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.

Image result for david orr

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.

Monday, December 4, 2017


"Outrageous -  Grossly offensive to decency or morality" (American Heritage College Dictionary) 4th ed. 2002, p.989.


This appears to be the appropriate word to describe the tax system bludgeoning recently performed by Republicans (Democrats and Independents were given little time to read, let alone participate in the development of the proposals). To suggest that what greatly reduces taxes for the wealthiest among us in far higher mounts than for the bulk of us is tax "reform", clearly indicates that those who support its adoption are either tools or stooges for the wealthy and powerful. This clearly fills the wealthiest's already well-filled pockets. This so they can use the money to gain even more control over our government that shapes the rules we live by.

This wholesale sellout of our democracy by those elected shows that they really don't represent the bulk of US citizens. The stench of the process by which both houses of Congress worked largely behind closed doors, with little to no public hearings, underlines their lack of interest in democracy. Once elected to join this prestigious club, they are by and large set for a life without economic need, and therefore need to care zilch for those who aren't so fortunate.

That the sprinkling of some small favors to those in the middle and below have expiration dates set for after these sycophants leave office, makes the stench even more offensive. One doesn't need a college degree to recognize that the promise of a faster growing economy and the trickle down benefits promised to those hoping for some crumbs off the table, are a myth. For thirty plus years of this vacuous economic myth being hoisted on us, we see no significant economic growth, while that which did occur has driven us to the highest level of inequality in our history. The robber barons must be jealous.

Nothing shows this failure of supply-side, trickle-down, "voodoo economics" like the numbers. This report, nicely summarized by Sam Pizzigati  here, is just out from noted economists Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman who study inequality, shows the lie of who benefits from this chicanery. Please share this will all who doubt, especially Republican legislators!!

The demise of the estate tax itself they aim for clearly only benefits the wealthiest 0.2 percent. That's right. The current estate tax does not impact any of the 99.8 per cent of us.

Of course these same legislators waive their concern with exploding the deficit now which all the studies forecast. Deficits only come into play for them when they want to starve a program that helps others. Their bottom line is a total dismantling of government, drowning it in the bathtub after they have starved it of funds to support the public good. Perhaps the most irritating aspect of this despicable act is that the majority of these bullies cloak themselves in a Christian conservative cloak, that is belied by their actions that support unfettered war (oh to be sure money for military will only go up as the recent ante-up passed by both houses exceeded even the Trump administration's request) and enrichment of their wealthy supporters.

This is a dark time in our history. May those of us who recognize the greed unleashed with this administration and Congress, endeavor to unwind it in the weeks and months ahead. Let every elected official that represents you, know how you feel. For now we still have elections. If we don't act, soon, don't be surprised if those too are taken away.

For a little uplift if you've read this depressingly far, click on this brilliant ten minute talk that opened a recent public policy institute for Quakers. We should gather hope from the fire and faith of this young leader

Saturday, November 25, 2017

From the Beginning

It was five years ago today I transferred my meanderings since the mid 90s into this blog. 246 blog entries preceded this one with another dozen or so that never got past the draft stage. Probably many of the 246 should have stayed as drafts. So the occasion caused me to go back and look at what I must have been thinking then. Surprisingly, I believe it's still pertinent.(see below)

The number of visits to my blog is slightly north of 75,000 or an average of 300 per entry. But the vast majority of entries are way under that average. The blog entry that received the most views has been the one I did in May of 2016 that received almost 2,000 reads - For What It's Worth that delved into the role of sports in our culture. But I believe all these numbers are inflated by Russian hackers. While the MUSE has not visited as often in 2017, I'll continue to share some interesting insights and possibilities as I come across them in case they can help you make sense of your own place in this quickly changing time. Thanks to all those folks who pass on a supportive note or a challenging question now and then. This all helps me think out loud, which is really what this blog allows me to do.

Post-Thanksgiving Hunches November 25, 2012

What is possible in a world that changes at amazing speed? From the cells in our body to decisions made in hallowed halls of government to the shift of winds and just the smallest chance of who you meet when, the future is highly uncertain.These young people pictured above I saw last summer in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso have all kinds of possibilities when they slide out of the womb, pre-wired. But simply because of where they are born, grow up and live, those possibilities are quite different from my own.

That being stated it is also clear that despite the constraints of poverty and  access to  fewer opportunities, they can be loved and cherished by their kin and neighbors as much if not more than those raised in more affluent surroundings. They may well learn more easily than I how we humans are dependent upon the natural world and intrinsically part of it. They may better appreciate and savor the power of relationships to sustain and to develop our possibilities. 

