Monday, January 28, 2013

Serendipity Doo Dah

The occasional lost soul who has stumbled into this blog, or its Mindfulness predecessor, is familiar with my allegiance and affinity for serendipity. So when my favorite writer pointed me to today's (January 28,2013) Writer's Almanac's entry on 'serendipity' I was definitely geeked. I would have copied that segment here, but their copyright rules don't allow me to without permission, and the only permission I received was to link back to their page. But check it out - a great history of the word and its usage!!

Now in my typically unconventional manner I kind of link 'serendipity' with 'magic'. For an understanding of my concept of 'magic' meant here, see Leonard Cohen's "God is Alive, Magic is Afoot". Others who believe in an all powerful deity believe 'serendipity' is 'God's hand' at work. Regardless, of one's orientation toward serendipity, I am believe it can be taught, or at least one can be 'opened up to the possibility' that presents itself everyday in many faces.

This life long interest in serendipity has been deepened in recent years by my occasional (actually now almost religious) choice to peruse the New Book shelves at the MSU library. I enter that space not specifically seeking a particular topic or author, but driven by the moment to examine titles that for some reason or another pull me towards them. Rarely do I leave this now weekly adventure without something new under my arm, and often several new items. last week's haul included an edition of Gandhi's Autobiography with a compelling preface by Sissela Bok and The River's Power by Ghanian author, Annor Nimako, a novel set in Ghana focusing on the need for electricity and the impact of a dam on the community.

Almost every morning I launch my day with some reading, but since I have usually 4-6 books going at a time I'm never sure which one I'll pick up first. Today it was Page Smith's People's History of the United States the volume "Rise of Industrial America"  dealing with late 19th Century America. I finished the chapter on Jane Addams and Hull House and started in on the chapter dealing with the farming life (about half way through the 900 page opus volume - I'm hoping to read the entire multi-volume set by the time i turn back to dust). Oh my goodness did it read like a play-by-play of today's current agricultural struggles.

I later picked up the Gandhi Autobiography which I am enjoying so much as he exposes so many of his insecurities and failings. I've just finished Part 1 having completed legal studies in England and returned to India. None of this is remarkable of course, but I do notice somewhere down the trail of the day, that parts of my day have been steered by what I read, and what i read was steered by what I happened into.

So, of course I want to feed by better wolf, by reading and exposing myself to those experiences that will strengthen my ability and desire to live a better life. In doing so, the serendipity of it all adds this wonderful sense of magic to one's life, a kind of elixir for the soul that propels us forward.

Happy Serendipity Day!!

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Remapping Debate


George Lakoff, the linguist has made popular the idea of the importance of framing issues to steer discussions and therefore society's considerations in a way conducive to your intention. He claims that conservatives were winning many skirmishes in recent years because they understood this earlier than liberals. He shows how words hold power in our psyche - a favorite example is "entitlements", a word we hear all the time referring to Social Security, Medicare, etc. It's used to conjure up an image of someone living off the dole, as if they didn't contribute to the funds they are now drawing on. We don't use entitlements  in referring to the highways we drive on, or to the safety checks on the airplanes we fly on, even though we clearly benefit from them and our tax dollars support them just as they do Medicare and Social Security. Hmmmm.

Lakoff is right. Words do matter and how we use them does frame to some extent the conversation that follows. But the folks at Remapping Debate: Asking Why and Why Not,  are asking perhaps an equally important question - why aren't alternative ideas considered in the media and why aren't all ideas given the "why" or "why not" test? I stumbled on the existence of this site from the economist Molly Scott Cato's blog.

A recent article  at Remapping Debate on the discussion regarding the so-called 'fiscal cliff' brouhaha entitled "What Can You Buy With $3.5 Trillion?" gives a picture of just how this works. They use Congressional Budget Office studies to highlight what was not debated in the media and pundits' coverage of the debate - i.e., what would happen if we rolled back all of the Bush tax cuts to the Clinton years? The numbers are likely surprising, yet where was such a possibility given serious consideration.

Sure you find some of the more progressive economic policy thinkers (e.g. Robert Reich, William Greider, etc.)  suggesting alternatives, but major media outlets and the halls of Congress are void of serious consideration of alternative ideas. We need more than just remapping the debate, but it's a good place to start.

