Category Archives: Humanties for the Unbound Mind
I often think about the economic mechanics of international trade – yes, I know that sounds, well, boring. For me, however, economics is one of my mental exercises. I love econ because it involves both math and the uncertain impact of human emotions. Some of the best economists have acknowledged this ever-changing relationship. They use that interaction to create tools to measure markets and human trends – let’s call them the Hari Sheldon’s of the finance world. Case in point. The reason you cannot find a taxi on a rainy night is not because they are all in use – it is because they met their quota early in the evening and went home. The “save for a rainy day” thing doesn’t seem to enter the picture as a motivation.
All that said, trade wars can be more devastating than shooting wars on a number of fronts. For one thing, the effects strike at home, not in some foreign field. Secondly, who are the heroes? The folks who save the interest rate? The folks who save the jobs? How do you gear up factories or build stuff to blow up if the war is in ones and zeros? The effects can also be further reaching. Case in point. When the US economy imploded over the really stupid mortgage market policies, we nearly took the whole world with us. As it happened, we did take down several economies more than a notch or two. The measures put in place to prevent that from happening again have now been reversed.
The point is, I find this interplay – this pool of currencies, products, emotions, and economies, as a fascinating study. I have long been concerned about the amount of treasury debt held by foreign countries. (I’m not the only one). We currently have $6.26 trillion (that’s a T) in Treasury bills, notes and bonds held by foreign countries. The rest of our $21 trillion (yes, t) is owned by either American people or the US government. US government meaning Social Security IOUs and the Fed Reserve, among others. One of the ways the Fed controls the money supply (inflation) is to buy and sell government instruments such as TBills.
Now, China holds about $1.2 trillion with Japan a close second. Would they (the Chinese) sell off a lot of TBills to retaliate in a trade war? Well, they probably would not dump a huge chunk on the market – mostly because that usually does ugly things to prices, even if there is an eager market. One of the reasons they buy so much of our debt is to stabilize their own currency, so they can continue to sell cheap products. But, tariffs change that dynamic. So, maybe a slower, more sedate change in currency bets would be a plan – except that for now a lot of markets are tied to the US dollar (something I’ve never been comfortable with). Sounds cool – being the standard; but if confidence in what we are doing and why goes to pot – well, the “game rules” get rather murky.
That, you see, is the human factor in economics. We can place bets on “confidence” in a trading sector- but we cannot nail the trends without a margin of error that can change with the wind. A few days ago, I posted a note about playing poker with someone who did not “get” the game —
We have worked for decades to develop reliable international markets while doing our best to secure national economic health (meaning the international community). It is not a perfect system, and there does need to be more work. Especially in the areas of human rights. Chinese factory workers do not need to earn what Americans do – their cost of living is quite different. But we do not need to be using child labor at below subsistence levels, nor should people live in squalor, whatever that standard may be in their home country. We need to support our own industries, which usually means purchasing supplies from other countries who can be more efficient or economical about producing them. Case in point. The US solar market lost, by some estimates, 25,000 jobs and a financial loss estimated in billions due to recently imposed tariffs.
Several of our past administrations have had talks with the Chinese about controlling their currency on our backs, but it was an ongoing dance. If they do choose to sell off some of their holdings, that will change our money supply, and it can cause inflation – unless the instruments are bought up quickly. (See above).
So, you see, although international trade and economics can be and intriguing game, the results impact billions of people, some of which live in our country. It takes a deft hand and a strong level of confidence in agreements to keep the engine working well. It’s why you don’t tinker with the confidence thing, or arbitrarily throw away treaties developed with decades of debate – that is only betting wild. Eventually the other players will leave the table. At that point it no longer matters who is holding the winning hand.
I am rather fond of the Facebook page, Celtic Christian Tradition. They usually have some bit or other that reminds me of how to be a kinder influence in the world. Today they posted something I have seen before, a quote by Henri Nouwen. It is a quote I appreciate and one I try to live by; this morning it struck me with a different thought, and I chose to share.
