Board of Water and Light, in its effort to move away from coal has proposed a very large natural gas plant to replace the coal fired plants it wants to take down. While all agree that natural gas is more efficient in reducing carbon releases than coal, the construction and reliance on a large centralized fossil fuel plant with the threats of climate destabilization staring us in the face seems like a death wish - perhaps not for us senior citizens, but certainly those that follow.

picture of natural gas plant

From what I have learned, the rationale the management has accepted is based upon:
  • A lack of  sense of urgency to address climate destabilization driven largely by human activity 
  • Low expectations from potential efficiency or conservation reductions
  • Assumption of higher costs for renewable options, even as the speed of those cost downturns increases
  • Low threshold stance for return-on-investment(ROI) expectation
Changing any one or two of those figures in the equation would of course change the result. Yet, if there is no sense of urgency, the will to push for alternatives is absent. I suspect part of this epidemic of denial regarding the urgency required of humans to limit their footprint, is based on the religion of technological optimism. That we will manage to invent all we need in the time we need it.

 Almost twenty years ago,  economist Robert Costanza offered a very potent reflection on the quandary before us in an article “Will it be Star Trek, Ecotopia, Big Government or Mad Max” in the Futurist magazine. In this short six-page article he lays out the possible scenarios based upon a matrix looking at technological optimism vs. technological skepticism. He paints two pictures for each-- when they are right and when they are wrong.

A summary of his scenarios would not do it justice. But a read by all might help us work our way forward together by understanding whether one is an optimist or skeptic on technology our judgments should consider the possible ramifications Costanza  hints are before us. As he notes, “We need to take a closer look at the costs of being wrong.” Such a reading and reflection is not only timely. It is urgent.

Perhaps the best explanation of this needed sense of urgency is explained by the late Prof. of Physics Al Bartlett at the University of Colorado to his students. This 90 second video should be viewed and reflected on by us all.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

A Compass for the Future

Michigan State University (MSU) is making national and international news. And it's not for its prowess on athletic fields or courts. In fact, as I'm sure everyone reading this is aware, it is for the tragedy of sexual abuse that went on for years without being stopped. The president is gone, the gymnastics coach is gone, the athletic director just quit and the abuser will remain in prison until he dies. Yet to go, but likely so, are the board of trustees.

There is plenty of anguish in these parts for the victims and for the stain on the university that will outlive many of its supporters. I wrote a couple of days ago about this horrible set of events being an opportunity. In the house cleaning that has started there is an opportunity to pause as an institution and decide in what direction to steer. Many of us believe the current board of trustees is not capable of the clear thinking and leadership necessary to make the transition. Those who visit this blog will recognize that I do read a bit. Most of what I read I bump into. Sometimes as a footnote to a work in hand, sometimes on a new book shelf in a library or a used book in a bookstore. Rarely do I decide to buy a copy of a book after I have just read a library or used copy. One of the books in my hands the past few mornings is this exception to the rule, even though I'm past the halfway point. It is a book that anyone looking to find a direction for MSU and higher education to head would be wise to read!!

I read, as the occasional readers of my blog would know, many works I do recommend. Few do I find so special that I can't wait to let the world know. Such is the case with David Orr's Dangerous Years: Climate Change, The Long Emergency and The Way Forward. It is not that it covers territory that no one else has explored. David refers to many of the works I have read and mentioned in this blog over the years. His 50 pages of notes are themselves worth a read. But there is simply something striking about the 'wholeness' quality of his thought combined with the clarity of thought and language, and a palpable infusion of deep caring. While I can't quite find adequate words to describe this book, let me just say that one could open up randomly to any page and find paragraphs that are profound and lyrical. I will post below a small handful of examples from my reading thus far.

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David recently retired from Oberlin College where he was the Paul Sears Distinguished Faculty for Environmental Studies and Politics. He has been a leader in awakening higher education to the responsibility to help us recognize our interdependence with nature and to the coming challenges of climate change and other forces.