I have also enjoyed a perusal of a number of web sites emerging out of a rapid growth of citizen participation in policy deliberations. These are mentioned early from a  current read,  "Democracy in Motion: Evaluating the Practice and Impact of Deliberative Citizen Engagement" by Oxford University Press" I picked up recently. Great sites include the Deliberative Democracy Consortium ,

Everyday Democracy , and one site I have mentioned before to Mindfulness readers, the

NCDD Logo National Council on Dialogue and Deliberation. It is inspiring to see so many people in communities around the planet who are not waiting for others to create stronger democracies. They are doing it in places big and small, near and far. Visit these sites to get a hint at the mushrooming interest in developing a more engaged and enlightened citizenry - the necessary basis for a thriving democracy. Ooops, here's one more Participedia


Perhaps the 21st Century will signal a real birth of a deeper local/global democracy. These vibrant sites suggest a real possibility. Are you ready to participate in building stronger local democracy. Take a peek and get inspired. Democracy is not a spectator sport.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Best Buddhist Writing 2012

This brief excerpt from an essay in a recent book by that title edited by Melvin McLeod and published by Shambhala condenses for me the underlying problem with our economic system. It is elaborated on in Eisenstein's "Sacred Economy" that I have cited in earlier blogs, with his remedies, but this brief excerpt cuts to chase very well:

"The problem with greed becomes much worse when institutionalized in the form of a legal construct that takes on privileges of its own quite independently of the personal values and motivations of the people employed by it. On the one side, investors want increasing returns in the forms of dividends and higher stock prices. On the other side, this anonymous expectation translates into an impersonal but constant pressure for profitability and growth, preferably in the short run. Everything else, including the environment, employment, and the quality of life becomes an "externality," subordinated to this anonymous demand, a goal-that-can-never-be-satisfied. We all participate in this process, as workers, employers, consumers, and investors, yet normally with little or no personal sense of moral responsibility for what happens, because such awareness is lost in the impersonality of the system.

One might argue, in reply, that some corporations (usually family-owned or small) take good care of their employees, are concerned about effects on the environment, and so forth. The same argument could be made for slavery: there were a few good slave owners who took care of their slaves, etc. This does not refute the fact that the institution of slavery is intolerable. It is just as intolerable today that our collective well-being, including the way the earth's limited "resources" are shared is determined by what is profitable for large corporations.     
 David Loy "Occupy Wall Street"pp.156-57

There are other good essays with what I find profound thoughts laced within this book, perhaps I'll get around to posting a few more of those in the days ahead. We are in this economic system and the political system, and the educational system like fish in water. We can't seem to fathom anything different, even though each of these systems are human constructs and could be reconstructed in different ways. I had thought that maybe a college education would prepare us for better examining those systems with an eye toward developing better systems for a world that is constantly changing, but then I hear more and more it's about getting a job to make a lot of money. But that's just a view from here and certainly not the only one worth considering.

Monday, January 21, 2013

A time comes when silence is betrayal.

This line from Clergy and Laity Concerned in 1967, was the inspiration for much Martin Luther King, Jr.'s powerful speech from the Riverside Church, "Beyond Vietnam" given a year and day before he was assassinated (listen to this hour long speech, his voice is meant to be heard not simply read). I usually go back to that speech for inspiration to commemorate his birth, as it was the one wherein he comes out so strongly against the Vietnamese War. At the time of this speech I was mostly oblivious as I was excited about going off to college in the Fall, only lightly aware of the possibility that I could be sent into that quagmire.

Early in the speech, King discusses the inner turmoil of breaking the silence

Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government's policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one's own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty. But we must move on. Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.

I've come to feel that our American society and institutions have unwittingly silenced us with our own  'bread and circuses' of popular culture and spectator sports. As a society,  we commit much of our time to these appeasements that steal our attention and energy to wrestle with the challenges facing us in our communities and with the earth community we share this sphere with. We have become the Silent. Our involvement in the political process that shapes our lives is essentially nil,  beyond the 60-70% of us who may cast vote every couple of years. Donations to charities are declining.The world is getting more crowded. No one nation can control events. Transnational corporations have more power than many poorer nation states. And the ecological integrity that we've taken for granted and has sustained us since we stood up on two feet is showing signs of unraveling.

