• I'll be blunt: The term "President Trump" sticks in my throat. I wouldn't have been any happier if Hillary Clinton had won, but at least "President Clinton" has a familiar ring to it.
  • Porter sure was wrong when he said Trump would be "The Biggest Loser" because he wouldn't win a single electoral vote. But he was also right: Trump is the biggest loser because he won. The Presidency ages people like nothing else, and he doesn't have very far to go.
  • I truly believe the one person most surprised by the outcome of this election is Donald Trump himself. I believe he began the process just to see how far he could go, and never dreamed this would actually happen. In that, if nothing else, the whole country agrees with him.
  • I have disliked Donald Trump ever since I once made the mistake of watching 15 minutes of The Apprentice. I longed that the Republicans, somewhere, anywhere along the way, would stand up and tell him, "You're FIRED!" But he is our President-elect, and as such deserves honor and respect. As a human being, he deserves courtesy, and he certainly needs our prayers. I strove, and I hope I mostly succeeded, in granting this to President Obama, and to President Bush before him, even though both of them disturbed me greatly. I intend to do the same for President Trump. If we cannot be civil to one another, it won't be Trump who brings America down.
  • I've heard several people announce, bitterly, "He's NOT MY president!" Everyone needs grace in difficult moments, so I'm not holding that against them. But it does sound a bit like a teenager shouting in an argument, "You're not my mother!" A frustrated person has the right to feel that way, but it doesn't change the facts. Mr. Trump IS scheduled to be our president in a few months. True, it's possible to leave and renounce your citizenship, but be forewarned: that process is expensive. 
  • I predict the next four years will be neither as bad as some people think, nor as good as some people hope. I would have said the same thing if Hillary Clinton had won the election. Much depends on the people he surrounds himself with, and more importantly, on the American people—all of us.
  • I've said over and over again that Donald Trump is the Democratic Party's best friend. It doesn't seem that way now, but I'm not taking back my words. The Republic Party is in disarray. The next four years could pave the way for a strong Democratic victory in 2020. Or not. We don't know. But in any case, Donald Trump is in the same position Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton were in their times: being able to take actions and make compromises that would not be acceptable to "his side" if they were proposed by the "other side." (If a Democrat had tried to normalize relations with China, do you think the Republicans would have stood for it?)
  • Here's another prediction: Some Trump supporters are in for a rude awakening on some of the issues where they think he is in their corner. I don't trust any politician when it comes to political promises; the track record of them all is too abysmal. Besides, political realities are about give and take, gaining less than you hope for, hoping to lose less than you fear. Barack Obama was not the messiah many people thought he was, and Donald Trump is going to disappoint his followers as well.
  • He also may surprise his opponents. As Obama was eight years ago, he stands in a position to be able to surround himself with good people, knowledgeable people who will not be afraid to work with him and challenge him as needed. To recognize and acknowledge that he does not have a "mandate from the American People," but that half the country is bitterly disappointed today. Donald Trump won only because a goodly number of people were so opposed to Hillary Clinton that they either opted out of the two-party system altogether, or voted for him only with great reluctance. That is not a mandate. It is a plea for grace, reconciliation, and healing. Sadly, I believe President Obama failed to recognize this eight years ago. We have another chance. Please, Mr. Trump, don't blow it.
  • Donald Trump may not be a lawyer, he may not have experience in government, but anyone who says he has no experience with politics doesn't understand what it means to run a business.
  • I read somewhere, weeks ago, that Trump had much more minority support than anyone knew, but it would only become known under the secrecy of the ballot box. That may be true. Florida was expected to go for Clinton because of the Hispanic vote, but while Hispanic voters are credited with Marco Rubio's win, they did not deliver for Clinton.
  • One thing this election revealed is that the Democratic Party has once again shifted its population base. I'm old enough to remember when to be from the South was to be a Democrat. Under today's mapping system, the southern states would have been colored solid blue. Within my lifetime that changed radically, to where Democratic appeal is in the West, the Northeast, and big cities almost everywhere. More recently, I remember when the Democrats considered themselves the party of the working class, of the little guy against the rich businessmen. I suspect that many still think they are, which is why they lost this election. Working class people came out in droves yesterday to make it clear that their party has left them.
  • For every major election, people joke about dead people voting. It may be debatable whether or how much that happens these days, though it certainly has happened in the past that votes have been cast in the name of those who have died. What I will say is that Early Voting has made it almost certainly a reality in ways that don't have to involve corruption. With an electorate of our size, the odds are almost certain that people have died between the time they cast an early vote and Election Day itself.
  • I didn't see it coming, but next year we will enter the dreaded House-Senate-Executive one-party control situation. I'm less afraid of that than I thought I would be, because the Republicans are so far from united with each other, much less with Trump. I have no doubt that the Democrats will be able to find Republicans willing to cross party lines as needed, which actually give me more hope for bipartisan cooperation overall.
  • On Election Night, Google popped up a notification on my phone suggesting I follow the election results. That turned out to be great: the results were well presented and easy to follow, and best of all, there was no commentary.
  • I went to bed as usual, on the grounds that depriving myself of sleep was not going to have any effect on the election results. But Porter was following the process with NBC, so the TV was on when I got up at 2 a.m. to use the bathroom. I didn't get back to sleep till four. It was at that point that the commentators were coming to grips with the idea that Hillary Clinton might lose, and that was too interesting to miss. I was surprised and impressed by the discussion. With the exception of one of them, who showed genuine fear and went off on an apocalyptic rant, the commentators exhibited humility, respect, and for the most part a willingness, despite their obvious concerns, to give a possible Trump presidency, and the half of America who elected him, a chance. We were wrongWe didn't see this comingWe messed upMaybe we're too wrapped up in our own, isolated world. They didn't call anyone names, and they seemed genuinely interested in understanding the real issues. I found that genuinely encouraging.
  • Trump's speech, too, was encouraging. Knowing how bombastic he can be, I was nervous. But he did well, and so did Clinton, in both her concession speech and the one she gave to her supporters the next day. This is professional behavior. This is civilized behavior.  If this civility, after so much of the opposite on both sides, can spread to the rest of us, there's hope for America.
  • Finally—and I consider this to be the most important of my ramblings in this post—parents, please reconsider how you share your political feelings with your children. I'm not talking about teenagers, who are not far away from voting age. But by involving your young children in your politics, you are putting burdens on them that they are not ready to handle. I've heard post-election stories of children sobbing uncontrollably when they heard the results, and stories of children wearing Trump hats to school and teasing their classmates cruelly with their gloating. This is what happens when normal childhood behavior meets adult problems. We can, we must do better than that for our children. We do not need to let them see our own anger, griefs, prejudices, and fears. It is enough—it is essential—to teach them to be caring and compassionate, strong and brave, knowledgeable and wise.