Dangerous Years came out at the end of 2016. Something I overlooked until a week ago when I pulled it from the library shelf. I met David 20 years ago at a meeting in Atlanta of some emerging leaders of sustainability in higher education. I had read and been inspired by his 1992 book, Ecological Literacy. I have bumped into David a number of times over the years at conferences, and organized a panel program with him . Since Oberlin is only a four hour drive from East Lansing I invited him speak a number of times over the years at our campus, from which he received his M.A. before going off to the University of Pennsylvania to complete his PhD. I also have visited David in Oberlin for the dedication of the remarkable Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies at Oberlin in 1999. This was then and remains one of the most environmentally conscious designed buildings on any campus. It's worth a blog in its own right.

Image result for adam joseph lewis center

More recently I visited David with a colleague in 2015 to interview him about the Oberlin Project -  a city/campus partnership that was re-conceptualizing community development. The last chapter of this book goes into some detail on that effort. Throughout the years I have followed David's writings and talks as one follows any mentor you might admire. For years he wrote profoundly thoughtful essays for the scholarly journal Conservation Biology. Many of these made their way into some of his later books. Those essays challenged us to re-think what we knew about the world and our role in it. Dangerous Years seems to pull it altogether. While I like to think that I read broadly, David's breadth of reading is light years beyond me. A short visit to his lengthy and informative notes will prove that.

But unlike most scholars who manage to get lost in the cloistered vernacular of their discipline, David is able to condense and provide access to the thoughts of others turgid prose leaping intellectual boundaries. Perhaps a couple of the accolades say it better.

"No one has thought more deeply about the great challenges of our time than David Orr. Dangerous Years is an erudite, impassioned, and deeply wise book."—Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

"No one knows more about the hole we're in, and no one has worked any harder to get us out of it—David Orr is a necessary guide to the great climate crisis we find ourselves in, and this is a vital book."—Bill McKibben, author Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet
"David Orr has written a perfectly marvelous book, a deep and wide-ranging reflection on the human condition. It's a winner, and a rare one at that."—James Gustave Speth, author of Red Sky at Morning, The Bridge at the End of the World, and America the Possible

 Some examples from Dangerous Years follow:

     "The deeper challenge, however, is to transform the substance and process of education, beginning with the urgent need to prepare the rising generation -- as best as we are able -- for a rapidly destabilizing ecosphere for which we  have no precedent. We cannot know what they will need to know or how they should be taught, but we do know that they will need the kind of education that enables them t see across old boundaries of disciplines, geography, nationality, ethnicity, religion, and time. They will have to be intellectually agile without losing their sense of place and rootedness. They will need to rise above fundamentalism of all kinds, including those rooted in the faith that more and better gadgets or an ever-growing economy can save us. They will need an ethical foundation oriented to the protection of life and the rights of generations to come. They will have to rediscover old truths and what biochemist Erwin Chargaff called "forgotten knowledge." They will need to know how to connect disparate fields of knowledge, how to "solve for pattern," how to design systems of solutions that multiply by positive feedback and synergy. (pp.105-06)

     "Other questions will arise. What kind of knowledge will be necessary for the journey into the "Anthropocene"? What is the proper balance among intellect, heart, and hands? How do we join smartness with compassion? How should we improve the curriculum or reform the pedagogy to better prepare our students for the novel challenges they will surely face? How do we engage the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences in way commensurate with climate destabilization? How do we sustain our morale or that of students in difficult times and keep authentic hope alive? How do we calibrate our concerns for justice and fairness with a remorseless and unrelenting biophysical reality. ((p.109)

     "The reason that climate destabilization does not attract foundation attention is that the great majority of trustees, foundation administrators, and program officers -- even at this late date -- know relatively little about climate science and how the earth works as a physical system and why such things matter for what they and their grantees do. They are selected and hired because they have been successful in their endeavors, notably finance, business, law, media, academics and public affairs, fields that offer little incentive or occasion for serious reflection on such things as the fate of the earth. Not having thought much about it, and consorting with others similarly disinclined, they have not thus far been moved to do much about it. With some exceptions, they are, by and large, not people easily alarmed even by alarming things and so are inclined to overlook rapid climate change as only another item on a long list of problems. In philanthropic circles, then, climate destabilization lacks priority among the myriad of other concerns. (p.124)

