Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Caring Democracy

Just as I wrote a blog on the importance of "Care", I bump into a book on the library's new book shelves -
 by Joan Tronto, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota. I'm still early in the book but she seems to offer one of the clearer pictures of the assumptions of  'neoliberalism' as any I have seen.

"By neoliberalism, I refer to the economic system in which government expenditures are limited, the market is viewed as the preferred method for allocating all social resources, the protection of private property is taken to be the first principle of government, and social programs are limited to being a "safety net."...Neoliberalism has several tenets. The first is the assumption that the market is the institution that is most able to resolve disputes, allocate resources, and permit individuals "choice." Second, freedom comes to be defined solely as the capacity to exercise choice. From these two premises follows a third, that societies work best when they allow rational actors to make  choices in the market; anything that interferes with such choice reduces people's freedom and is harmful to them and society. Thus, under the banner of "choice", neoliberals seek to restrict all forms of government activity that might interfere with the "free market".

Tronto goes on, as you might suspect, to critique the assumptions at some length, but the first few sentences capture the heart of her argument I think.

We live in an age in which capitalism has not only taken a new form, neoliberalism, but in which this form of economic existence has come to function as an all-encompassing ideology. Neoliberal capital believes itself to be definitive of all forms of human relationships and of all ways of properly understanding human life Neoliberalism is not only a description of economic life, it is also an ethical system that posits only personal responsibility matters.

Tronto goes on in the following pages to note that neobliberalism requires the government "to be enlisted into its political-economic project of constructing and maintaining the "free market", often at deep costs to the people....But the logic of neoliberalism also directs the appropriate concerns of politics to be only[emphasis added] those that support economic activity."

I'm not entirely sure where Tronto is going with her arguments and possible remedies, but I do sense that she is aiming at a particularly important interface that is hidden from most of us. More as I wade through this and the growing pile of titles I'm consuming these days.

Take care of yourselves so you can care for others....

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Language Shapes Us

In the recent collection, The Brilliant Art of Peace, the U.S. Institute of Peace press collects a series of lectures given in the Kofi Annan Series at UN between 2002-2006. I haven't read them all, but if the first, by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, "Humanities After 9/11" is any indication, this will be a great little addition to your reading list.

Morrison deftly connects ancient literature of Beowulf with our time today weaving in snippets from Hemingway and others to show how the language of war has evolved. It's important to recognize this was delivered before the US invasion of Iraq. A glimpse of it here:

"The language of war has historically been noble, summoning the elevating quality of warrior discourse, the eloquence of grief for the dead, courage, and the honor of vengeance. That heroic language rendered by Homer, by Shakespeare, in sagas, and by statesmen is rivaled for beauty and force only by religious language with which it frequently merges."

Morrison goes on to note that language was challenged by authors like Hemingway, whom she quotes "I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, and I would see nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory, and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it.There were many names you could not bear to hear, and finally, only the names of places had dignity."

She manages to find some hope that "war is finally out of date, that it is truly the most inefficient method of achieving one's long-term aims." Yet recognizes the limits of that hopefulness:

"I understand that my comments may appear disjunctive on this date in 2002, when legislatures, revolutionaries, and the inflamed do not declare war, but simply wage it. But I am convinced that the language that has the most force, that requires the more acumen, talent, grace, genius, and yes, beauty, can never be, will never be again, found in paeans to the glory of war or erotic rallying cries to battle. 

          The power of this alternative language does not arise from the tiresome, wasteful art of war, but, rather, from the demanding, brilliant art of peace."

Respect and Care

After more than a decade since its completion the Earth Charter remains for me the most holistic recipe for a sustainable future. Perhaps the two most important words in the document are "respect" and "care". Of the four general principles under which16 specific principles are delineated, both used in the first core principle - Respect and Care for the Community of Life. If we hope to get down to basics and build a sustainable future my gut tells me we have to start here. Such words imply a recognition that others, human and non-human, have 'intrinsic' value, not simply 'instrumental' value.


We stand at a critical moment in Earth's history, a time when humanity must choose its future. As the world becomes increasingly interdependent and fragile, the future at once holds great peril and great promise. To move forward we must recognize that in the midst of a magnificent diversity of cultures and life forms we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny. We must join together to bring forth a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace. Towards this end, it is imperative that we, the peoples of Earth, declare our responsibility to one another, to the greater community of life, and to future generations. 

Are we ready to "declare our responsibility to one another, to the community of life, and to future generations? Over the past couple of months I've been assisting others with their efforts to get institutions they are members of to divest from fossil fuel companies. On the face of it, our continued support of these firms that seek to profit off of spewing CO2 into an already overburdened atmosphere seems morally, if not economically and environmentally bankrupt. Yet as one begins to address questions from various players you quickly realize that there are some who may feel these decisions more than others.