alt

Post-Finally, here's a shameless plug. I don't gain anything other than the good will of the author for saying this, but King Ron of the Triceratops, by S. S. Paulson, is a brand-new book that's a story about dinosaurs for children, a cautionary tale for grownups, and a good way to begin discussions about politics and other realities, independent of any particular political leanings. If you think it's about your party—or the other guy's—read the disclaimer. Read the disclaimer anyway. It's funny.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, November 10, 2016 at 11:51 am | Edit
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  • Someday I suppose I'll give in and sign up for an absentee ballot, just in case I happen to be out of town on Election Day. But "the Tuesday next after the first Monday in the month of November" is right there in the Constitution, and I much prefer to vote on Election Day itself. I took advantage of Early Voting the first year it was available, and it felt so wrong I've never done it since. Besides, I like the camaraderie of voting at our local polling place. I can walk there. I see neighbors there. It makes me feel part of a community.
  • You'll never know who I'm voting for tomorrow. You may guess all you want, but you are as likely to be wrong as right. I've been a Democrat all my voting life, but was always just as likely to vote for some other party. I've voted for people from parties you've never heard of—and parties I don't remember. (Hmm. Isn't it a bad sign if you don't remember the party after it's over?)  I don't understand voting for a party at all; I belong to one so I can vote in the primary. In any case, I'm a huge believer in the secret ballot. It helps keep the powerful from threatening the weak, and friends from disowning each other on Facebook. Besides, at the moment even I don't know how I'm going to vote.
  • Right now I'm almost wishing I'd voted absentee. Back then I felt freer. I was certain the election would be a romp for Clinton. I agreed with Porter, who insisted that Trump would be the Biggest Loser since McGovern. Thus I thought we had the luxury of voting our consciences—making a statement, telling both parties that we're not going to dance to their music if they keep coming up with tunes that make a toddler crashing pans together sound like Mozart. But now it appears that our votes might actually count, which means we have to be more responsible. The trouble is, that which appears to be the responsible decision changes daily, even hourly.
  • To my shame, I realized that what I'd rather do is vote selfishly. That is, I want to be able to say, It's not my fault; I didn't vote for him/her.
  • Here's a fun little quiz to see how the various candidates align with what's important to you.  I'm not sure I believe it entirely, but it is much more nuanced than most such surveys.
  • Porter came up with an interesting thought experiment: Suppose there were only four candidates: Clinton, Trump, Johnson, and Stein. Suppose further that the only vote that counts is yours. Whomever you pick will be the next President of the United States. For whom would you vote?
  • Much to our surprise, we both picked Jill Stein, with whom each of us disagrees on almost every issue—on the grounds that she would be in a position to do the least harm. Not that her ideas aren't dangerous, but she'd be less likely to be able to implement them. Does that mean I'm voting for her?  Your guess is as good as mine.
  • I think what scares me most about Clinton is not so much her ideas, but that she's likely to be able to put them into action. If I knew for certain that after this election the Republicans would have control of both the House and the Senate, I'd probably vote for her. Likewise, if I knew both houses would be Democratic, I'd probably vote for Trump. Unlike many of my friends, I do not mourn when the "obstructionists" make the president work hard to implement his ideas; I believe that's their job. When all the branches of the government agree too easily, mistakes are more likely to be made. One thing going for Trump is that so many people—especially politicians—hate him that even a Republican-controlled Congress would tend to rein him in.
  • This election is déjà vu all over again, only on a much larger scale. In the 2010 gubernatorial race, Florida voters had to choose between (1) a female, career politician with whom many of us had serious problems (and, I kid you not, who cheated during a debate), and (2) a brash, male, businessman who was a surprise candidate, spent vast quantities of his own money in his campaign, was involved in a business scandal, and was pretty much universally disliked by the political establishment. That was another election in which I made up my mind at the last moment.
  • Which is worse, a loose cannon randomly shooting at friend and enemy, which might even explode and sink the ship, or a powerful cannon aimed unerringly at the city in which our children and grandchildren live?
  • For the first time, I'm tempted to do a write-in vote. I've thought of writing in my true choice: Noneofthe Above. More seriously, I've thought of Ben Carson, who at least shows strength of character, integrity, and the ability to think well in highly stressful situations. But that feels like an abdication of my responsibility, since it is barely more significant that not voting at all.
  • Speaking of Ben Carson: When he was running, where were all the people who told me I was racist if I didn't support Barack Obama?
  • I feel as if we're caught in some twisted variation of the Prisoner's Dilemma, in which following the optimal strategy leads to sub-optimal results. 
  • Fortunately, there is very little correlation between a person's moral rectitude and his ability to do a good job as president. That makes no sense to me, but in my own voting life I've seen good people (Carter, Bush #2) do a terrible job as president, and questionable folk (Reagan, Clinton) do a commendable job. For this reason, I don't worry all that much about the outcome of tomorrow's election. I'm much more concerned about the increasing divisions in our society, stoked by the mainstream media, social media, and self-interested fearmongers everywhere. But that's another post.
  • Most of all, as a Christian, I know that bad times will come, and good times will come, and neither our responsibilities nor God's care are dependent on the results of tomorrow's election.
  • My most consistent prayer, with regard to our political situation, has been that we will get our leaders according to what we need, rather than according to what we deserve.
  • Whatever happens tomorrow, how we treat our neighbors will always be much more important than who wins the election.
Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, November 7, 2016 at 11:16 pm | Edit
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altThe Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg (Random House, 2012)