King's insights from this speech are useful here as well.

America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood...

 We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood -- it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, "Too late." There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. Omar Khayyam is right: "The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on."

One can hope that President Obama's words today to address climate change and inequality  might inspire more of us to break our own silence, and work to see King's dream fulfilled - peace and justice for all on a healthy planet.

Monday, January 14, 2013

What is Good for the World

      We have lived our lives by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption, that what is good for the world would be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and what is good for it.
                                                                                  Wendell Berry as cited in Sacred Economics (p.379)

This quote leads off chapter 20 "Right Livelihood and Sacred Investing". I haven't read that yet, perhaps in the early morn of tomorrow. But Eisenstein has been making the case for the past 378 pages that what is wrong with our economic system is the logic that we are somehow separate from each other and from nature. And while this false assumption has been masked for the most part until now as we pushed the costs of the accrued benefits onto the ecological health of the planet and many of its inhabitants both human and non-human. Our sheer numbers and power have removed the facade, so we must decide how to move forward.

Eisenstein seems to have a faith that the sacred economy he believes in is coming, that there have always been cultures and communities that have somehow been vaccinated from the 'happiness is consumption and control' myth. But I am not so optimistic about such inevitability. The hegemonic faith in 'growth' seems to have very few cracks within our political or economic chieftains. Our educational hierarchy is still of the belief that our answer to sustainability lies in simply more math and science education and that the primary reason for a college education must be a job that makes good money, regardless of whether that job is 'good for the world' as Berry suggests.

The dominant world view that accentuates our separateness all stokes the flames of fear. If we just protect ourselves with more money, more education, more guns we can still pursue the attempt to 'have it all.' I remain really puzzled at the absence of religious spokespeople, who cloak their work in 'sacredness' and yet are virtually silent on the disasters caused by our economic system. The irony is a powerful reminder that the power that changes the world comes from the grassroots. From committed individuals who see another path and take it.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Informalities and Markets

I was stumbling through our current periodical reading area last week and picked up a couple of issues of the Boston Review, a bi-monthly erudite collection of essays, poetry, fiction published for at least 40 years. Thank god for print collections, I would never have picked these up from an alpha scan of online listings. While there looked to be many tasty morsels of thought in the issues I carried back to my workspace, I was taken almost immediately by the May/June 2012 issue, the cover story being "How Markets Crowd Out Morals". This forum topic was keynoted by Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel who writes about concerns focused on " two kinds of arguments reverberate through debates about what money should and should not buy. The fairness objection asks about the inequality that market choices may reflect; the corruption objection asks about the attitudes and norms that market relations may damage or dissolve."

After making his case, others sound off assessing his arguments - some basically supporting, some opposing (e.g., libertarians who believe 'freedom' is the superior moral argument). This forum is very invigorating and will draw me back to this great feature every issue. But I was particularly moved by the response from Richard Sennett, who teaches at Yale and London School of Economics. A short excerpt here might offer some of the flavor:

Informality in social relations is great social glue; water-cooler conversations, street-corner gossip, and illuminating chance encounters can bind us to other people as formal rules might not. Yet social science has largely neglected the study of informality, with consequences of a political sort. The think tank, spewing out clear policy, belongs to the top-down realm. In its precision of argument, it speaks the language of command. Restoring the social element to the left means honoring the mess of informality, countering the fetish of making killer assertions. If this happens, then a space opens up for the sort of participation that consists in finding out what to do together, rather than being “guided” by someone else’s version of truth.

Yet when we think of farmers' markets we think of these 'informal' and 'chance encounters'. What we get with the emphasis on 'efficiency' is the loss of informality that Sennett notes so well in his piece here. Sennett has a new book out Together: the Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation that probably expands on some of the ideas in his brief response to Sandel here. Possibilitator readers can read Sandel's keynote and the responses including Sennett's and others, as well as Sandel's replies to them by clicking on the hot links above. Seems to me they don't put meaningful discussions of this kind in the racks by the checkout lanes in our chain groceries.... but that's a topic for a future blog.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Amateurs and Professionals

Charles Eisenstein in his riveting tome Sacred Economics discusses jobs in a way few have. I remember having a discussion about this same issue with Senator Carl Levin in his office almost a decade ago when I tried to have him distinguish that building more Hummers was a negative for the commonwealth, whereas building more Prius' was a step in the better direction. Here's Eisenstein's riff from pp. 273-74.