One of the most difficult things to sort out in today’s atmosphere is when to take on an issue like a hurricane and when to be the gentle breeze. Some would argue we have no more time for gentleness; too many people are being impacted by the public display of what can only be described as hatred, distrust, and intransigence against discussion of any kind that may lead to resolutions outside of a perceived world view. The voices may be many, or few, it is difficult to be certain, but they are certainly loud. One thing I am sure of, screaming into the hurricane does little to change its course.
I also find myself setting filter standards for almost anything I read or watch. Through the past many months, I have developed a kind of radar that tells me when it is not productive to engage someone on a topic, and when they may, possibly, at least listen to what I say. I’ve managed to keep several friends in social media that way, while in some cases I am forced to disengage for my own sense of peace. Sometimes, I type what I believe to be a perfect response – then delete it before it’s even posted. I like to pick what bonfires I start.
That brings me to this morning when this quote popped up in my newsfeed. The quandary of when to say what and how forcibly it should be made became clearer. The hard work to is stop talking past each other, to stop screaming in the wind when no one can hear or understand. The important part is the moment by moment effort to be a presence for the better. To forever seek the moment when you can be part of turning the tide of hatred, of division, of prejudice.
While writing this piece I ran across this clip by Nadia Bolz-Weber. She is a pastor in the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado. She felt called to be a shepherd to those who had none; to be a voice for those who didn’t fit anywhere else. Her approach to defining how we handle the evil in our life is something that I have experienced. Sometimes we have to step away or we become that which we detest the most. In that process, however, we dare not leave a vacuum. Nature abhors a vacuum. So, when we refuse to feed the fire, we must add something else to the mix – we must be what we want others to be. If we want a kinder, more inclusive, more socially conscious, society – then that is what we must be on a personal level, in all our interactions and in every way possible.
Push back against the tide, one deed, one thought, one word at a time.
As we go into the full focus of Memorial Day weekend I would like us to think on more than time off and nice memes about military service shared across social media. I would like us to think about what that “service” we keep thanking people for really means, to us and to them. You see, I’ve known a few. Some who came back broken physically, mentally, and all kinds of other ways. I’ve known those who chose to serve when their only reason was because they were called, whether they understood the reasons we chose this particular battle to or not. I’ve known those who in their heart of hearts just couldn’t do it because their faith or their ideals would not allow them. I’ve had at least five decades of accumulated experience to know the heart-wrenching choices made each and every time this country chooses to leave our homes and go do battle.
I am here to say something I feel is critical. Freedom may be won in the battlefield, but it is maintained, nurtured, and protected at home. It is done through the support of those who served and those left behind. It is done by being involved in the day to day operations of a country by voting, by serving, by fighting every minute for truth — and understanding. If this country is ever going to reach a time when the vision of the people points in the same general direction? We have to learn to communicate. A house divided cannot stand.
Today I have seen a few posts that poked fun at certain teenagers who have declared their intent to do battle. They are doing so by reaching as many as they can through the vehicle of free speech – our number one and arguably most important right. And yet there are those that scoff and say they wouldn’t last a minute in a battle field. Excuse me? They did. Without boot camp, without weapons, without Kevlar, helmets or kits – they survived a point in time when the active shooter drill was a drill no longer. We have students in this country that assume that one day, some person upset about who knows what will walk through their school doors and young people, teachers, and “resource” officers will have to make split second decisions about sacrificing their lives to save others. Have you given thought about how you would respond? Really?
I love this country with all my heart. I know that there have been sacrifices beyond imagination to keep me safe in my privilege. But I also know there are unsung heroes among us, people who cared about those around them, who did not hesitate when the moment came to choose between their own safety and that of others.
This Memorial Day I want to think about all of those who have given their lives in pursuit of a dream. A dream that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
I’ve seen a great deal of huffing and puffing of late over which state is richer and whether that state has a lot of immigrants, or voted for which party. Statistics are wonderful tools, but they are easily manipulated by those with a specific mind set, or agenda. Consequently, I thought I would spend a bit of time poking around for source numbers. These are just a few of the things I found, the chart I developed to pull these numbers is included, along with links to my sources.