After reading this book, I have the uneasy feeling that it is sometimes oversimplified and doesn't tell the whole story. It is, however, heavily documented—when I read the last sentence of the text my Kindle told me I was merely 75% through the book—and anyone who wants to take the trouble to dig further can do so. More importantly, anyone who wants to test out Duhigg's theories of the power of our habits can easily experiment in the laboratory of his own life.

There's a lot in The Power of Habit that will be familiar to the circle of my readers who are working hard on personal change and challenge. We already know the importance of habit and routines, of baby steps and small wins. But Duhigg's numerous examples and summaries of scientific research are valuable and inspiring.

Our habits aren't just part of our lives—they are what make the rest of our lives possible. Habits are the infrastructure that takes care of the basics and frees our brains for higher work. As habits become part of our brain's structure, they make the difference between sounding out c-a-t and enjoying a novel, between learning to drive and toolin' down the highway.

So habits are good. Well, good habits are good. But the brain doesn't distinguish between good and bad habits. (I'm not sure that's true. Why else would a good habit take weeks to establish but a bad habit seems to stick after a few days?)

Good or bad, habit formation has a basic structure: 

This process within our brains is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.... Over time, this loop—cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward—becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges. Eventually ... a habit is born.

And it never really goes away. It's always there, in the brain. That's good, because it means that after falling out of a good routine we can get back in less time than it took to establish it. But it also means that the bad habits we thought we had conquered are lurking there, ready to ensnare us again if we aren't wary.

Habits aren’t destiny. ... [H]abits can be ignored, changed, or replaced. But the reason the discovery of the habit loop is so important is that it reveals a basic truth: When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks. So unless you deliberately fight a habit—unless you find new routines—the pattern will unfold automatically.

The Golden Rule of Habit Change:  You Can’t Extinguish a Bad Habit, You Can Only Change It.

How is this accomplished?  By following the cue, which triggers the bad habit, with a different routine, but the same reward. It's a little more complicated than that, or the book would be a lot shorter. One important factor is identifying what is truly rewarding the action. Do I eat a doughnut every morning because I'm hungry, or because I crave sugar, or because it provides an excuse for socializing with my coworkers?  Only when you know what the reward provides can you determine an appropriate good routine to replace the one you want to eliminate.

[H]abits are so powerful [because] they create neurological cravings.

[C]ountless studies have shown that a cue and a reward, on their own, aren’t enough for a new habit to last. Only when your brain starts expecting the reward—craving the endorphins or sense of accomplishment—will it become automatic to lace up your jogging shoes each morning. The cue, in addition to triggering a routine, must also trigger a craving for the reward to come.

More good news lies in the concept of keystone habits. It turns out that very often changing one habit, conquering one problem leads in a domino effect to victories in other areas.

The habits that matter most are the ones that, when they start to shift, dislodge and remake other patterns.

Keystone habits offer what is known within academic literature as “small wins.”  They help other habits to flourish by creating new structures, and they establish cultures where change becomes contagious. ... A huge body of research has shown that small wins have enormous power, an influence disproportionate to the accomplishments of the victories themselves.

Keystone habits say that success doesn’t depend on getting every single thing right, but instead relies on identifying a few key priorities and fashioning them into powerful levers.

Once people learned how to believe in something, that skill started spilling over to other parts of their lives, until they started believing they could change. Belief was the ingredient that made a reworked habit loop into a permanent behavior.

Making your bed every morning is correlated with better productivity, a greater sense of well-being, and stronger skills at sticking with a budget. It’s not that a family meal or a tidy bed causes better grades or less frivolous spending. But somehow those initial shifts start chain reactions that help other good habits take hold.

“If you want to do something that requires willpower—like going for a run after work—you have to conserve your willpower muscle during the day,” Muraven told me. “If you use it up too early on tedious tasks like writing emails or filling out complicated and boring expense forms, all the strength will be gone by the time you get home.” 

For almost all our married life, we have kept track of every penny earned and spent. It's the best way we know of to learn where our spending habits are on track and when they're veering off into trouble. I've always been surprised at how few people do that—even people who have far more cause to be concerned about money matters than we do. I mention it because that exercise turns out to be one of the ones researchers have used for building "willpower muscles."

Participants were asked to keep detailed logs of everything they bought, which was annoying at first, but eventually people worked up the self-discipline to jot down every purchase.

