Friday, February 29, 2008

B.F. Skinner and Thinking Meat (Reposted)

[First posted March 31, 2005. Unfortunately the principal link is no longer active, but I grabbed enough of the content to make the post interesting.]

A couple of weeks ago I was talking with a couple of young people and made reference to a Skinner box. Since these were college graduates with undergraduate degrees in a liberal arts area, I mistakenly assumed that they had been exposed to Skinner's work. Not everyone has a Psych 201 lab class to study the behavior of laboroatory rats using a Skinner box, but surely the name has not disappeared altogether. Maybe so. These kids had never heard of either Skinner or a Skinner box. I never bothered to tell them about the man's utopian novel, Walden Two. I figured they would consider me quaint.

Abbas Raza directs us to a short piece by David Barash in The Chronicle with a few comments remembering Skinner. I hope not to insult anyone, but if the reader is not familiar with B.F. Skinner, there is a serious gap in your education and you owe it to yourself to do a bit of homework. This little snip will not do the trick, because there is more than you think to the greater issue of human behavior.

It was Skinner who identified, more clearly than anyone before -- or after -- the key stumbling block for those of us trying to see ourselves accurately; namely, a reluctance to countenance that human actions are caused, because the more causation, the less credit. "We recognize a person's dignity or worth," writes Skinner, "when we give him credit for what he has done. The amount we give is inversely proportional to the conspicuousness of the causes of his behavior. If we do not know why a person acts as he does, we attribute his behavior to him. We try to gain additional credit for ourselves by concealing the reasons why we behave in given ways or by claiming to have acted for less powerful reasons." Ironically, there is something flattering and legitimizing in actions or thoughts that spring unbidden from our "self" -- whatever that may be -- and that aren't otherwise explicable. By the same token, the more our actions are caused, the less are we credited for them.

The article ends with this wonderful quote...

In a 1991 science-fiction story by Terry Bisson, we listen in on a conversation between the robotic commander of an interplanetary expedition and his equally electronic leader, reporting with astonishment that the human inhabitants of Earth are "made out of meat":

"There's no doubt about it. ... "
"That's impossible. ... How can meat make a machine? You're asking me to believe in sentient meat."
"I'm not asking you. I'm telling you. These creatures are the only sentient race in the sector, and they're made out of meat." ...
"Spare me. Okay, maybe they're only part meat. ... "
"Nope, we thought of that, since they do have meat heads. ... But ... they're meat all the way through."
"No brain?"
"Oh, there is a brain all right. It's just that the brain is made out of meat!"
"So ... what does the thinking?"
"You're not understanding, are you? The brain does the thinking. The meat."
"Thinking meat! You're asking me to believe in thinking meat?"
"Yes, thinking meat! Conscious meat! Dreaming meat! The meat is the whole deal! Are you getting the picture?"

Thursday, February 28, 2008

American Idol - David Archuleta - Imagine - 2/27/08

Even Simon said it was good.
Too much soul-riffing for my taste, but hey...what do I know?

Bloomberg Says...

What to make of this?

In the weeks and months ahead, I will continue to work to steer the national conversation away from partisanship and toward unity; away from ideology and toward common sense; away from sound bites and toward substance. And while I have always said I am not running for president, the race is too important to sit on the sidelines, and so I have changed my mind in one area. If a candidate takes an independent, nonpartisan approach — and embraces practical solutions that challenge party orthodoxy — I’ll join others in helping that candidate win the White House.

Barak O'Bollywood

H/T 3Quarks

Help me out here. Has any other candidate for president ever generated as much international attention and excitement?

William F. Buckley (1925-2008) -- This I Believe Essay

This from May, 2005, is reposted in remembrance of this irreplaceable man who died yesterday.

Mona Charen's recollections are also worth reading.