I chose some very simple comparison points. GDP per state as compared to the GDP of foreign countries. Given that production, what do the polls show about party make up of the state. Interesting enough, the average difference between those claiming affiliation with one party or the other is 12.5%. Only nine states can claim that either party is declared more than 50% of the time. Perhaps now you understand a bit of how hard it is for a campaign to keep the pulse of the country during large elections. One of the serious impacts on this rather balanced political landscape is the practice of gerrymandering. It’s a bit like playing with weighted dice. So, on to some more comparisons.
The 25 states that produce the most GDP kick out 85% of the total US GDP. That total is $15 trillion (with a T) in US dollars. Actual number is $15,150,520 million. The 25 states that produce the least economic output kick out a total GDP of $2 trillion, or $2,678,647 million. If California (the top producer at $2.44 trillion) was a separate country, it would have the 6th largest economy in the world. Texas is second at $1.64 trillion, New York is third at $1.45. Now, how does that play out in the political arena?
Watch carefully, I’d offer to let you hold my beer but I drink wine.
For those states that are the top 25 producers of GDP:
|Party winning vote for:||Republican||Democrat||Variance|
|Both Presidential & Governor||10||9||4%|
For those states that are the least 25 producers of GDP:
|Both Presidential & Governor||15||3||46.15%|
Now, look carefully, please. Those states that produce the greatest amount of economic output in our country are actually pretty evenly divided. I chose 25 as an arbitrary dividing mark. If I chose, say, the top three, California and New York were both Democratic all the way, while Texas was Republican. But that’s the point. How the numbers are parsed, what they are compared to, what the time period of collection on each data point might be, all contribute to the outcome.
The moral of this story is that statistics presented in meme-form rarely convey information that is valuable in making decisions. They are, however, great for arousing emotions and starting arguments. A single data point taken out of context and used to “prove” a selected agenda or position cannot be trusted. Dig, do the research, or stay out of the debate.
As promised, table I used to formulate the above conclusions is here..
These are the links I used for gathering that information.
This site included information that I found fascinating about immigration and economic impact throughout the US. Many folks seem to forget that even if an immigrant is undocumented, as a whole they contribute $11.74 billion to state and local treasuries in sales and excise, personal income, and property taxes.
The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved & Why it Endures, Nicholas Wade less than $15.00
Nicolas Wade is a science writer. He writes articles so that those without specialized degrees can achieve some sense of what it is that we have learned. I was quite taken with his book, Before the Dawn. I’ve checked my archives and, for whatever reason, I haven’t reviewed that book. Another bit for the to do list. Wade is currently in the middle of a rather public controversy regarding his latest book, A Troublesome Inheritance. He addresses race as a piece of our DNA heritage and shows why he feels it is important to identify who we are at the genetic level. Scientists who developed the work he uses in his analysis are not happy with his conclusions. Whatever the outcome, the argument is a bit like the battles over IQ; we are still not able to accept that some folks are better (or worse) at some things, but that does not make them better (or worse) people. Well, back to the discussion at hand.
One does not have to be a non-believer to subscribe to scientific evidence of evolution. I don’t believe I have seen anything specific on whether Wade adheres to a faith of any flavor, however the book is written from the view point that faith is a social interaction shaped and formed by the requirements of the society and culture in which it grows. Some scientists entertain similar thoughts, others are quite reluctant. Let’s look at Wade’s central hypothesis and see what that tells us about religion, culture, and ourselves.
Wade begins his analysis with what anthropology has learned about the earliest forms of religion, some aspects of which we can see in the few cultures of today that have not experienced the onslaught of modern intervention. Basically, group activity such as singing, dancing, and music making. These activities draw a society together and inspire the desire to risk one’s own life for the safety and success of the group as a whole. Anthropologists are divided on a theory that the development of religion can be thought of as “group evolution.” In other words, did this growing change occur, not as a survival tool of the individual (especially since it often demands personal sacrifice), but as a tool for the survival against other groups which were less cohesive. It is an interesting thought journey.
In addition to the binding of a group into one based on these sometimes very intense group activities, Wade adds the consideration of a moral code. Sometimes, to get folks to obey rules that are structured towards group survival rather than individual survival (don’t steal, murder, sleep with someone else’s spouse), it becomes important to put the enforcement aspect in the hands of a supernatural entity. First, because he/she/it can be given an all-seeing, all-knowing presence, and secondly to remove the punishment of infractions from the hands of a priest or leader who could become the target of retaliation. A study conducted by Jared Piazza at the University of Kent discovered that he could reduce the frequency of cheating in small children of a certain age by introducing an invisible Princess Alice to watch over them. His work is quite interesting in regards to the development and enforcement of moral codes.