     "We instinctively affiliate with "life and life-like processes," or what biologist E.O. Wilson calls "biophilia." Very young children have a rudimentary, prearticulate sense of fairness. I am inclined to think that compassion, kindness to strangers, mercy, and forgiveness are in some patchy way woven into our behavior. Deep in our bones, some things just feel, right and others abhorrent. This, I think, is the substratum of our still-evolving moral consciousness and may explain why it seems very odd whether -- by any stretch of logic or sophistry -- a few generations have the right to hog more than their fair share of Earth's resources, including climate resilience. We are perhaps the first and perhaps the last generation likely to have the moral elasticity and inclination to debate such questions. (p.133)

     "For serious philanthropists of all kinds, the first challenge of truly loving humankind requires that we understand, protect, and, when possible, enhance the natural systems that nourish our bodies and souls. Restoring health to the systems we have damaged and on which we depend, however, is more than tidying up a bit after a binge. It is rather an act of atonement for the original sin of being so casually, carelessly, and sometimes wantonly destructive of things, about which we know so little and on which we depend so much. But it requires no more than an enlightened, ecologically informed self-interest. The second challenge is harder and goes further. It is to make certain that the good Earth is passed on in full to those who will (or would have) come after us. Call it a gift if you so choose, or trusteeship or stewardship, but by any name the safe passage of Earth to coming generations would be the first deliberate act of  true philanthropy from one generation to another. (p.136)

“We live in a tightly interconnected but also highly fractured nuclear-armed world in which our very survival depends on our learning to overcome our various parochialisms and divisions. We may never learn to see each other as brothers and sisters, but we have to learn to get along. That is not so much a  breakthrough as a long process by which we learn empathy and acquire the art and science of systems thinking—by which I mean the quality of mind that discerns the “patterns that connect,” in Gregory Bateson’s words. The ability to see our connectedness in larger systems is inherent in all religions, the root word for which means bound together. Like it or not, the fact is that we are kin to all that ever lived and all that will ever live—one link in the great chain of being. We may not appreciate all of our kinfolk, but their pictures are in the family scrapbook alongside our own. We are a small thread in the fabric of evolving life on Earth. In the presence of such vastness and mystery the only appropriate attitudes are those of wonder, gratitude, and lots of humility. But this is not what modern education aims to cause or cultivate. (p.158)

…The purpose of education presently is not to foster wonder or gratitude or ecological competence but rather to equip young people for jobs and careers in an economy designed to expand without limits. As Thomas Berry puts it:
            The university prepares students for their role in extending the human dominion over the natural world, not for intimate presence to the natural world. Use of this power has devastated the planet…so awesome is the devastation we are bringing about that we can only conclude that we are caught in a severe cultural disorientation, a disorientation that is sustained intellectually by the university, economically by the corporations, and legally by the Constitution, spiritually by religious institutions. (p. 158-9)

…The modern university has come to resemble a Maginot Line with separate fortresses surrounded by moats and minefields. Against nearly impregnable fortifications, direct assaults are almost always futile, especially when organized and led by the non-tenured. When it advances, knowledge does so indirectly by flanking maneuvers and what Thomas Kuhn describes as paradigm changes by gerrymandering the boundaries and patrolling the borders to prevent either defections or intrusions. In fact, all disciplines in higher education endeavor to maintain a monopoly of terms, theories, and agendas, and befuddlements for the un-credentialed. It is called rigor, but is often hard to distinguish from rigor mortis. For all its needless complexity, Rube Goldberg might have been thought the architect of the byzantine machinery of knowledge “production” and transfer, but alas it was done as absent-mindedly as the British once acquired an empire. Nearly everywhere the results are the same. Our academic efforts are generally centripetal, focused (even in this day of “interdisciplinarity”) on the problems narrowly defined by discipline and subdiscipline. And the discussions among the professoriate, with some notable exceptions, leave aside the messy, big questions about the fate of civilization and human survival that are beyond this year’s departmental budget and the pressing problem of parking permits.