Like many a star-struck youngster, I maneuvered to meet him when I was in college. To my amazement, he agreed to be interviewed for my yearbook. Determined to ask questions that wouldn't betray my outsized admiration for him, I posed the vaguely feminist query, "In what ways would your life have been different if you had been born female?" His reply: "I'd have seduced John Kenneth Galbraith and spared the world much pain."


DSL was down this morning so my time is limited. No essays and profound insights this morning, I'm afraid. Sorry 'bout that.
Lest you go away hungry, here is a link to a wonderful "This I Believe" essay that will only take about five minutes of your time. More, actually, if you like to hear the thing twice through, if for no other reason than to hear this man's unbelievable vocabulary at work. (Click on the "Listen" icon to hear Buckley read his essay.)

Vocabulary has always been a passion for me. A graduate student I knew in college used the word "retrograde" naturally in conversation once and it impressed me a lot. I was impressed for two reasons. First, because he was from Bombay and second because he used it spot on [sorry, Cat] to describe the American Medical Association.

In the case of Buckley, he once used "jejune" in a sentence instead of "trivial." I had to look it up, and sure enough his point was much sharper thanks to his vocabulary.

Tip to Southern Appeal, which has already collected one snarky comment from an infidel.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Song of the Red Cap and Master of The House

No connection...

But the melodies and moods seem somehow alike.

Two fun listens. I'm taking a break from thinking.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Justice for International Criminals

The Economist has a snip worth reading.

Heads of state, past and present, are increasingly being brought to book for crimes committed while in office.

Thomas P.M. Barnett comments....

How can America not be in the lead on this emerging rule set that so favors a shrink the Gap strategy? How can this not be a huge lever in our global war on terror?

Indeed. Imagine how different the last six years would have been if the U.S. response to the attack on the World Trade Center had been an international police action led by America rather than a unilateral misdirected military response.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Blog Traffic Report

It is nine o'clock in the evening. According to Sitemeter there are twenty links to this site as I write, all of which are reading one post:

Accordingly, ninety of the last one hundred hits, all of which have resulted from searches, have also been to the same post.

Here are where the places they came from:

1 The Dalles, Oregon
2 Johnston, Rhode Island
3 Evansville, Indiana
4 Dyersburg, Tennessee
5 Cedarburg, Wisconsin
6 Los Angeles, California
7 Toledo, Ohio
8 Jeffersonville, Indiana
9 Houston, Texas
10 Canton, Georgia
11 Chicago, Illinois
12 Florence, South Carolina
13 Huntsville, Ohio
14 San Antonio, Texas
15 Lafayette, Louisiana
16 Savannah, Georgia
17 Birmingham, Alabama
18 United States
19 El Cajon, California
20 United States
21 Savannah, Georgia
22 Birmingham, Alabama
23 United States
24 El Cajon, California
25 United States
26 Auckland
27 Fort Worth, Texas
28 Baton Rouge, Louisiana
29 Plymouth, Massachusetts
30 Ambridge, Pennsylvania
31 Laredo, Texas
32 Indianapolis, Indiana
33 West New York, New Jersey
34 United States
35 United States
36 Verona, New Jersey
37 Wallingford, Connecticut
38 Austin, Texas
39 Albuquerque, New Mexico
40 Saint Louis, Missouri
41 Canada, Calgary, Alberta
42 Richmond, Virginia
43 Brooklyn, New York
44 Mentor, Ohio
45 Hibbing, Minnesota
46 San Antonio, Texas
47 Toledo, Ohio
48 Cincinnati, Ohio
49 Birmingham, Alabama
50 New Zealand, Christchurch
51 United States
52 Provo, Utah
53 Canada, Niagara Falls, Ontario
54 Eden Prairie, Minnesota
55 United States
56 Kirkland, Washington
57 Brooklyn, New York
58 United States
59 Canada, Halifax, Nova Scotia
60 Boston, Massachusetts
61 Burbank, California
62 Howell, Michigan
63 Worcester, Massachusetts
64 Midland, Texas
65 High Point, North Carolina
66 Atlanta, Georgia
67 Maineville, Ohio
68 Kansas City, Missouri
69 South Charleston, Ohio
70 Tallahassee, Florida
71 Boston, Massachusetts
72 Seminole, Florida
73 Houston, Texas
74 Arlington, Texas
75 Grand Junction, Colorado
76 New York
77 San Leandro, California
78 Pascagoula, Mississippi
79 Tehachapi, California
80 United States
81 Del Mar, California
82 United States
83 Mashpee, Massachusetts
84 Minneapolis, Minnesota
85 Fayetteville, Arkansas
86 Saint Louis, Missouri
87 Puerto Rico
88 Kenner, Louisiana
89 United States
90 Eatontown, New Jersey
91 Moorhead, Minnesota
92 Cincinnati, Ohio
93 United States
94 Silver Spring, Maryland
95 Branson, Missouri
96 Indianapolis, Indiana
97 Unknown
98 Cave Creek, Arizona
99 Perryville, Missouri
100 Marysville, Washington