According to Wade, as societies became more complex, and knowledge spread, the structure of religion became more complex. Not only did the faith instinct drive the level of warm bodies in the pews, it became a way of preparing young people and nations for the sacrifice required to go to war. By creating and holding the loyalty of individuals to group goals, nations were able to get sizable numbers of their populations to surrender the need to protect self and immediate family to a greater goal of protecting the nation. An unbiased look at our history of wars that involved devotion to one religion or another – or even a sect or denomination within religions – shows us that emotions run highest when our religious beliefs or doctrine are challenged. When religion is not the key element, nationalism (an extended form of family) becomes the glue of society.
Wade develops an interesting topic, and one that helps us understand a bit of how cultures and civilizations manage to meld persons of varied backgrounds into a functioning society prepared to defend whatever the core beliefs may be against “others.” The part that becomes worrisome to me is developed in the last few chapters, most specifically, Religion and Nation.
For the most part, modern nations have developed around common societal goals and history. Common language, common ethics, and common ethnicity. The earliest settlers (invaders) of America along the Eastern Seaboard, were predominately Protestant. Having left behind religious persecution of one form or another, they sincerely believed they were involved in a divine cause. Consequently, they went about life in their new home in a rather Biblical way – clearing the home they chose to create of anyone or thing not included in their vision of a holy land of destiny. Problem is, they were late arrivals on a continent filled with peoples who had arrived over the course of a long history, some nearly as recent as they, and some that arrived in multitudes in the ensuing centuries. The battle for the heart and soul of a new society waged for many decades; and that battle has yet to be resolved. It is important to note, whatever version of American history a Christian may see, by 1776 only 17 percent of the population belonged to a church. Current day evangelical beliefs were not even on the horizon.
Sociologists look to a couple of theories to explain the level of religious participation in modern countries. If a country was born in insecure times, or is still suffering from economic, health, or political insecurity, then the population tends to be more religious. This does, in some ways, fit the American landscape since many of the arrivals on these shores came because of religious, ethnic, or economic persecution. Another explanation of the rise and fall of denominational loyalty comes with a “marketplace” analysis. Throughout the history of religion, a new idea or doctrine finds enough adherents and structure to become the orthodoxy of the age and then begins to slip in “market share” as new and younger sects become aggressive in acquiring faithful members. Some scholars look to falling numbers in church attendance in Europe as being due in part to established churches. Here salaries and facility maintenance are guaranteed and there is no need to seek new members for fresh cash flow.
But these analyses only go so far on the American landscape of nationalism. Per Wade, “The usual glues that hold nations together are a single dominant religion, language, ethnicity and culture. Until 1850 or so, the United States fitted this mold, being essentially an Anglo-Protestant culture. Many of its people originated from England, Scotland or Northern Ireland, and other Europeans became American by adopting at least the language of Anglo-Protestantism.” That is, if we leave out consideration of the nations the new arrivals replaced. As of today, however, there are many ethnicities, religions, languages, and cultural histories. What, then, was the glue the kept Americans from breaking out in multiple civil wars, such as the centuries-old battles of Northern Ireland?
Wade proposes that it is an American Civil Religion, a shared belief in the vision that was America. A country that believed to its core that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” (Constitution of the United States). For some time, although the road was very bumpy and the price was paid with many lives, we sincerely believed in the vision. Even in times of ignorance, there were those among us that fought for the over-reaching belief in a unified humanity, and a deep-seated respect for individual rights and obligations. We worshiped a vision that always seemed just a bit further down the road. Wade sees the glue of the American nation as a belief in “specialness,” in being the ones that can achieve what human societies have failed to do in the past: equality of opportunity, respect for differences, freedom to express. What Wade does not address, and perhaps did not see coming, was that something happened on our way to the vision.