But what does it say of our time, that despite the vast storehouses of knowledge acquired and passed on, despite our great riches, we see more people fighting for the basics to survive, while some are so wealthy they spend more on a meal than the entire annual food budget for others? If we were starting for scratch, would we construct a system that grows the gulf between the haves and the have-nots, while simultaneously unraveling the ecosystems that sustain life? I don't think so. Yet the evidence for growing inequality and ecological decline is stunning. Just as stunning is the paucity of discussion, let alone action, to address the system rules that are accelerating the growing disparity of opportunity for both current and future generations.

Having an idea that something is 'possible' is the first and necessary step towards making it happen. If we convince ourselves that something is not possible, we all but guarantee that prophecy. Each of us, regardless of where, is born with great possibility that can be fed, nurtured, awakened to or 'enabled' by the family, the environment, and the social-political-economic systems that we create. A just world should not only allow each person to develop their capabilities (Amartya Sen, Nobel laureate), but it should strive to create the conditions that enable that development,  not at the expense of others or the natural world that provides life's essentials, or the possibility of future generations to develop their own capabilities.

If we were to design a system to do that from scratch, what might it look like? It certainly wouldn't be the one that have driven us to an 'inequality cliff'. This feeble blog will be attempting to share 'hunches' of how we might recalibrate our fundamental human systems (social, political, economic) to move us all closer to a human family where everyone gets a fair chance to develop their capabilities while living in balance with our natural world and the ecosystems that sustain us. These are simply meant as reasonable 'possibilities' - not guaranteed, not certain, but possible. I will borrow rapaciously from others I bump into along the journey -- those that shed a new light or provide a different angle or perspective, that might have us see a possibility previously blind to us. The recent understandings pervading the sciences of the 'emergent' properties of so much we cannot yet fathom in this complex universe, might offer us some humility that much more is possible than we have been led to believe.

I sense very deeply, incredible possibilities to become a better human family than we have been to date. As Martin Luther King, Jr. noted: "The arc of the moral universe is long,but it bends towards justice." I believe in that possibility, but our current dominant (social, political, and economic) systems need some changing if we plan to get there. Let's consider the possibilities.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

A Sinkhole That Is Pulling Us All Down

While most local papers probably did not splash the news on their front page or headline their evening news last week, our largely bought Congress just gave the Military-Industrial-Complex (MIC) a sizable raise in thanks for their contributions and lobbying pursuits. President Trump's initial budget request for the Pentagon was for a sizable $54 billion increase for the military last February. This proposed hike to $668 billion, while sizable by any measuring stick, was not enough for our Congressional members (with rare exception). This past week in their rush to show their true patriotism (cough, cough) they upped the ante by a most generous $32 billion taking it to an even $700 billion.  Of course, they will now all be able to tout how they are strong on defense as they hit the campaign trail. But put this in the perspective of the new budget proposal as the National Priority Project just did and your eyes might water as we invest in permanent war.

Image result for bumper sticker pentagon bake sale

Of course, when they dream this stuff up they aren't thinking of budget balancing or deficits or least of all the robbery of our treasury so that we can't rebuild our infrastructure, care for our veterans or seniors, provide better education and health care and develop our communities with renewable energy and other green technologies that make living in the future better for everyone. Never mind either that those types of investments in real human security produce way more jobs per $1 billion dollar of investment than does equal money spent on the military.

But perhaps this isn't enough reason to balk at suggestions from MIC lobbyists to throw more money into weapon systems.For any willing to follow any of the many who shine the light on military waste and corruption there is plenty more reason to plug the leaks of our tax dollars into their coffers. William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and one of those who have toiled for years to follow the money in the MIC showed in a post last week how some of this game is played. In this piece he lays out the influence peddling in the nuclear weapons arena as just one example. To get your blood pressure up a little more read any of his earlier works or reports to see how corrupt the system is.

Center for International Policy

Or from a slightly different angle take a look at a report last week from the dedicated folks at the Project on Government Oversight. This highlights how even when we empty our purses for the Pentagon,  requesting how those dollars are performing is a bit too much to ask. The fact that the Pentagon has escaped any complete audit for decades might give you a hint. A few of those crazy (yes bipartisan members) have asked that such an audit be required before we hand over any more money.

Image result for project on government oversight

The almost total capture of the Congress by the myth of more military spending means a more secure world should be easy to show. 16 years of war in Afghanistan and thousand of American lives lost, which are dwarfed on the losses sustained by the Afghan people, have made the country and its people no better off. Trillions of dollars for regime change in Iraq (or was it weapons of mass destruction - seems like we did the mass destruction with our relentless bombing)  in Iraq destroyed the country.

Yet, each budget cycle the relentless, and may I suggest stupid, belief that only adding more force will solve the problem is a pompous American belief. You don't need to believe me. Read what military people themselves say. Three I look to are Andrew Bacevich, William Astore, and Danny Sjursen.