As people strengthened their willpower muscles in one part of their lives—in the gym, or a money management program—that strength spilled over into what they ate or how hard they worked. Once willpower became stronger, it touched everything.

An important concept in strengthening willpower is recognizing inflection points—situations in which one is most vulnerable to temptation—and creating a plan to deal with them. Then rehearsing the desired response to the point where the temptation cue triggers the healthy action.

This is how willpower becomes a habit: by choosing a certain behavior ahead of time, and then following that routine when an inflection point arrives.

A better response to apparent failure (backsliding, falling off the wagon, slipping out of one's organizational routine yet again) is also critical:

Studies suggest that this process of experimentation—and failure—is critical in long-term habit change. Smokers often quit and then start smoking again as many as seven times before giving up cigarettes for good. It’s tempting to see those relapses as failures, but what’s really occurring are experiments.

If you choose pressure-release moments ahead of time—if, in other words, you plan for failure, and then plan for recovery—you’re more likely to snap back faster.

There is much, much more to The Power of Habit than personal change. That is only Part One. Parts Two and Three are about the habits of organizations and societies. That I'm skipping lightly over them in this review does not mean they are uninteresting or unimportant. If you want to know more about the news story that broke a while back, in which Target knew, from her buying patterns alone, that a teenage girl was pregnant (including her approximate due date) before her family did—this is the place.

And it was here that I finally learned the sad, sad story of Febreze. Proctor and Gamble serendipitously discovered a chemical that could actually eliminate odors, removing the cigarette smell from clothing, and pet odor from carpets, instead of simply masking them.

P&G, sensing an opportunity, launched a top-secret project to turn HPBCD into a viable product. They spent millions perfecting the formula, finally producing a colorless, odorless liquid that could wipe out almost any foul odor. The science behind the spray was so advanced that NASA would eventually use it to clean the interiors of shuttles after they returned from space. The best part was that it was cheap to manufacture, didn’t leave stains, and could make any stinky couch, old jacket, or stained car interior smell, well, scentless.

But it didn't sell, because people don't notice the stinks closest to home. The product was almost trashed, until P&G gave it a strong scent.

[A]fter the new ads aired and the redesigned bottles were given away, they found that some housewives in the test market had started expecting—craving—the Febreze scent. ... “If I don’t smell something nice at the end, it doesn’t really seem clean now."

“We were looking at it all wrong. No one craves scentlessness. On the other hand, lots of people crave a nice smell after they’ve spent thirty minutes cleaning.”

And that's why the one bottle of Febreze I bought, many years ago, sat unused after the first spray. I had bought an odor eliminator, or so I had thought, and had ended up with an odor-creater. Yuck. I do crave scentlessness:  in my cleansers, in my paper products, in my greeting cards, in anything that's not supposed to have a smell. In my garden I love odors:  roses, gardenias, orange blossoms. In my kitchen I love odors:  baking bread, bubbling stew, cookies fresh from the oven. But not in my clothing, linens, and carpets!

On a more serious note, consider this response from a major gambling establishment, accused of unethical behavior in the case of a compuslive gambler:

Like most large companies in the service industry, we pay attention to our customers’ purchasing decisions as a way of monitoring customer satisfaction and evaluating the effectiveness of our marketing campaigns. Like most companies, we look for ways to attract customers, and we make efforts to maintain them as loyal customers. And like most companies, when our customers change their established patterns, we try to understand why, and encourage them to return. That’s no different than a hotel chain, an airline, or a dry cleaner. That’s what good customer service is about.…

“But what was really interesting [in an MRI study of gamblers] were the near misses. To pathological gamblers, near misses looked like wins. Their brains reacted almost the same way. But to a nonpathological gambler, a near miss was like a loss. People without a gambling problem were better at recognizing that a near miss means you still lose.”

Gamblers who keep betting after near wins are what make casinos, racetracks, and state lotteries so profitable. “Adding a near miss to a lottery is like pouring jet fuel on a fire,” said a state lottery consultant who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity. “You want to know why sales have exploded? Every other scratch-off ticket is designed to make you feel like you almost won.”

In the late 1990s, one of the largest slot machine manufacturers hired a former video game executive to help them design new slots. That executive’s insight was to program machines to deliver more near wins. Now, almost every slot contains numerous twists—such as free spins and sounds that erupt when icons almost align—as well as small payouts that make players feel like they are winning when, in truth, they are putting in more money than they are getting back. “No other form of gambling manipulates the human mind as beautifully as these machines,” an addictive-disorder researcher at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine told a New York Times reporter in 2004.

If you think all that's scary, try this:

[W]ise executives seek out moments of crisis—or create the perception of crisis—and cultivate the sense that something must change, until everyone is finally ready to overhaul the patterns they live with each day.

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” Rahm Emanuel told a conference of chief executives in the wake of the 2008 global financial meltdown, soon after he was appointed as President Obama’s chief of staff. “This crisis provides the opportunity for us to do things that you could not do before.” Soon afterward, the Obama administration convinced a once-reluctant Congress to pass the president’s $787 billion stimulus plan. Congress also passed Obama’s health care reform law, reworked consumer protection laws, and approved dozens of other statutes, from expanding children’s health insurance to giving women new opportunities to sue over wage discrimination. It was one of the biggest policy overhauls since the Great Society and the New Deal, and it happened because, in the aftermath of a financial catastrophe, lawmakers saw opportunity.