Sadly, and this is a personal opinion, the vision has morphed into something that the Founding Fathers were most likely trying to avoid. The prevailing “religion” of the country is no longer a faith of giving, loving, and supporting. It is not even a faith of the Puritan heritage of work to eat, monogamy, and respect of a neighbor’s property. Now, we believe it is perfectly okay to enforce our beliefs on others. There are many that fear Sharia Law because it is affiliated with Islam and yet insist similar practices and judgement should be instituted under the name of Christianity. We worship the current resident of the White House as if he walks on water (he does not) and many of us steadily refuse to see any opinion that does not fit in our worldview. Somewhere along the line we decided we were the moral compass of the world and no longer cared about the accumulated wisdom of more ancient civilizations. There was a time when we valued education in order to understand the successes and failures of previous civilizations. America built some of the most prestigious schools in the world. Now statistics indicate that a large portion of us see education as an elitist pursuit and blame the universities for fostering liberal attitudes and “un-American” activities.
Religion, and faith, is a powerful tool, both for and against the members of a society. Belief in something is often what drives us, inspires us, to do our best, or worse. Be ever so careful of just what it is that you place at the center of your faith universe. I leave you with a few quotes from the American philosopher, Eric Hoffer. Author of True Believer.
We lie the loudest when we lie to ourselves.
Absolute faith corrupts as absolutely as absolute power.
Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all the unifying agents. Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.
This has been a rough year on a several levels for myself, and the world around me. Icons that we looked up to have left us. Emotional and heart-rending votes were taking place in a number of countries, and violence continues to take so many in circumstances few of us really understand, or stop to figure out. When the world is jumbled up around us, we sometimes seek peace in the smaller things, the smaller world, that we know. All the hubbub of this year drove me back to basic ideas, places where I knew compromise was not an option. It also walked me through the morning after. These are my vaguely connected thoughts on a Christmas in transition.
This blog started with a desire to explain something of why Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah means so much to me; what it says to me that touches me so. Leonard Cohen, a Canadian musician, song writer, and novelist, acquired several prestigious awards. He is one of those we lost this past year. One of the magical things about this piece is the flexibility it provides. Cohen provided a framework with references to King Saul, King David, and Sampson, and led us through one of life’s mysteries: how can love be so precious and yet, sometimes, so painful. There have been dozens of lyrics added to the framework and the melody, some by Cohen himself, some by others. It is a melody and a theme that touches many, perhaps even with some understanding. My favorite line (if a favorite is possible): “Love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and broken Hallelujah.”
Why? I don’t see it as a bleak condemnation of genuine relationships, I see it as an honest admission that however passionate we may be, however perfect our union may be, life can and does interfere, and yet we find the joy of a hallelujah, and when things are not as hoped, we find a way to move on.
The final scene in the play J. B. by Archibald MacLeish has the characters picking up the tossed stage props and beginning to restore order. The play is a free-verse modernized interpretation of the Biblical book of Job. After all the devastation J. B. and his family face, the near loss of his wife, and the heart-rending self-examination of “where did I go wrong,” J. B. and his wife pick up the pieces and begin to rebuild. That’s who we are as human beings, when everything is taken from us, we begin again. It is only when we are honest with ourselves that we can admit, whatever praise we offer is a broken hallelujah.
That leads me to my Christmas, which I spent alone, in my own cocoon. Due to the fortunate convergence of a Christmas bonus and a radically priced clearance desk, I decided to restructure my office. First of all, I am not very good with change, especially in my workplace. This was a major deal for me. Second, the desk that was going away had been a birthday present from my husband. It is old, it was battered, it needed to move on – however difficult that might be. As I assembled the new desk, I found that a few screws for knobs and handles were missing. That means a few pieces of the old desk are with me still. I also made the choice to begin using my husband’s office chair. It took me three days to complete the transition and it was a journey of fond, and painful memories, of moving forward, of broken hallelujahs.
To me, the thought I wish most to hold on to from this brief reflective time is that we can learn from where we are, and then move forward. We cannot surrender simply because things didn’t work out as we hoped, we re-visit who we are and stay true to that image, picking up the pieces, and moving forward.
Fair journey, my friends. Know that the universe does not revolve around our own special views, wishes, or even needs, and that is okay. Because we are human, with reason, logic, and passion, we can pick up the pieces and begin again.