The goal of the compassionate economy, therefore, is not to provide "jobs," as most liberal politicians seem to think. Once work has become mechanical, it is in a sense too late -- inhuman work might as well be done by machines. I cannot help but remark on the inanity of economic programs that seek to make more "jobs," as if we needed more goods and services. Why do we want to create more jobs? It is so people have money to live. For that purpose they might as well dig holes in the ground and then fill them up again as Keynes famously quipped. present economic policies attempt just that: witness the current efforts to reignite the housing construction at a time when there are 9 million vacant housing units in the United States. Wouldn't it be better to pay people to do nothing at all, and free up their creative energy to meet the urgent needs of the world?

Clearly, we possess the means and face the necessity to grow less, to work less, and to turn our energies toward other things. It is time to redeem the age-old promise of industry: that technology will allow a dramatic reduction in the workweek and usher in an age of "leisure." Unfortunately, the word leisure carries connotations of frivolity and dissipation that are inconsistent with the urgent needs of the planet and its people as the age turns. There is a vast amount of important work to be done, work that is consistent with degrowth because it won't necessarily produce salable product. There are forests to replant, sick people to care for, an entire planet to be healed. I think we are going to be very busy. We are going to work hard doing deeply meaningful things that no longer must fight upstream against the flow of money, the imperative of growth. Yet I also believe we will have more true leisure -- the experience of the abundance of time -- than we do today. The scarcity of time is one reason we overconsume, attempting to compensate for the loss of this most primal of all wealth. Time is life To be truly rich is to have sovereignty over our own time.

Eisenstein has a lot more to say about work and jobs, but he's one of the first to challenge the concepts that all jobs are equal. Reminds me of a talk I heard once from Daniel Boorstin, historian and former Librarian of Congress who made the distinction between and amateur and a professional. A professional, he said is one who does something for the money. Whereas an amateur (from the Latin amo amare -'to love') does it for the love. Perhaps we need a lot more amateurs and few less professionals.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Negative vs. Positive Investing

As the effort to push divestment from fossil fuel companies from university portfolios accelerates this year there will be plenty of folks weighing in on the wisdom of such an effort. I simply want to add a little context to this discussion on investing. Any discussion of divestment conjures up the effort in the 1980s to divest from companies profiting from apartheid in South Africa. In a basic sense it is a form of what I might label 'negative' investing. By that I mean we rule out things we will invest in.

The South African divestment actions followed on the footsteps of earlier 'negative' investment approaches regarding nuclear and other weapons manufacturers, tobacco, etc. We saw mutual funds (e.g. Pax World Fund) developed that used 'screens' to remove companies that some believed were creating 'objectionable' products. Many of these funds were initiated by faith based organizations or peace groups. In fact the role of negative screening still dominates SRI (Socially Responsible Investing) in most mutual funds while trying to create a "positive" financial return on investment (ROI).

I see this as the infant stage of investing for the common good. Perhaps a necessary stage, but not sufficient for creating the needed transitions to a world where there is really peace and justice for all. As we move into adolescence we see the increased role of 'community investing', in 'green energy bonds', in 'social entrepreneurship', and other mechanisms emerging among those trying to grow a better world. See for example Michael Shuman's Local Dollars, Local Sense for some approaches. Most of the institutional investment dollars are socked away in the Global players, what are called 'Large Cap' firms, yet where much of the innovation occurs is the small and mid cap firms. More recently we see, primarily involving some large foundations, the emergence of what is often referred to as 'mission-based' investing (e,g, Heron Foundation, Hampshire College). Where the investment portfolio matches the mission of the organization. One might refer to it as an anti-hypocrisy investment policy.