Once you realize what's happening, you see it everywhere. From the Great Depression and the New Deal, to the 9-11 terrorist attacks and the Patriot Act, to school shootings and the campaign against gun ownership, people are frightened and vulnerable in times of crisis. That's when we are most prone to demagoguery, and our leaders most likely to make serious mistakes.

The author actually presents this vulnerability to change in crisis as something positive, a chance for hide-bound corporations to make much-needed changes. To me, it brings new light to the tendency of politicians, activists, and the media to pour incessant hype on every negative event.

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, July 10, 2016 at 9:22 am | Edit
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I have no degree in economics or finance, and certainly don't have the answers to our complex employment problems. But here are some observations that I think raise important questions.

  • In Switzerland, wages are high and even so-called menial jobs are respected. HOWEVER, there is a high level of automation. The Swiss shake their heads in bemusement that we would pay someone to collect highway tolls or parking lot fees. They can't afford to pay good wages for low-skilled jobs.
  • In Switzerland, college tuition is low and heavily subsidized. HOWEVER, only a small percentage of the population attends college. The educational system also includes an excellent vocational program in cooperation with the business community.
  • It makes no sense to push for imitation of another country's system ("We should make college free and guarantee everyone a living wage!") without considering what makes the good thing possible ("Are we willing to completely restructure our educational system, drastically restrict who can attend college, and eliminate low-skill jobs? If not, how can we, in practice, make it work?").
  • I'm a firm believer in the philosophy that education is valuable in and of itself, irrespective of the economic value it can confer.  But how can we in good conscience encourage young people to take on boatloads of debt to acquire college degrees for which there are few or no jobs that will enable them to pay off that debt? 
  • Unemployment is very high in The Gambia. Since long before the current refugee crisis, young Gambian men have been taking the "back door" into Europe, entering illegally and hoping to establish themselves, undetected, because they see no hope at home. The Gambia doesn't need more direct aid nearly so much as it needs an economy and a culture that support entrepreneurship, ambition, and job-creation.
  • Low-skill, low-wage jobs in the United States, like working at McDonald's, used to be a way for teenagers to get some work experience and earn a little pocket-money. Apparently, they are now increasingly being held by people who are trying to make a living and perhaps even support a family. No wonder they want more money!  But how did we get into this situation—where responsible adults are taking unskilled, part-time, teen-age jobs—and how do we get out of it? Certainly not by flooding the workforce with more unskilled labor, which brings me to...
  • I'm frequently told that we need a large supply of foreign workers to take on jobs "that Americans don't want to do." My immediate reaction is that if Americans don't want to do the jobs, then the wages are too low. Raise the pay, and Americans will find the jobs more attractive. But as long as there continues to be a good supply of people eager to take the low-salaried jobs, the pay will stay at unattractive levels.
  • I'm also told that paying a decent wage to workers, instead of relying on what amounts to a slave-labor force, will drive food prices sky-high, with, say, tomatoes costing $40/pound. First of all, I'm pretty sure that's nonsense:  As mentioned above, the Swiss all enjoy good wages, and yes, the cost of living is high, but nothing like that scale. And second, isn't it better to pay more for our goods than to enjoy a discount based on slave labor? The American South tried the "our economy will fall apart without slaves" argument before the Civil War, and look how well it worked out for them.
  • One reason it is so difficult for the Gambian economy to grow is that there is no culture of saving or investment. If you have money that you don't need immediately, right now, in this moment, you are expected to give it to members of your family. Even distant relatives, from the truly needy to the plainly indolent, have a claim on you. There is little appreciation of the value of accumulating money for the purpose of acquiring the equipment or supplies needed to start a business, or for getting a better price by purchasing in bulk, or of pouring money back into a business to help it grow. If you have money now, you spend it now, or someone else will spend it for you.
  • I worry that this "spend it all now" attitude has infected America, from the poorest welfare recipient to the largest corporations. The poor man who refuses to sacrifice today for the sake of his children and his future cheats himself and his family, but the corporate managers and stockholders who prize short-term gain over long-term stability and growth have the power to cheat millions of families—and maybe destroy a nation.  And those in between cheat on both ends, by depriving their own families and by not investing wisely in economic growth.

As promised: no answers.  But questions worth considering.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, May 2, 2016 at 8:27 am | Edit
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I like Michael Hyatt's take on our political situation.

If there’s one thing that stands out in the ongoing presidential election, it’s the sheer nastiness. As a leader, I wouldn’t hire any of the present candidates for my business. I wouldn’t want to work for any of them either.

Why not?  Rampant disrespect.

  1. Disrespect among the candidates. Candidates set the tone, and the tone is terrible. Arguments about policy and ideas have taken a backseat to the pettiest of personal attacks. And who am I kidding? Policy debates aren’t in the backseat. They’re being dragged from the bumper.
  2. Disrespect among supporters. Following the tone set by candidates, supporters have joined in. They’ve goaded candidates to further extremes of badmouthing and mudslinging, even verbally and physically mistreated fellow voters.

  3. Disrespect for the American people in general. As far as I am concerned, this is the most important. Leadership is service. You can’t lead people you don’t respect. All you can do is boss and railroad.

None of us is served by these tactics. It encourages the worst and deprives us of statesmanship in a time when we need it most.

We can't change our candidates, not from the top down. But we can change ourselves and our responses. We can show the politicians how it's done. Let's lead from the bottom up, showing grace, civility, and respect to those we disagree with.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, March 15, 2016 at 12:22 pm | Edit
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My amusement for this week comes from all the folks who are questioning the right of Pope Francis to suggest that Donald Trump is not the Christian he claims to be.  "Who is he to judge?" they wonder.  Well, um ...