            It is not surprising then, that higher education has lost its way and the reasons are many. It is too expensive and too oriented to careers. The system is often demoralizing to students and faculty alike, populated by a growing number of underpaid and exploited adjunct faculty and administered in its upper reaches by educational barons paid princely salaries with lavish perks. In the larger and more successful universities, the ancient purposes of learning and so forth have become adornments to the sports programs that rake in millions of dollars while budgets for the philosophy department are slashed. Those who believe that markets are the answer, whatever the question, might propose that philosophers field their own teams that would play in stadiums suitably named for Immanuel Kant, Rene Descarte, Socrates, or maybe even Milton Friedman, paid for by the sales of books on the meaning of life and other deeper subjects. (p. 159-60)

As MSU attempts to move forward, they could learn much from the analysis and prescriptions their noted alum offers in these pages. It's not too late, but time is running out.

Friday, January 26, 2018

A Transformative Moment

While I have been retired from Michigan State University for three years, I spent 30 years of my life walking the campus, teaching classes, helping students and faculty uncover information they sought, active in faculty governance and founding and directing sustainability operations. It is no small part of my life. So it is not without significant disappointment that recent, and more unfortunately not so recent events have the whole world looking at the institution as seriously flawed.

President Simon in happier days, no doubt pleased I was retiring from MSU

It was not uncommon just a few years back when Penn State suffered similar  review, that some smug Spartans would ridicule the Nittany Lions for their failings. Many of those same people have not wanted to admit MSU was guilty for the Larry Nassar sexual abuse epidemic. Good and generally honorable people turned away from this possibility when those brave enough reported it. Some of those have gone off to hide. Last night the president resigned under increasing pressure.

Today I was interviewed by a reporter from the Chronicle of Higher Education. She's interviewing many people so I doubt anything I said was unique or articulate enough to make it into whatever article she publishes in the days ahead.  But the conversation with the reporter did propel me to reflect more on what direction MSU might take from here. Of crucial importance is the selection of an interim president and then, of course, the search for the next president. 

As I told the reporter when prompted, I thought bringing in a former governor or corporate CEO was a horrible idea. What is needed is an experienced academic, who has operated at some administrative level and who has the human skills needed to guide others through a "truth and reconciliation" type process. Given the MSU Board of Trustees, I am doubtful any such person will be sought or hired. I have not been impressed by the board for the most part over my 30+ years at MSU. Trustees are largely selected by the two major parties, based upon a combination of name recognition, what they have done for the party, and really nothing regarding their experience with higher education other than being a student at one. The state's citizens then select from these choices, based almost entirely on party affiliation. In my opinion, we lost sight of that at MSU, and most of higher education long ago.

But this disruption of the status quo built under the reign of  President Simon for almost 25 years (if you combine her provost and presidential positions) provides a major opportunity for the land grant university to reconsider its future direction. Do we really believe that the direction Simon was pushing MSU towards was the one we should be on? President Simon and I shared some strong areas of disagreement over the years. Even so, I would never doubt her commitment and her work ethic for the university. But on the direction she dragged us - yes one legitimate critique of her reign, was that she was a top down manager, I had strong disagreements. Those are besides the point at the moment. This moment is an opportunity to pause and reflect on the true mission of MSU in the second decade of the 21st Century. What does the world need from Michigan State University now? We have entered the Anthropocene since President Simon and I were born. That reality alone mandates we shift how we think about the human role on a finite planet.

Over the years of this blog I have written about higher education's role, its possibilities, and its shortcomings. In looking over a few of those I believe a couple of them at least are quite pertinent to the moment as we seek to move forward and to seize this opportunity. One of those blogs goes back to an earlier MSU President whose name has come up recently in comparison to the tenure of President Simon. President John Hannah whose statue sits prominently in front the of the Administration Building that bears his name. On that statue are carved these words of Hannah:

"If educators are agreed on anything, it is that the fundamental purpose of education is to prepare young people to be good citizens."

That blog goes on to explore the context of those remarks of Hannah's I found after going through the archives to locate the source of that quote. The excerpts I share from Hannah in that blog are most pertinent to the decision place we are in now. In a later blog that year I was reviewing a new book from Satish Kumar, the long time leader of Schumacher College in Great Britain. Again several excerpts help point us towards a needed vision of the kind of education we need in these times.