Ten of these came for a different reason. I didn't take time to find out which ones.

I expected a heavy bunch fom Ohio and Texas, because those important primaries are next Tuesday and the media talks at tiresome length about those two states, but that is not the case.
The curiosity is all over the place.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Inside the Space Station

Quick lesson in chemistry -- shellac and lacquer

[Recycled post from October, 2006, which came up from someone's Google search.]

I was cleaning my windshield and came across a few particularly hard insect spots. As I applied the elbow juice I recalled reading about the lac bug, source of shellac, and it made perfect sense that an insect smached on the windshield could be a lot harder to remove than bird poop. We don't have lac bugs in North America, but I was inspired to look it up.

First of all shellac is not to be confused with lacquer. Shellac is that unique, now mostly obsolete product of the lac bug. Lacquer is a product of special trees, now enhanced by modern chemistry to become the versatile product that it has become. I'm glad to know that those lacquer keepsakes I got from Korea are not made of bug juice.

Here are the links to the two Wikipedia articles.

Shellac is a brittle or flaky secretion of the lac insect Coccus lacca, found in the forests of Assam and Thailand. Freed from wood it is called "seedlac." Once it was commonly believed that shellac was a resin obtained from the wings of a bug (order Hemiptera) found in India. In actuality, shellac was obtained from the secretion of the female bug, harvested from the bark of the trees where she deposits it to provide a sticky hold on the trunk. There is a risk that the harvesting process can scoop the bug up along with the secretion, leading to its death. The natural coloration of lac residue is greatly influenced by the sap consumed by the lac insect and the season of the harvest. Generally in the trade of seedlac there are two distinct colors; the orange Bysacki and the blonde Kushmi.

More than you ever needed to know at the link, including this:

Shellac is edible, and it was used as a glazing agent on pills and candies. When used for this purpose, it has the food additive E number E904. There were concerns that this coating is not vegetarian as it may contain crushed bugs.

Lacquer is not the same:

The earliest known lacquers were made in China, about 7000 B.C. These lacquers, made from the resin of the tree Rhus verniciflua, produce very hard, durable finishes that are both beautiful, and very resistant to damage by water, acid, alkali or abrasion. They do not, however, stand up well to ultraviolet light. The active ingredient of the resin is urushiol, a mixture of various phenols suspended in water, plus a few proteins.

Aagin, more than you need to know at the link...

Resume what you were doing.


Hello, little cadre of regular readers,

I expect blogging to be light for a while as I catch up on some reading and adjust to a new place of employment which will consume more time and attention than my present job.

After several years of blogging I find it hard to pay attention to books as I once did. My attention span has been injured. As I read a book, I sometimes want to interrupt my reading to see of anyone left a comment somewhere...but then I realize I'm not at the computer. It's maddening. Blogging is the reading and learning equivalent of junk food. It tastes wonderful, but you know it's filled with so much fat, salt, chocolate and grease that eating too much is not healthful.