  • What part of POPE don't they understand?  He's the supreme head of the Catholic Church, which has been making such judgements for oh, almost two millennia.  Remember the Spanish Inquisition?  Martin Luther?  Henry VIII?  Not to mention anyone who wants to join the Church?
  • Or any church, any religion.  Most Mormons claim to be Christian, while a large number of Christians think otherwise.  Protestants and Catholics have traditionally proclaimed each other "not true Christians."  My friends who think they remain Jewish after having also become Christian tend to find that their community thinks otherwise. Ask Sunni and Shia Muslims what they think of each other's faith.
  • How about any organization with standards and definitions for membership?  Or even just traditions?  I have a friend who claims I'm not a "real" Democrat—despite the fact that I've been a member of the Democratic Party since the day I first registered to vote, and even worked for a Democratic presidential candidate while I was still in high school—because I share several values with Republicans (and others with Libertarians, etc.).

I agree with those who assert that only God knows a person's heart, but in the meantime we mortals have to make what judgements we can with our imperfect knowledge.  Whether or not Donald Trump is a Christian does not make a hill of beans difference to most voters.  It matters to me as a human being, and a Christian myself—though Pope Francis may not agree with that label in my case, either, since I'm not Catholic—but as a voter?  Meh.  In my life the two worst presidents have been the most obviously Christian.  (Present administration excepted; I'm holding back official judgement on that until time has given me some hindsight.)  Faith means a lot, but what it does not mean is that you have the wisdom, knowledge, and courage to be the president of the United States.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, February 19, 2016 at 4:01 pm | Edit
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I know there are Donald Trump supporters out there.  I don't have the right to say much about them, as I don't know any of them, not even on Facebook.  I do know some Bernie Sanders supporters, and the passion with which they believe in him.  I'm going to go out on a limb, however, angering them all, I'm sure, and say that both camps have much more in common than they will ever believe.

They don't care much about history, economic theory, or diplomacy, and they are each pushing for paths that can take our country down, fast.  What they do know is that things are badly wrong, and they're rightfully upset about it. Never mind that they think it's different things that are wrong.

The "anything is better than what we have" mentality really doesn't know—or doesn't believe—how bad things can be. (See above comment about ignorance of history—and of many other present-day cultures for that matter.)  All the same, it doesn't do well for any political party to ignore the needs and frustrations of the people until so much pressure builds up that all hope of rationality is gone.  This is what gave us the Affordable Care Act instead of a reasonable, workable, affordable approach to health care. (Have I mentioned that the Swiss health care law both works and is only sixty-some pages long? Though even they admit to being dependent on American pharmaceutical innovation that may well be on its way out now.)

Porter found this article that explains Donald Trump's popularity, and importance, better than anything I've seen yet:  "Donald Trump is Shocking, Vulgar, and Right:  And, my dear fellow Republicans, he's all your fault.

Consider the conservative nonprofit establishment, which seems to employ most right-of-center adults in Washington. Over the past 40 years, how much donated money have all those think tanks and foundations consumed? ... Has America become more conservative over that same period? Come on. Most of that cash went to self-perpetuation. ... Pretty embarrassing. And yet they’re not embarrassed.

Conservative voters are being scolded for supporting a candidate they consider conservative because it would be bad for conservatism? And by the way, the people doing the scolding? They’re the ones who’ve been advocating for open borders, and nation-building in countries whose populations hate us, and trade deals that eliminated jobs while enriching their donors, all while implicitly mocking the base for its worries about abortion and gay marriage and the pace of demographic change. Now they’re telling their voters to shut up and obey, and if they don’t, they’re liberal.

On immigration policy, party elders were caught completely by surprise. Even canny operators like Ted Cruz didn’t appreciate the depth of voter anger on the subject. And why would they? If you live in an affluent ZIP code, it’s hard to see a downside to mass low-wage immigration. Your kids don’t go to public school. You don’t take the bus or use the emergency room for health care. No immigrant is competing for your job. (The day Hondurans start getting hired as green energy lobbyists is the day my neighbors become nativists.) Plus, you get cheap servants, and get to feel welcoming and virtuous while paying them less per hour than your kids make at a summer job on Nantucket. It’s all good.

When was the last time you stopped yourself from saying something you believed to be true for fear of being punished or criticized for saying it? If you live in America, it probably hasn’t been long. That’s not just a talking point about political correctness. It’s the central problem with our national conversation, the main reason our debates are so stilted and useless. You can’t fix a problem if you don’t have the words to describe it. You can’t even think about it clearly.

This depressing fact made Trump’s political career. In a country where almost everyone in public life lies reflexively, it’s thrilling to hear someone say what he really thinks, even if you believe he’s wrong. It’s especially exciting when you suspect he’s right.

Now if only someone will do the same thing for the Democrats and Bernie Sanders.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, February 4, 2016 at 8:52 am | Edit
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I wrote this in response to someone's Facebook discussion, and put too much time into it not to save it here.  The subject was the very survival of America, and one optimist had said, "Doom and gloom speak just because the candidates of your choice aren't winning. People have been saying for over 200 years that the country is doomed if so and so gets elected to office. Well the country is still here and alive and well."  This was my response:

It is true that of the presidents I have experienced, the ones I thought were good people (Carter, Bush II) turned out to be terrible presidents, and the ones I thought were nuts (Reagan, Clinton) turned out much better than I could have imagined. Sometimes good intentions aren't enough, and sometimes people rise to the office. And good and bad luck have more effect than we admit.

