Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Two Books - Real Gifts

I have a pile of about 10 books I’m wading through, but two are of special note as I write this. As I noted in my last blog of 2017 I have the privilege of reading, and especially of reading books. For the past few years I’ve read on average between 20-30 nonfiction works cover-to-cover per year. With our world moving more quickly, our attention spans shorter, much of the reading that is done by the many of us is short, sometimes limited to 140 characters. Complexity is avoided. These two books offer a reason for exploring depth through thoughtful analysis.

I picked up Ben Fountain’s Beautiful Country Born Again based upon a couple of high recommendations like the one from Bill Moyers –

But here, too, is a finely spun analysis of how the two major parties lost their way, opening for an outlier like Trump the opportunity of a lifetime. Fountain has given us an original, informed and deeply felt take on the forces and stresses bearing down on America.

We lived through this period, but reading this page turner, by a truly gifted writer (and teacher of writing) had me see and feel it a little deeper than I had. The downside and a possible reason to skip it, is that he offers no direction from here. Thus we may understand as Moyers notes, but what do we do? 

This is not the case with the second book, and perhaps the most important one. Charles Eisenstein, who has the uncanny ability to look at the world with fresh eyes has penned an urgent read in my mind, Climate – A New Story (North Atlantic Books 2018). As author David Abram writes,

“What a blast of sanity! Eisenstein’s corrective is a bracing piece of work, dazzlingly thought through and eloquent in its articulation. He writes from within an uncannily woke worldview, enacting a full-bodies way of thinking that discerns and feels into the complex entanglement of our lives with every facet of this breathing biosphere. This book is visionary and prophetic, achingly grounded and useful to the max.”

I’ll be honest, I’m only 116 pages into this 300 pager, but as Abrams suggests, it is packed with perspective you just won’t find anywhere else. I stumbled upon Eisenstein when he was speaking at a conference I attended in 2012 where he spoke on “We Are Relationship: The Transition to a Collaborative Society”. I was stunned at the wisdom oozing out of this guy and immediately ordered a book, Sacred Economics that he had just published. It was indeed, like his talk, transformative.

This book has a similar feel but comes to us from concerns with the climate as the North Star for thinking about how we might address about our human predicament. He begins with a look at the spectrum of how folks think about climate change –from what he labels “Climate catastrophism” = ‘we’re doomed and it’s too late, to the other end “climate skepticism” = that it’s not happening, or that if it is happening it has little to do with human activity, or if it is attributable to human activity, it isn’t dangerous. Eisenstein looks under the covers of all of these points of view. What he suggests is truly eye opening.
I won’t say more until I finish the book. But I believe there is enough wisdom regardless of which arguments you may choose to accept or reject within it, that we would each benefit from sitting with those ideas and seriously pondering them. I have even ordered a second copy of the book to lend out to nearby friends because I suspect most bookstores and libraries will not have this book available. That is a huge lost for us all.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Time to Empty Your Pockets

I just made my self read the nine page "Executive Summary" of the recently (November 14) released Providing for the Common Defense: The Assessment and Recommendations of the National Defense Strategy Commission . It was all I could do to keep from gagging. I won't put myself through the full 116 pages, especially as I scanned the make-up of the commission and the list of those who gave testimony. It's definitely the swamp.

The message briefly is this: Be Afraid!!  Be Really Afraid!!!  Every corner of the planet has some state or terrorist out to get us and the only way to prevent this is for us to build a bigger military industry with lots of technological gizmos as fast as we can. Nary a word about personnel. No mention of earlier concerns (before Trump administration) about the role of climate change. No hint that increased diplomacy might reduce these alarming fears. Simply our already bloated military footprint needs to be bigger.

Having recently finished Harvard Professor of International Relations Stephen Walt's, The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy (2018) an insightful read into the foreign policy establishment since WWII, this playbook is perfectly predictable.  