Andrew J. Bacevich, Sr.jpgImage result for william astoreImage result for danny sjursen

But let me suggest the sinkhole of military spending is about to take an exponential leap based upon recent actions by the MIC in partnership with their key friends in Congress. A report in last week's trade publication for all things military, Defense News, gives a glimpse of what's to come - "Congress to MDA: Prepare for Spaced-Base Missile Attacks" . Yes, that's right - Congress is calling the shots on this, not the Pentagon. Earlier this year I saw hints of this when I noticed a new piece of legislation co-sponsored by my own Senator Gary Peters. A recent addition to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Peters and his conservative colleagues propose and elaborate on a space based military presence in their S.1196 "Advancing America's Missile Defense Act of 2017".

It's clear to this reader that the authors of this bill drink from the "technological optimism" fountain. Those that drink from this fountain believe that whatever ails us, there is a technological solution. And not only are they sure of its success, they are unencumbered by consideration of any 'unintended consequences' or what economists refer to externalities. Neither of course do they consider, to borrow another economics phrase, 'lost opportunity costs'. There can be little doubt that these grand plans come from the many millions the MIC invests in lobbying. For an excellent consideration of concerns with 'technological optimism' read economist Robert Costanza's provocative look at the future through various lenses in "Four Visions of the Century Ahead: Will it be Stark Trek, Ecotopia, Big Government of Mad Max" written on the eve of this century.

This bill has no price tag of course. But once we are shown that we can't live without it, to oppose it will mean you are 'soft on defense'. The F-35 boondoggle, perhaps the Pentagon's largest cost overrun of all time (and the planes are still not fully operational) has parts of it built in moire than 400 of the 435 Congressional districts. That's not accidental. If a Congress person argues to cut funding for a failed program, the threat to local jobs has them rethink that originally prudent consideration. The MIC knows this.

That notion is alive as a perfect example in my own beloved state of Michigan. Here all but one member of the Michigan delegation signed on to a letter to the Pentagon to select Ft. Custer, near Battle Creek in southwestern Michigan as home to a new Ground Based Missile Defense System. Battle Creek area like many in Michigan can use a hand, and Ft. Custer is underutilized. But this proposed $3.2+ billion project was not requested by the Pentagon. A Union of Concerned Scientists report highlighted other problems with the addition of a third ground based missile defense site (existing sites are located in Alaska and California). Number one being that the likelihood of it working is questionable. Oh, and two, the Pentagon hasn't asked for additional sites.

This is a textbook example of how MIC works. First ingredient is fear. You absolutely need to be afraid of some possibility to occur for which the weapon system must be developed and deployed.. Since the West coast already has two of these sites, of questionable effectiveness - to perhaps save us from missiles launched from N. Korea, China, Russia or Pakistan, now we need protection from the Iranians, who no doubt think that if they launch a nuclear missile (they don't have), they could possible take out all of our missiles scattered around the world, many on moving submarines. Once the fear is established then you need Congress to bring home the bacon, or pork. So the race is on to see who can win the prize.

Now as a Congressional member it may seem like a worthy effort to secure the missile system for your backyard, but a wise soul might entertain some second thoughts. If you really want to bring jobs to your community there are a few problems with this. The major component of the system is, you guessed it, missiles. These are made by our friends at Boeing. So they won't be built here. Then there is the concern that money invested in military doesn't produce  near as many jobs for dollar of investment as does education, health care, infrastructure or green technologies. All of which would make the world a bit better off. And all of which become lost opportunity costs if the money is diverted to these weapons systems. But then, there is the fact that the chances of these expensive systems actually working in a real event are slim. Seems like a high-risk, low profit investment.

And we really haven't even discussed perhaps the biggest elephant in the room - outright military waste. The Pentagon did a study over five years and found $125 Billion in waste. It tried to hide the report but it was just last December by the Washington Post. One can only wonder how much additional waste might be identified with an audit of all of its operations including more than 800 military bases scattered around the world.

I don't believe in simply criticizing without offering alternatives, or in my parlance "possibilities". So here is one such possibility. At the end of the Cold War there was an expected 'peace dividend' that we never received. There was talk and consideration for a brief time of something called "economic conversion". The idea was to convert existing facilities to non-military community development opportunities so as not to disrupt the closure of a facility on a local community. The emphasis was also on decent employment for those who would otherwise lose jobs from the closure. Base closure has become almost impossible, largely because of the impact on the community and no civilian  reinvestment in the community. Legislators fight fiercely to protect their community regardless of the overall benefit to the country.

Providing economic conversion funds that are managed locally by communities will relieve the Congress of fighting for programs none of us need and do not make us safer. We should reduce funding for the military and shift it towards conversion that builds stronger communities with emphasis on green technologies, enhanced education and health care, and other local infrastructure improvements. All of which create more jobs. That's where we'll find real security. Now we need to elect members of Congress who can look beyond the paid lobbyists and seek out real alternatives to war and militarism. Otherwise we'll all be sliding into that sinkhole.