"One of the primary tests of an organization is whether it turns people into instruments to perpetuate the system and sees people as a means to an end, or whether the organization exists as a means and people are the end."

An even earlier blog entry  was largely based on a new book from British educator Ronald Barnett that challenged the higher education sector or "re-imagine" itself.

"Ideas of the university in the public domain are hopelessly impoverished. 'Impoverished' because they are unduly confined to a small range of possible conceptions of the university; and 'hopelessly' because they are too often without hope, taking the form of either hand-wringing over the current state of the university or merely offering a defence of the emerging nature of 'the entrepreneurial university'.

      Why does this matter, and why does it matter at this particular time? At the very moment when the idea of the university should be opening out, it seems to be closing in, at least in the public imagination. The idea of the university has, of course, undergone many shifts and been subject to varying conceptions over time. For some hundreds of years, the idea of the university was - as it might be said - that of the metaphysical university, reflective of inquiry that enhanced humanity's connections with God, or the Universe, or Truth, or Spirit, or even the State. That conception gave way to the research university, which is now giving way to that of the entrepreneurial university, which in turn is closely allied to the emergence of a tacit idea of the corporate university.

    What is striking about this conceptual journey that the idea of the university has undergone - over nearly one thousand years - is that it has gradually shrunk. Whereas the metaphysical university was associated with the largest themes of humanity's self-understanding and relationships with the world, the idea of the university has increasingly - and now especially in its entrepreneurial and corporate incarnations - closed in. The entrepreneurial university is expected to fend for itself, and attend to its potential impact on particular segments of the economy, and become distinctive. This university has abandoned any pretence to be associated with universal themes.

     The idea of the university has closed in ideologically, spatially and ethically. ideologically, the contemporary envelope of ideas encourages the university to pursue quite narrow interests, particularly those of money (in the service of a national - or even a global - knowledge economy); spatially, the university is enjoined to engage its region, especially with industrial or business organizations in its environs (increasingly its students are also 'local'); and ethically, the university has become focused on its own interests. It will, as a result, close departments of chemistry or physics or modern languages or philosophy because it sees such closures as serving its own (usually financial) interests rather than their being laced in a set of public interests. 

There is much more that could be said as we take this moment to reconsider what Michigan State University and higher education overall should be doing to help us cope with accelerating complex and wicked problems that are interdependent and yet crucially need to be addressed with gusto and humility. While my faith in the university leadership is lacking, that's no reason why the voices of faculty, students and staff might call for the kind of deep and reflective conversations that might help us redirect the institution towards the needs of our present and future generations.

If the reader feels pessimistic and despondent over the prospects, perhaps the insights of Rebecca Solnit, one of our best living writers can propel you forward.

Causes and effects assume history marches forward, but history is not an army.         It is a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away a stone, an                 earthquake breaking centuries of tension. Sometimes one person inspires a                 movement, or her words do decades later; sometimes a few passionate people             change the world; sometimes they start a movement and millions do; sometimes         those millions are stirred by the same outrage or the same ideal and change                 comes upon us like a change of weather. All of these transformations have in               common is that they begin in the imagination, in hope. To hope is to gamble. It’s         to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and               uncertainty is better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is             the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk.
I say all this to you because hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. I say this because hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency; because hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal. Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope. At the beginning of his massive 1930s treatise on hope, the German philosopher Ernst Bloch wrote, “The work of this emotion requires people who throw themselves actively into what is becoming, to which they themselves belong.” To hope is to give yourself to the future, and that commitment to the future makes the present inhabitable. 
             –Rebecca SolnitHope in the Dark,

Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Privilege of Reading

I am privileged. I am white. I am male. I have the time and the ability to read. I've always read, but with each passing year I seem to read more, and more diversely.

It's a privilege to read. I am not constantly worrying about how I will pay for the basics of life - housing, food, health care. I am not worrying about how I will get to work since my car won't start or there is no nearby bus stop to get me there. I'm not seriously concerned about my health or that of those closest to me. I am not employed doing work that adds nothing to my life but a paycheck from which I scrimp by. Yes, in my past I have had to worry about all of those things. But even so I am white and male.