The Hell of Good Intentions

If this passes as leadership and our spineless Congress bows adoringly to everything military ( to do otherwise would be to be seen as either unpatriotic or weak on defense - big political no-no), you can bet that Republicans and too many Democrats will not raise taxes to cover these costs, but rather will cut funding for health care, environmental protection, transportation, infrastructure, renewable energy, etc.

Ironically, a report was released at nearly the same time last week from Brown University's Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs that looked at the cost of our wars since 9/11 and shows the bill comes in at $5.9 Trillion. Most of the folks on the commission or giving testimony have been either making the policy or otherwise supportive of one that has given us "17 years of fighting; thousands of US soldiers killed and many thousands more injured; hundreds of thousands of civilians killed; millions of refugees; and the costs go on."

I have been meaning to go back and read the similar playbook that accompanied George W. Bush into the White House from the Project for a New American Century. How coincidentally that the title of their playbook, which included attacking Iraq even before 9/11, was titled "Rebuilding America's Defenses", another militaristic approach to foreign policy. And where did that get us????

We need to call this out, stand up to robbing our treasury to fund the arms lobby, and seek to develop a world order built on the rule of law, diplomacy, sustainable development, and shared leadership. The American empire project will end. If we follow the militarists it will end a lot uglier than if we build trust, cooperation, and address our shared challenges - climate change, growing income inequality, adequate health care access, clean water, good food and livelihoods for all.

We should be putting our shoulders together to address the Sustainable Development Goals all United Nations member states have agreed to. Throwing money at the military is a fool's errand.

Image result for sdgs

Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Narcotic of Power

I still have two chapters to go before I finish Philippe Sands penetrating 2005 book, Lawless World: America and the Making and Breaking of Global Rules, so what follows might have been improved if I had finished before sharing these thoughts.  I can’t be sure if what follows is inspired by that engaging book, or the recent storm over the Supreme Court, or recent decisions by the current administration to withdraw from and ignore legal agreements, or the fight to end gerrymandering or the corruption of democracy generally. Probably all of the above and more are responsible.

Lawless World

What all of these things point me towards is the use of power.  The old saying that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” seems truer with each passing day. The framers of our constitution were certainly concerned with the abuse of power and shaped that constitution with some purpose to create a “balance of powers”. But even that was contextualized in the moment. Women and blacks and indigenous people were not presumed to have any power, and the constitution certainly isolated them from it. The supposedly strict constitutionalists amongst us who try and interpret everything in the constitution literally, fail to appreciate how flawed the Constitution was from the start. That’s why it has been continually amended.

No one seeks to be on the bottom of the power ladder. Neither is this is a partisan issue. Neither major party prefers to be in the minority. When it finds itself in that position the minority party hopes that there are rules that prevent the majority party from annihilating the minority. If we believe in equity, we must have protections for all from the concentration and the abuse of power by some. Constraining the accumulation of dominant power and moving towards governance that is designed to share power is precisely what our founders sought with the original constitution, despite its shortcomings more obvious to us since. It is also what Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill were hoping to establish globally with the drafting of the Atlantic Charter and later the creation of the United Nations.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a fundamental statement of individual freedom from the abuse of power. UDHR passed overwhelmingly 70 years ago and remains the bedrock of individual rights, which have been expanded with subsequent conventions like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1977) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1977).

Let me try and put some flesh on the bones of these thoughts using the examples from which I opened this blog.

Philippe Sands is a noted British legal scholar, teacher and practicing attorney who has specialized in international law and been involved in numerous important cases of international legal arenas. In Lawless World, published in 2005, Sands walks us through a number of cases that demonstrate how the U.S. (and sometimes with British support) has frequently confounded other nations by undercutting global agreements in their development stage, refusing to support many, and ignoring when it’s inconvenient, its own international agreements since WWII. In great detail and with clear prose and argument he addresses many moments in recent history including the Nuclear NonProliferation Treaty, Geneva Conventions, UN Charter, International Court of Justice and more. Of course there is voluminous amount of material since the Bush Administration came to office, although the book ends as Bush is starting his second term.