Like the impoverished Crow nation in SW Montana that just signed a deal with a major coal firm to mine the coal beneath their feet for a significant sum of money. The prospect is that the coal mined will be sold to China. But to get there the coal will have to leave from West coast ports and numerous Native American communities there are dead set against it. Or the employees working in refineries, or the communities that receive taxes from the activity that allow it to support education, police, fire, etc. There are ways to address the concerns. See the model ordinance for divesting from fossil fuels here for a good example of a more nuanced approach.

But if we care about the future together and the others we share this planet with as exhorted by the Earth Charter, we must be willing to share in the sacrifices needed to get there and to enter the discussions with respect and care for the community of life.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Value of Thinking and Reflecting - If We Can't Monetize it Does it Count?

...wider university admission isn't going to result in prosperity for everyone. If we want to have more equitable distributions of wealth and opportunity, we can't rely on markets to do it, even or especially markets flooded with dazed graduates looking for work in a depression created, in part, by high-flyers gaming the abstract markets. And no, more business schools are not the answer.
     Second, though, we actually need graduates more than ever precisely because democracy depends on a population of engaged, critical thinkers who have general humane knowledge of history, politics, culture, economics, and science, citizens and not consumers who see that there exist shared interests beyond their own desires. Once the link between higher education and work has been broken, the value of the humanities and the non-applied sciences become clear. Education is not there to be converted into market value, it it there to make us better and more engaged citizens, maybe even better and more virtuous people.  - Mark Kingwell, Unruly Voices (2012) p.136.

Dr. Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto and a prolific author of books and articles (including Harper's). Reading these words this morning on the heels of an email exchange last week regarding the dominant culture of monetizing everything as if all we value can be translated to financial gain, really resonated this morning.

The industrialization of education, agriculture, politics, and even our social fabric makes it difficult, if nigh impossible to address needed changes to respond to growing global challenges. I was pushing through British philosopher, David Miller's recent book on National Responsibility and Global Justice earlier this morning where he finely articulates his argument for

Cover for 
National Responsibility and Global Justice
our responsibility to address global injustice and realized that such reflections, as important as they are to how we live together better, are not valued in the marketplace.Studying and discussing multiple possible approaches to considering justice issues is not something we measure or count as valuable on the altar of economics. Instead we pay our assistant professors of philosophy ONE-TENTH of what we pay ASSISTANT football coaches at our university.

Our obsession with economic growth, as opposed, to say of fair distribution of resources and opportunities is so dominant that challenges to it, even in supposedly citadels of learning and critical thinking, are few and far between. No doubt some of that is fear to challenge power.


In the temperate northern climate here in the Great Lakes we find our roads crumble from the frequent freeze/thaw theatre that is our climate.

Whether on a bicycle or driving a car, dodging potholes every spring is water cooler talk. And our GDP goes up from all the repairs to vehicles especially wheel alignment shops.

Once we feel the wobble, or note the pulling of the vehicle to the left or right we know it's time for the alignment specialist. Another area where we are in need of alignment, but which goes larger unnoticed is our investment portfolio. We were raised to believe that we were investing to simply get the largest and quickest financial return, while also minimizing risk of loss. For those employees who actually have a choice in where to invest their retirement funds, we typically look for the biggest returns, even if all investment marketing has the disclaimer, that past performance does not guarantee future performance.

For a minority of investors there has been an effort to align their personal or institutional values with the investments they make. For foundations this has been nicknamed "mission-based investing". I mean why would a foundation that is supporting environmental causes invest in a corporation that has a horrible record of despoiling the environment. Why would a union pension fund invest in companies that won't pay a living wage?

Most often institutions and private investors turn their investments over to "professional" financial planners to sort through the myriad choices. The contracts are based upon ongoing positive return-on-investment (ROI). As long as the ROI meets expectations quarterly or annually, the financial planner will likely keep their contract. The emphasis then is placed on short-term ROI by playing the markets. Unfortunately this grand casino is rigged and the losers are many.

So in recent months there has been a call for divestment from fossil fuel companies in response to their role in both climate change and funding of climate change denial/lobbying efforts.

Like earlier divestment campaigns - South African apartheid, nuclear weapons,  those who initiate the discussion are called socialists, radicals, lunatics, etc. Names that have been hurled at others who dared to challenge the status quo - abolitionists, suffragists, anti-war protesters, civil rights advocates. Yet how do we align the increasing scientific assessment that the increased human induced CO2 releases into the atmosphere might lead us to existential risk?

Check your portfolios - retirement fund,  bank account, institutional endowments, mutual funds to see if your values and the world's needs align. The risk to future generations might be worth reconsidering what you do with your money.