 I learned to read when I was small and I still have my vision - even corrected after cataract surgery two years ago. This ability to read and to explore fantasy or facts at my own pace and interest is a gift granted to me by a society that urged literacy and by parents and a school system that believed in the power of literacy. And since my mind is still hungry for wisdom, I search for it through the writings/thoughts of others who have been brave enough to offer their ideas up for others to consider.

For the past five years I have started keeping a ledger of books that I read each year. 2017 saw me complete 31 books, 7 of which were fiction. There were numerous others that I started and didn't finish. The complete list follows. 

Ta-Nehisi Coates - Between the World and Me
Bernie Sanders - Our Revolution
Andrew Bacevich - Washington Rules
Michael Connolly - The Burning Room (fiction)
David Duchovny - Bucky Fucking Dent (fiction)
Melvin McLeod - Mindful Politics
Chalmers Johnson - Dismantling the Empire
Jane Mayer - Dark Money
Tom Gallagher - The Primary Route: How the 99% Take on the MIC
Sheldon Whitehouse - Captured: the Corporate Infiltration of American Democracy
N.A. Swanberg - Norman Thomas: The Last Idealist
Thomas Mullen - The Last Town on Earth (fiction)
Mary Robinson - Everybody Matters
Kate Raworth - Doughnut Economics
Norman Thomas - The Choices
Michael Harrington - Toward a Democratic Left
Terry Gibbs - Why the Dalai Lama is a Socialist: Buddhism and the compassionate society
Thomas Shapiro - Toxic Inequality
J. Tom Webb - From Corporate Globalization to Global Cooperation
Clair Brown - Buddhist Economics
Naomi Klein - No Is Not Enough
Margaret Wheatley - Who Do We Choose to Be? 
Peter Frase - FOur Futures: Life After Capitalism
Stewart Lansley - A Sharing Economy
Chris Pavone - The Accident (fiction)
Chalmers Johnson - Nemesis: the Last Days of American Republic
John Le Carre - The Night Manager (fiction)
John Grisham - The Chamber (fiction)
Ron Forisamo - American Oligarchy
David Ignatius - A Body of Lies (fiction)
Jeffrey Sachs - Building the New American Economy

Some of these have found their way into this blog but many have not. I picked up four more new books of the new book shelf at MSU Library last week, three of which I have begun and my family added to the pile at christmas with a fresh pile. And I will finish within a week an important work I stumbled upon on the used book sale at the public library "The Ultimate Weapon is No Weapon" by Mary Kaldor and Shannon Beebe that I'm pretty certain will make the blog in the coming weeks.

I share this because ideas matter. There is no doubt that who I am and what I think about the world and how I choose to engage with it are different than at the end of 2016 in no small part because of the collective influence of these books I have read. Of course I am shaped by many other things, including all the non-book material I also read.

But the end of this year has me reflecting on just what a privilege it is to read as a way to shape who we become. Margaret Wheatley's book above speaks to that unfinished part of our own individual development that we shape by our choices. Choices that include what we read. I also recognize that each reader brings to the material they read their own constructs about the world and their place in it, that shapes what they absorb from that reading. It has been my intention in this blog over the years of sharing my privilege of reading with others who may find something in it that affirms "Who We Choose to Be?" as Wheatley's title nicely articulates. And more grandly to keep ideas alive so as in the words of Milton Friedman, 

"Only a crisis - actual or perceived - produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable. 

I know what the reading list looks like as I begin 2018 tomorrow, but I am sure that when I compile it in 365 days, there will be many surprises and I will be further shaped by what I read. And that is a real privilege for which I am forever grateful. May we share ideas that may bring about more  Peace and Justice in 2018!!!

The Possibilities Are There!!!

Love and Peace,

Terry - a Possibilitator

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

You Can Bank On It

It is pretty difficult to make a non-partisan argument around the recent tax code changes adopted by the Republican Party which owns the government from top to bottom. For it is entirely a partisan idea and decision. Not that the Democratic Party has been the beacon of progressive tax reform.