The U.S. of course wants to promote an image as the true democracy and law abiding nation, but Sands demolishes that image with a plethora of cases. He looks carefully at the legal gymnastics used to try and justify the U.S. illegal invasion of Iraq, the illegal detention of non-combatants, the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib and other detention centers, the undermining of the Kyoto Protocol and on and on.

Sands makes the plea for establishing rules that we can agree to and then following them, even if we don’t like them. Can you imagine a baseball game where one team decided you needed four strikes for a strikeout to give their hitters a better chance? The recent decisions to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement and the Nuclear agreement with Iran and other nations are just more of the same. It is interesting to note that even fifteen years ago Sands identified John Bolton, current National Security Advisor, as a detestor of international agreements. No surprise that he has helped engineer the recent U.S. abandonment of global agreements.

Prof. Michael Schwalbe wrote an unfortunately under-read book, Rigging the Game: How Inequality is Reproduced in Everyday Life, that depicts with crystal clarity how the rules are rigged against the poor. It is a clear example of the abuse of power. An abusive power I might add that has been consolidated with recent additional tax cuts for the wealthiest amongst us. 

Cover for 

Rigging the Game

But the inequality we face is not simply an economic one. As noted political scientists Kay Schlozman,Sydney Verba, and Henry Brady have documented in several recent books, paralleling income inequality is political inequality. Unheavenly Chorus: Unequal Political Voice and the Failed Promise of Demoracy(2012) offers 693 pages of evidence In this hefty, multiple award winning tome, Schlozman and colleagues review a huge number of studies and discern, what a reasonable person might easily infer, that the growing economic inequality parallels a growing political inequality.

 They followed that up this year with Unequal and Unrepresented: Political Inequality and the People’s Voice in the New Gilded Age (2018).Their evidence is compelling, but If that wouldn’t provide sufficient research evidence try this.

 “According to a new study from Princeton University, American democracy no longer exists. Using data from over 1,800 policy initiatives from 1981 to 2002, researchers Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page concluded that rich, well-connected individuals on the political scene now steer the direction of the country, regardless of – or even against – the will of the majority of voters. America’s political system has transformed from a democracy into an oligarchy, where power is wielded by wealthy elites.” So reports Ellen  Brown, founder of the Public Banking Institute in “How America Became an Oligarchy”

See also Senator Sheldon Whitehouse’s Captured: The Corporate Capture of AmericanDemocracy to see how the abuse of power often tied to wealth and privilege  has infiltrated and ‘captured’  the executive agencies and the courts. It’s the reason that so many books are coming out that focus on the death or dying of democracy.


The recent Supreme Court brou-ha-ha is a clear example of using power to squash the minority. It started when the Senate majority refused to hold a hearing and vote on President Obama’s nomination of Merick Garland in 2016. The abuse of power has grown with the Republican erasure of the filibuster rule and then consummated in the rush job to get  Mr. Kavanagh on the bench without the full review of  documents of his past record, or a thorough investigation of allegations regarding sexual assault and drinking.

Moving to a world where we look at power as not one of “power over” but rather as “power with” is a major step. Perhaps nowhere is this most visible than with the global concerns over climate change. Just last month we saw the release of the International Panel on Climate Change’s recent report that sees catastrophe less than a generation away if we don’t dramatically reverse direction in our consumption and release of carbon. This is not something one community or one nation can adequately confront. It should unite us as one human family on a single planet with a shared future. Does one nation believe it can or should try to survive the potential catastrophe alone? Especially if that nation is more responsible per capita than any other nation for the coming catastrophe?