Our recent trip to the Gambia convinced me that the best equipment in the world will not survive ignorance, abuse, and lack of regular maintenance. I worry not only for the United States, but for all of Western Civilization. It is under attack from all sides, from the Terrorists Formerly Known as ISIS to American college campuses. We whose mighty heritage this is have not done well in keeping it clean and oiled. Instead of fixing the broken parts, we trash them. Our children have no idea how to keep this great gift of the ages in working order. The beliefs that massive debt (personal and national) is okay; that name-calling is rational discourse; that our own failures are actually someone else's fault; that success implies not hard work but ill-gotten gains; that poor, even immoral, choices should not have consequences; that those who disagree with us are somehow subhuman and deserve whatever we can heap upon them—these attitudes, much more than whoever gains the highest office, are what will bring us down.

Sure, there are still pockets of resistance, but they're getting smaller and weaker. There's still hope—but only, I think, if we realize, as the great Pogo once said, "We have met the enemy and he is us."

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, February 2, 2016 at 12:02 pm | Edit
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C. S. Lewis called it chronological snobbery:  the idea that present ideas and attitudes are superior to those of the past simply because they are more recent.  Historian Paul Bartow calls it historical presentism and has written an important commentary ("The Growing Threat of Historical Presentism") on its contribution to the fracturing of American society and the disintegration of civil discourse.  (H/T Lenore Skenazy)

James Madison’s fears of mob rule and majoritarianism is a well explored topic. Suffice it to say that in Federalist 10, he wrote to the citizens of New York that “measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.”

This overbearing force today comes in the shape of tyrannical college mobs who demand any affiliation with people they don’t like be permanently removed. ... Not surprisingly, these mobs have neither a factual or nuanced historical understanding.

All of these protests of historical occurrences are symptomatic of a deeper, more grievous problem, that of historical presentism. This is defined as the application of contemporary moral judgments or worldviews to the past. Any trained historian knows that this is among the easiest traps into which one can fall.

The task of the historian, or the modern university student for that matter, is not to descend from on high and mete out judgment. ... When one studies the past, it is meant to be a deeply introspective experience. The goal is to enter into conversation with historical figures, to understand their world as fully as we can, to learn from them, and to let them challenge our worldviews.

These are dangerous times for the study of the past. Historians can no longer afford to sit idly by as uninformed or misinformed tyrannical mobs seek to stamp out the history they do not like. It is a threat to the preservation of the past. It is a threat to free speech. It is a threat to proper historical understanding.

It is a threat to the very existence of civil society.

It's also very bad manners.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, January 7, 2016 at 7:04 am | Edit
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Frankly, he didn't look like the kind of man I'd bother to speak to at a gas station just off I-95 in Virginia.  Grizzled, rather the worse for wear, probably living a hardscrabble life—at least judging by appearances.  But there was a Confederate flag in his truck's front license plate holder, and it made me smile.

I'm a Northerner by birth and upbringing, and even though I've lived almost half my life in Florida—well, from Central Florida you actually have to travel north to get to the South.  So I have my full share of prejudices, and there are days when encountering such a man might have scared me.  But today, as we passed together through the convenience store doors, I remarked, "I've never been a fan of the Confederate flag, but I've always been a fan of the underdog, and today your truck made me smile.  Thank you." The man gave me a gentle smile of his own, and a kindly (maybe even relieved) twinkle touched his eyes as he responded simply, "thank you."

I may not live in the True South, but multicultural Central Florida has helped me lose at least a little bit of my uneducated and frankly self-righteous and snooty attitude towards its people.  And to appreciate that neither side in the Civil War had a monopoly on righteousness, self-sacrifice, and courage; that atrocities are carried out under the flags of many nations and many causes; that thinking you have the right to deride someone for his ancestors only means you haven't looked closely enough at your own; and that attempting to erase history is the mark of a totalitarian state.

The brouhaha that has erupted over Confederate flags and monuments to Confederate soldiers made me realize that our country is not as far from the iconoclasm of Daesh (a.k.a. ISIS) as we'd like to think.  It makes me grateful for one man and his truck, refusing to bow to the forces that would obliterate his past.  One does not learn from history by forgetting it.

And so, bizarre as it might seem, the Confederate flag brought me a little closer to another human being today, one who I would otherwise have treated as beyond the pale.  And so I salute that old Virginian, and sing with Robert Burns,

Then let us pray that come it may,
As come it will for a' that,
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth
Shall bear the gree an' a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
It's comin yet for a' that,
That Man to Man the warld o'er
Shall brithers be for a' that.

Side note:  Immersion in the works of George MacDonald has been of great assistance in understanding and appreciating Burns.

Here's the whole poem, and a translation.

And for your listening and viewing pleasure, the whole song, with pictures of Scotland. 

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, August 31, 2015 at 11:37 am | Edit
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It's extraordinary how often otherwise civilized people think it's not only their right but their duty to criticize the size of other people's families.  I freely confess to doing so myself on occasion, though I do try to limit my comments to general cases, not specific people.  Maybe it's because the only remaining area of our sex lives where criticism has not been taken off the table is its fruit (or lack thereof).

Most annoying are the self-righteous critics.  You know, the ones who insist that sweet little baby you just gave birth to will destroy the ecological balance of the world.  Or those who praise God for the gift of antibiotics and other life-changing interventions while solemnly intoning that your use of birth control betrays your basic lack of trust in God's plan for your family.  There are valid points lurking behind both of those extremes, but there is room for such a wide range of disagreement that prudence and courtesy—not to mention the love we owe our fellow human beings, and the good ol' Golden Rule—call us to admit that the size of other people's families is no one's business but their own.