Ron Formisano, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Kentucky indicts the entire 'political class' with our current dilemma. In his new, but seldom read book, American Oligarchy: The Permanent Political Class (University of Illinois Press, 2017), he unleashes the muckraking style of the last era of robber barons by famed journalists Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens, C. Wright Mills, etc. Through 210 pages of lucid prose supported by another 60 pages of detailed footnotes, Formisano lays bare the corruption endemic to the political class and how its capture of our American Society has established a fully formed oligarchy. For more on the 'capture'  component see also Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse's Captured I reviewed earlier this year.

Formisano doesn't just pick on the elected officials and the jurists but the corporate heads, higher education administrators, and even the heads of nonprofits. Of course the grease in the system is money and wealth. The increasing gap between the bottom and top has been expedited by the political class which has no real ongoing connection to the middle and lower classes. Even more telling for Formisano is the capture of the economy by the financial sector. This is a growing concern even for conservative institutions like the International Monetary Forum which noted in a recent report cited by Forisamo that "excessive financialization of the U.S. economy reduces GDP growth by 2% every year...a massive drag in the economy -- some $320 billion per year." (p.194)

And the gap between the rich and the rest of us grows as well as Bloomberg reported today "World's Wealthiest Became $1 Trillion Richer in 2017"

Page after page demonstrates how even persons entering government or nonprofits with good public intentions get absorbed into the political class. The sharing of board members, the lobbyist favors, inside relational contracting, shared vacations and junkets all corrupt any pretension of democratic principle. He notes that while both Trump and Sanders spoke to the idea of corruption of power,  Trump of course has blatantly turned over the executive branch to these same members of the oligarchy. While the book does read in the style of Tarbell, Steffens, Mills, Sinclair, and more recently recently deceased political scientist Chalmers Johnson, he does not offer us any roads out of this mess.

One direction from a recent book, which likewise probably has equally few readers, is offered by K. Sabeel Rahman. In his recent Democracy Against Domination, Rahman, a former Rhodes Scholar who studied economics, political theory and law at Harvard and Oxford  teaches law at Brooklyn Law School. Rahman's style is more turgid and aimed primarily  at other academics I suspect but his argument is fresh and worth pondering.

"This progressive economic vision suggests a radically different approach to financial regulation.  The book argues that our prevailing approach to TBTF [too big to fail] finance relies too heavily on a faith in insulated, neutral, top-down regulation by experts, despite the risks of industry lobbying or the complexities of trying to manage the modern financial system.  Instead, the book suggests that a better approach would place stricter, structural limits on TBTF financial firms, whether by “breaking up the banks” or by regulating finance as a kind of public utility.  Drawing on the latest thinking in economics and law, the book suggests how we need to revamp our financial stability regime."

He sees the failure of leaving the regulating the economy and the corporate sector to 'experts', for which I assume he would include himself, and calls for a much deeper and vibrant model of democracy. I believe his argument on this particular failure is well done - this attack on the "let the experts rule". He shows the underbelly of this flawed approach, but not as poignantly as Sen. Whitehouse did in his book. But his reasoned call for a deeper democracy to address the domination of the 'political class' as Forisamo names it is stronger than what  either Whitehouse or Forisamo offers.

Still I failed to see a systemic plan of specific options to address the flaws. Here's where I would point to the Austrian Economist Christian Felber's remedies he laid out in his 2016 Change Everything: Creating an Economy for the Common Good that I shared in 2016. While the piling  evidence makes crystal clear to anyone wanting to look at it that our economic system as run by the' 'plutocracy' Formisano shines his piercing light on is cascading us towards a twin abyss of increasing inequality and climate destabilization.

Sunrise Movement

While the path out of this is a bit murky, the recent tax law disaster is going 180 degrees in the wrong direction. One promising approach before us in 2018 is following the lead of the youth led Sunrise Movement. One of their suggested strategies is to approach candidates for office at all levels and ask them to pledge not to accept money from the oil, gas, and coal lobbies. I would add the financial industry.

It is our youth who will have to lead us out of this mess as they are the ones that will be forced to live with the worst of what we have sown.