Economist Jared Bernstein made an interesting point years ago describing basic worldviews distinctions between YOYO’s and WITT’s. YOYO’s Bernstein says, are those that believe that You're On Your Own, the pull-yourself-up-by-the- bootstraps approach and that hard work is all that is necessary for success. WITT’s, Bernstein argues, believe that We’re  In This Together and believe more in fundamental democracy and giving a hand-up as captured in the New Deal.

Roosevelt expanded that idea from application within the U.S. to consideration for a global family. While the US was a main driver of this post-WWII effort, we reserved for ourselves and the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council, a power-over veto that has hampered the possibility of reaching the promise from which the UN was born. This perhaps was cornerstone of what has been the US belief in its own exceptionalism. Unfortunately it is an anathema of a truly global democracy that Roosevelt hope to evolve. In recent years as Philippe Sands so clearly depicts as does Professor Stephen Walt of Harvard  in his new tome, The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy (2018), America has defied international agreements whenever they are inconvenient. It’s an abuse of power and the rest of the world recognizes the hypocrisy, even if we citizens are in denial.

The Hell of Good Intentions

Saturday, November 3, 2018

The Limits of Our Thoughts

The reading pile keeps getting bigger. Each morning upon grabbing the coffee and nestling into a corner of the couch, I reach for one of the books in my reading pile. On the coffee table in front of the couch are the magazines that pile up – The Sun, The Atlantic, The Nation, Yes Magazine.

Today I grabbed a recent addition to the book pile, Stephen Walt’s new The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy (2018).

The Hell of Good Intentions

It’s one of the best reads of 2018 if not the 2000s. I’ve got two chapters left, about 70 pages of the 360 ( 70 pages are notes, themselves worth reading). Anyone interested in foreign policy should read this critique of the “establishment” since WWII through early 2018 and why policy alternatives to what Walt, describes as “liberal hegemony” never seem to change whether Clinton, Bush, Obama or Trump sits in the oval office. Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University.

Also in the pile and partially read are:

Also in the pile but not yet started other than the introductions are
George Orwell. TheRoad to Wigan Pier (1937) which Ellen just read and highly recommended it for it’s pertinence.

Gretel Van Wieren. Food Farming and Religion: Emerging Ethical Perspectives (2018) Stumbled upon on the new book shelf and noted that author was an MSU professor (I have not met) but in the intro she highlights work of two other MSU profs I do know.

Peter Plastrik and John Cleveland. Life After Carbon: The Next Global Transformation of Cities (2018)

Noam Chomsky. Who Rules the World (2016)

I often wonder how the brain and impulse drive the selection of items for the pile and how it then integrates the ideas as I read them. Based on past experience I may not finish all of them, and certainly as the Walt book shows, some other title will get added to the pile and potentially take precedence over others. Usually when that happens,  like Walt’s book, the writing is excellent and ideas more compelling or perhaps fresh, innovative or at least new to me.

I admittedly don’t absorb anymore the full detail as I read the pages. I tend to carry forward the general intent of the book along with its tone. In some cases I note certain quotes and page references for possible future use. In many cases the references lead to other titles added to the pile or websites to investigate.

I recognize all this as a privilege that I have, or at least make the time, to delve into this playground of ideas. Of course, scholars like Walt or the others represented in the pile, dedicate even more of their time and energy into delving deeper into segments of the world of ideas than I do. But most of those are within a narrower band width of human thought than I can manage. So it intrigues me as I interact more and more with elected officials and their staff, to consider how much they read, how limited that time is and perhaps again how narrow the area of focus.

Mr. Trump, who appears to celebrate not reading, except teleprompters,  is at the abysmal end of this scale. But what of Senator X,  Representative Y, or foreign policy staffer Z.  How many books have any of them read in the past year? What is the longest policy report they have completely read from an academic journal, think tank, or government agency? It concerns me that the responses would be closer to Trump than to Walt, or even me. While Walt doesn’t discuss this information deficit directly thus far in his book, his notion of how the foreign policy elites constrain the limits of consideration helps me understand why new ideas, or even the reconsideration of failed policies, seem “foreign” to most elected officials.