Yet still the orientation is fixed on the 'for-profit' sector as the dynamo of economic progress, or as is spun now by pundits - the job creators. The very successful entrepreneur, Paul Hawken, spun a well-considered critique in 2008 in his wonderful Blessed Unrest where he shows how much the engine for change comes from civil society. In 2010 Michael Edwards, former World Bank and development official, penned a 'powerful critique' of the private sector and its philanthropic efforts in Small Change: Why Business Won't Save the World . As Charles Eisenstein shows us in his Sacred Economics, the foundations upon which the profit world is built is crumbling and thus a new approach is necessary for us to share this singular planet peacefully and for many more generations. Our thinking is so constrained by the entrenched education, economic, and political systems that it is hard to reconsider alternatives to them.

What do we want to grow - more fossil fuels or renewable energy? More globally processed and distributed foods or more local varieties? More concentration of wealth or more equity? The investment choices we make should start with these kinds of questions, not with how much money will I get back? Once we can shift our economic system to start there we will forever be told 'we can't afford it. 

As Eisenstein suggests, "Weigh the competing voices of your idealism and your cynicism, and ask yourself, "Can I bear to settle for anything else?" Can you bear to accept a world of great and growing ugliness? Can you stand to believe it is inevitable? You cannot. Such a belief will slowly but surely kill your soul. The mind likes cynicism, its comfort and safety, and hesitates to believe anything extraordinary, but the heart urges otherwise; it urges us to beauty, and only by heeding its call can we dare create a new Story of the People."

Given what we are facing, or more accurately what our children and grandchildren will face we better try a little harder.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

More or Less

Charles Eisenstein argues that our present economic system built upon interest is fundamentally a system that believes

 "more for me is less for you. Money then rests on converting the public into the private. Thus we take natural resources, gifts from the earth, and take ownership of them to sell for a profit. Such a system to survive requires continued growth."The principal way of doing so is to begin selling something that was once free. It is to convert forests into timber, music into product, ideas into intellectual property, social reciprocity into paid services. Abetted by technology, the commodification of formerly non-monetary goods and services has accelerated over the last few centuries, to the point today where very little is left outside the money realm. The vast commons, whether of land or of culture, has been cordoned off and sold - all to keep pace with the exponential growth of money... The imperative of perpetual growth implicit in interest-based money is what drives the relentless conversion of life, world, and spirit into money. Completing the vicious circle, the more of life we convert into money, the more we need money to live."

This orientation might have had its uses when humans were few and our needs were limited, but the limits we are facing  are requiring different approaches. Eisenstein likens our situation to a child/adolescent who still is largely self-centered. Can we as a human society develop into responsible adulthood where we sacrifice our wants for those we love and could the circle of that love grow bigger as we mature? Optimists believe we can, some think it can happen before we go through more ordeals, others feel only after going through ordeals will we recognize that there must be better ways to organize our relations with one another and the earth.

Shopping for Good

This is a title of a small book (literally) published by the Boston Review in 2012. The effort is an essay by that title by Dara O'Rourke, an Associate Professor of Environmental and Labor Policy at UC Berkeley, with responses from a small group of experts on our consumer society. O'Rourke is also the founder of the Good Guide a website and downloadable app that allows consumers to match their values with more than 100,000 items in the marketplace.

O'Rourke details the philosophy and origins of this effort which operates under the belief that consumers can change the marketplace by the way they shop, and that tools like GoodGuide make that possible. Since I have been a proponent of that philosophy for years and celebrated GoodGuide's precursor, Alonovo, I found this brief discussion useful in broadening and deepening my own considerations of the role of shopping for a better world.

Scott Hartley (venture capitalist), Auret Van Heerden (Fair Labor Association), Margaret Levi (professor of Political Science), Richard Locke (Prof of Political science), Scott Nova (Workers Rights Consortium), Lisa Ann Richey (Prof of International Development), Juliet Schor (Prof. of Sociology) and Andrew Szasz (Prof. of Sociology) add criticisms that are respectful and fair and offer some serious points to consider as we try to find ways to create an earth community that thrives for all. It helps to remind me that the solutions we dream up are never fully successful, although the efforts described here, move us a bit closer towards a society where externalities are absorbed in the true cost of goods and services, in the direction of what Eisenstein calls 'sacred economics'. More on that to follow shortly.