I've been plowing through William Least Heat-Moon's Prairie Erth for six months and I'm only half way. (That one's like a box of cherry cordials...ingest slowly and savor every page...but that takes a lot of time. I keep it in one of the bathrooms.) It took me months to get through Virginia Postrel's The Future and It's Enemies last year. I've had Obama's Dreams From My Father for a week and have only passed Chapter Five. (Incidentally, he is incredibly introspective and analytical. If as president he received an alert that an emergency was occurring I think his first instinct would be to remain calm and move instantly to verify facts before reacting. I guess that's okay. No reasonable person would do less. Sometimes shooting from the hip is needed when a split-second delay might result in tragedy but those cases truly are rare.) I started Alaa Al Aswany's The Yacoubian Building over a year ago and put it down, but I know I have to finish because the man who recommended it, an Oxford-educated naturalized American from Egypt whose judgement I respect, said it was good. Besides, Baheyya found it worth commenting about. On, and I also promised to blog a review Krista Tippett's Speaking of Faith in return for a complementary copy. Whew. This is almost like work.

Please excuse me. I have lots on my plate at the moment and will get back to serious blogging eventually. (Look for softballs and You Tube videos. I haven't given up candy and pretzels altogether.)

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Barbara Jordan (1936-1996)

If you don't know who this is, it's time you found out. Those of us who remember her timeless voice will never forget.
Take time to listen to this audio link.

Her Wikipedia article does not do justice to this incredible woman but it's a good place to begin.

Top Ten Campaign Promises, Obama and Clinton

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Cuba, Castro and U.S. Electoral Politics

Peter Howard blogs at Duck of Minerva, one of my favorite sites tracking international relations. This week's news that Fidel Castro is "stepping down" due to health issues has been received with little or no notice in the U.S. Bad weather and celebrity gossip get more attention in the media than anything about Cuba, thanks partly to a long-standing policy of denial about that tragic little country.

This is what Professor Howard wrote:

If there is one domestic lobby that has captured US policy toward another country, it is the Cuba lobby that pushes for ever stricter sanctions on the Castro regime. The power of this lobby in Presidential politics can’t be overstated—it is a very large, issue specific, and highly organized voting bloc in Miami Dade county in Florida. Win Florida, win the White House, we all know that story well. Thus, we regularly see leading national politicians competing to out-tough the other in order to make inroads into the Cuban vote in south Florida.

Today’s big news, that Fidel would formally step down as Cuba’s head of state, offers an interesting chance to view the power of this domestic political lobby at a moment when the national interest might suggest an alternative different policy.

The Libertad Act, passed by a Republican Congress and signed by President Clinton in the election year of 1996 wrote the US embargo of Cuba into law, significantly strengthening it (Clinton won Florida and won re-election that year). From JFK through 1996, the embargo was a series of Executive orders. The difference: a future president could end the executive orders at any time. Changing the law requires a subsequent act of Congress. A central point of the Libertad act was that the Embargo will remain in force until there is a transitional government in Cuba that does not include Fidel Castro or his brother Raul.

This brings us to today. Fidel stepping aside certainly marks a sea-change in Cuban politics. It does mark a transition in government, but for the time being, Raul Castro remains a part of the picture. This change also presents a unique opportunity for the United States.

Cuba faced tough times after the end of the Cold War. The USSR was a valuable patron, buying its exports and providing funds to subsidize its economy. Without the USSR, Cuba suffered. Recently, though, Hugo Chavez has stepped into that role, using its vast oil profits to funnel money into Cuba.