That said, I recently found a Front Porch Republic article that explicates one of the negative side effects of the recent trend toward small families.  I highly recommend reading the entire article, but will quote here as much as I think I can without raising the ire of the copyright fairies. (More)

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, March 4, 2015 at 7:03 am | Edit
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I'm still enjoying the Life of Fred math series, as you can see from my booklist; I hope to finish all that the Daleys have before I leave here.  Despite what the author claims, it's not really a complete curriculum, but it's a fun supplement, it covers a lot of math, and there's really nothing like it.  It covers a lot more than math, too, as five-year-old math professor Fred Gauss makes his way through his busy days.  For obvious reasons, the following excerpt from Life of Fred:  Jelly Beans caught my eye:

It is not how much you make that counts; it is how much you get to keep.  Taxes make a big difference.

In the United States, the top federal income tax is currently 35%.  The top state income tax is 11%.  The top sales tax is 10%.  TOTAL = 56% (56 percent means $56 out of every $100.)

In Denmark, the top income tax is 67%, and the VAT (which is like a sales tax) is 25%.  TOTAL = 92%.

If you want to keep a lot of the money you earn, Switzerland's top income tax rate is 13%, and the top VAT is 8%.  TOTAL = 23%.

Yes, it's an over-simplification (the book is meant for 4th graders), but it certainly helps distinguish Switzerland from Sweden.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, February 20, 2015 at 1:41 pm | Edit
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It's still worrisome that our president does not consider directing the education of one's own children to be a fundamental human right, but today I'm offering thanks and respect for the Department of Homeland Security's decision to allow the Romeike family to stay in the U.S. "indefinitely."  (Previous posts here and here.)  That decision is not as satisfying for legal precedent as a positive court decision overturning the administration's efforts to deport the family—on the grounds that Germany's heavy-handed anti-homeschooling laws are not sufficient reason to grant asylum—but the Supreme Court refused to review the case.  The TSA's decision, while still leaving the Romeikes in a somewhat tenuous position, at least also leaves them safe in their Tennessee home.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 10:53 am | Edit
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This past weekend we had a very encouraging shopping trip, and as an inveterate non-shopper, I don't say that often.  This time we ventured into a part of town we rarely visit (though after this experience it may happen more often) and most notably went to our IKEA for the first time.

At the risk of exacerbating the Switzerland-Sweden confusion, I'll mention that going to IKEA was like a mini visit to Janet's apartment, though sadly lacking in grandchildren.  There are many similarities in the stock between this and the IKEAs I've been in in Switzerland, and I kept exclaiming, "Look, that's their silverware drainer / toy bins / easel!"   "That's the exact train piece package I bought over there!"

Although the purpose of the trip was merely exploratory, we did end up buying several items, and what both surprised and thrilled me was where they were made.  Yes, there were certainly plenty of items with the "Made in China" label, but we also easily found products from India, Bulgaria, Latvia, and other alternative sources, and even the occasional "Made in USA."  Later in the same trip we were happy to buy a teapot made in the Czech Republic from Crate and Barrel.

To judge by what's available in most stores, China has a monopoly on production these days, and their reputation for product safety and factory working conditions is terrible.  Even if their record were pristine, I'd still be concerned about their control of the market.  (Microsoft, Apple, and Google make me similarly nervous.)  I don't boycott Chinese products, but I'm a lot happier to see more variety available.  Is India any better?  I don't know, but until proven otherwise I'll take the chance, and I'm certainly happy to buy from countries with European Union standards.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, March 11, 2014 at 5:07 am | Edit
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altThe Occasional CEO has an interesting take this morning on our obsession with the "original intent" of the Founding Fathers when the Constitution was crafted.  It confirms my long-held belief that the most amazing thing about the Constitution is that it has worked as well as it has for all these years.  Imperfect as it may be, a compromise that no one was happy with, it serves well as an anchor to restrain the human tendency to be "tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness."

(I would have written about this even if I couldn't have used Eric Schultz's cool image above, which is originally from uvamagazine.org, but I think it captures the obsession neatly.)

The founders, Wood concludes, succeeded so well in promoting democracy and equality among ordinary people that that’s precisely what they got.  Neither Washington, who led the common man in battle, nor Adams, who represented him in court, had any illusions about human nature, preferring a strong national government (led by a wise elite).  Jefferson, the great champion of the common man, could not have tripped over more than a few common men in all his years in Paris and on his great plantation, so when he finally understood late in life [who] they were and what they were like, he was dumbfounded.  (That's why, when we quote him, we use the early stuff.)

By 1820, the great experiment had spun wildly out of control, far beyond the vision or comfort of its creators.

[T]here was one Founder who would today be fundamentally comfortable and happy with the results of the great American experiment.  Alexander Hamilton, Jefferson’s lifelong enemy, was an immigrant, an opponent of slavery, a proponent of a large standing army, and (like Adams and Washington) had serious doubts about democracy.  He was the only Founding Father who understood finance, banking, capital creation and fundamental economics, the only one who truly comprehended the Industrial Revolution.  He believed America in time would become more urban and industrial, more hierarchical and unequal. ... Hamilton was the true genius of Republic 1.0—and, as sometimes happens, almost none of his coFounders understood what he was doing.

It's well worth reading, and makes me want to read Gordon Wood's Revolutionary Characters, which was the article's inspiration.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, September 16, 2013 at 9:47 am | Edit
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