Expanding our horizons and possibilities in our increasingly complex world through reading of serious, thoughtful, and sometimes lengthy writings might help all of us appreciate the limitations of our electoral system and those that represent us. Ignorance is not bliss.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

To Rally or Not to Rally?

As I approach this week the “Stand Up for Peace” rally that I have been helping to plan for months, I began to think about what drives people to attend rallies or to stay home. As someone who has not planned a rally before but who has participated in many over the decades, I started to wonder about all the folks I know who hold very similar beliefs about the state of our world but whom I have never seen at a rally for these same causes.

Image result for peace quest

Of course, the basic reasons that come to mind include conflicts with work or other schedule commitments, fear of crowds, lack of confidence that the event will have any impact, etc. All are reasonable responses. But many of these same folks are retired, or in this case, our rally overlaps with the lunch hour. Fear of crowds, if one has never attended a rally, are based on an abstract fear. With the unusual exception of throngs of 500,000–1,000,000, as at the Women’s March of January 2017 in Washington, where I saw and felt that the density of people posed a potential for danger, I have never experienced any such concerns.

Image result for women's march 2017

The question of effectiveness raises perhaps a more challenging reason from those who do not attend rallies. How does one measure effectiveness? Is the policy issue(s) raised by the rally addressed within days or weeks of the rally? Rarely if ever would be my best guess. Even if policy changes in six months or a year, can one say the rally made it happen? Certainly not by itself. So why bother with all the planning and hoopla if there is no immediate remedy provided by the rally action?

Herein lies my response and why I have thrown the bits of myself I could muster into organizing this rally for the International Day of Peace next Friday at the State Capitol. I’ll begin this response to concerns of effectiveness of rallies with a quote from perhaps our greatest living writer, Rebecca Solnit.

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.

Yes, this rally and any rally organized to address an issue is a project of hope. We can’t possibly know the outcome in advance. Even as I fill out forms for the folks managing the access to the State Capitol steps that ask how many attendees, I really have no clue. Who will feel their schedule of commitments (work, family, meetings, doctor appointments, etc.) will allow it? Who is willing to possibly go alone to be with strangers to participate in something they have never experienced and therefore are wary of? Who will feel strongly enough about the issue(s) being addressed that they would put aside other things to spend an hour or two in support of the rally’s purpose? I obviously don’t know. I guessed – 250-500, I said. Wishful thinking?

Cheesh, wouldn’t you think that thousands would be willing to come out for a rally titled “Stand Up for Peace” celebrating the global International Day of Peace? Yes, part of me does. But there have been few rallies at the State Capitol I have attended in the past year that have passed that threshold, so I doubt it. Everyone wants peace, but few are willing to do the work necessary to build it.

So let me add two other considerations for you to think about next time there is a rally in your community that aims to address issues you agree with.

1)    The larger the attendance the more coverage by media to the issue and proposals that emanate from it. The larger audience itself expands the message as they leave and talk to those in their circles about the issue(s) and options they heard. The idea gets seeded. This affirms the insight Milton Friedman offered to his conservative cohorts years ago.

"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.
Milton Friedman. Capitalism and Freedom, p.2 (cited in Rob Dietz and Dan O'Neill, Enough is Enough, 2013).

2)    Those with enough hope, who pull together the resources to hold rallies and events to seed ideas or keep them alive, are fed by those who bother to attend and participate. This in fact becomes a huge energy transfer. This energy is needed to propel society forward. Your participation feeds the larger energy towards peace. In sharing one’s energy, one is also fed by the community and solidarity of strangers committed to creating a better world.

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… To hope is to give yourself to the future, and that commitment to the future makes the present inhabitable.  -
Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark

Ask anyone who attended the Women’s March on Washington on January 2017 if they were moved by the energy. Get out and support peace, not only on the International Day of Peace, September 21. But every chance you get.It's the only way to get there.