Here’s the opportunity for the US: take the transition in Cuba, from Fidel to a successor government, to lift the embargo and allow US capital, business, and tourists to pour in (and it would—see the Godfather or Guys and Dolls). Engaging Cuba could steer them away from Chavez and toward the US. The US has identified the rise of Chavez as a national security challenge, and has identified a clear interest in reducing Chavez’s influence in Latin America. [ed. emphasis added]

So, here’s the question: Given a clear national security argument for taking this opportunity to engage Cuba, end the embargo, and peel Cuba away from the Chavez camp, does this National Interest trump the domestic politics of pandering to CANF and Cuban voters in Miami in an election year. Do we see the Cuba lobby press for a continued embargo, further driving Raul and the transition government closer to Chavez? What does Bush do, what does Congress do, and what to the Presidential Candidates press for?

I have been watching Florida presidential politics with amusement for years, watching the Cuban community of South Florida as the tail that wags the presidential electoral dog.

America has in effect preserved and protected its own pet Communist in a little cage ninety miles from Florida, by insuring that none of the forces attacking the rest of world Socialism have been able to get at Cuba. Some keep boa constrictors, some exotic birds, some tarantulas, but the US keeps Cuba. Every four years presidential candidates of all political pursuasions will not risk losing the Cuban votes in Florida, and between elections, whoever is in power keeps those eggs in the basket and is careful that they don't get broken.

Guys and Dolls, indeed. The professor is exactly right, of course, but that little dose of reality has never been part of
power politics that has dictated (er, excuse me...bad word there...maybe inspired would read better...) U.S. Cuban policy for the last forty years or so.

Here is a link to the reaction of Henry Louis Gomez to Castro's move. He has been a tireless articulate blogging voice at Babalu Blog about as long as blogging has been around. I'm sure that along with the rest of the Florida Cuban community he would oppose the notion of revisiting the Libertad Act with a view of opening Cuba to U.S. tourism which, like "glasnost and peristroika" mentioned in his comments, could hasten the end of Cuba's oppressive system in the same way that the Soviet Union came apart.

The never-say-die tenacity of that thinking is not subject to change, even when the word, now made popular by you-know-who is echoing like the shot heard around the world. That snarky reference to "a trite slogan used by a politician's wife who isn't proud of our country" tells us that South Florida ain't Obama Country.

I predict a deafening silence from all the candidates, both Democrat and Republican, about developments in Cuba. Not because they don't know or don't care, but because they have no intention of poking a nest of stinging insects in Florida.

Perhaps the next generation of American-born Cuban expats will persuade their Washington Lobby to lighten up a little.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Just Words

I heard Obama giving this speech on television and it made me want to stand up alone in the living room and start clapping.

He is being criticized for borrowing oratory from someone else. “It’s true that speeches don’t solve all problems,” he said. “But what is also true if we cannot inspire the country to believe again, it doesn’t matter how many policies and plans we have.”

Right he is.

If he can be as pursuasive at the negotiating table as he is on stage, he very well might get better results than resorting to military force. Could it be that the incumbent president has to wage wars to compensate for being, shall we say, somewhat limited in his use of the mother tongue?

Tom Rush - Remember Song

Michael Wade says, "This may become the Boomer Anthem."

Monday, February 18, 2008

One Damning Video

[My old posts keep percolating up in the referrals. This one from Katrina days (October, 2006) helps me remember a political catastrophe at the time resulting in federal inertia as the same administration that had overturned a despot in the Middle East and dropped "daisy cutter" bombs in the hills of Afghanistan sat with hands in their laps, citing...Hell, I don't remember what was the excuse for doing nothing as helpless people in New Orleans remained trapped in the Super Dome for days.

One criticism of Barak Obama is that he might not be able to handle a crisis. I can't speak for anyone else, but looking backward, it's hard for me to imagine the next four years being mismanaged any worse than the last four.]


I will never forget listening to the radio during the first day or two of the Katrina disaster, listening to the Neal Boortz program. A listener called all the way from Australia. He was monitoring the Hurricane story by listening to Boortz show on the Internet. He posed this haunting and unanswered question...

"Where are your amphibious vehicles???"

The question goes to the heart of Washington's inaction during a time of crisis. I sometimes wonder if in retrospect anyone in a position to intervene has had any regrets about his failure to do so.

This YouTube U2 Video spells it out in sad, bleeding irony.
Four thousand comments left so far...
I am not alone.

This is part of what I mused about at the time.

In the absence of leadership on the part of elected officials the role of the military continues to expand in our national affairs. The recent catastrophic damage of Hurricane Katrina begs the question. In the absence of local and state leadership, how and when should the military intervene (or be used - there is a difference, you know) to bring about a speedy and efficient recovery in the aftermath of a natural disaster?After last year's tsunami brought wholesale tragedy to the Indian Ocean, the military response was swift and impressive. This was an example of swords into plowshares in the best sense of the phrase. Following the Katrina disaster with all those people penned up in the Superdome, an Australian caller to a talk show asked an obvious question.

"Where," he asked incredulously, "are your amphibious vehicles???"

Where, indeed? For this observer, watching from the other side of the world, it was a no-brainer. The military has hovercraft capable of delivering tanks and trucks to battlefields with no highways. Amphibious vehicles from World War Two are being used to taxi sight-seers over both water and city streets in Boston, Detroit and other places. Why not load up water, food and other supplies, take them to where they can be used, load up a crowd of people to be evacuated, and keep it up until the situation is safer and better organized?

Stuff White People Like

Stuff White People Like fired up in January and is gaining traffic. Twice this morning I have come across links to this obliquely funny place. They are up to 69 posts. Here is #54 Kitchen Gadgets...

White people are under a lot of pressure to like cooking. Everything in their culture tells them that they need to have a nice kitchen and that they need to cook with organic, fresh ingredients to make delicious, complicated food.

Though any great chef can prepare fantastic meals with a knife and a few pots, white people believe that they need a full cadre of appliances and gadgets in their kitchen in order to live up to the pressure.

If you go into a white person’s kitchen you will find a waffle maker, a rice cooker, a steamer, a food processor, a panini press and a blender. They also have hand powered devices like flour sifters, ravioli crimpers, pizza cutters, potato ricers, and a sushi mat.

But, in order for them to truly enter into whitedom, they need to own the holy grail of white kitchens - the kitchen aid stand mixer (right). They will match this mixer to their kitchen’s color scheme and it will make up the focal point. And much like many religious artifacts, it will remain untouched for months and even years, sitting on the counter to be admired as a testament to their lifestyle.

Kitchen Gadgets also serve as one of the main reasons why white people get married. Look at their registry and you will find gadgets for any possible task in the kitchen. If you end up buying one of these for a white person, your card should make reference to them using a lot to make beautiful food that you hope you can eat one day. This kind of stuff goes over like gang busters.

If you find yourself in a conversation about these things, a good way to say a little but mean a lot is to mention that you “find the consumer models to be poorly built, my friend, a chef, brings me with him to a restaurant supply shop that’s not open to the public. The stuff there is real quality, it’s where I get all of my pans.”

If this is too big of a risk, you should just throw out a combination of these words: “le Creuset, Calphalon, All Clad, Williams Sonoma, and Sur Le Table.” White people go so nuts when they hear these words, you won’t even have to finish your sentence.


The list started with Coffee (I promise you that the first person at your school to drink coffee was a white person. You could kind of tell they didn’t enjoy it, but they did it anyways until they liked it - like cigarettes.) and included Barak Obama at Number Eight (Because white people are afraid that if they don’t like him that they will be called racist).

Just reporting here. (*eyes roll*) Anything I say will come across as a wet blanket.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Obama -- He sure writes purty (Updated)

[Posted first December 29, 2006. Obama was thinking seriously about running for president but was not to make the announcement for a couple more weeks. This is the first chapter of The Audacity of Hope. Much has changed since the NY Times first printed this.]

Chapter One from his book is online at the NY Times. Thanks, Abbas, for the link. He seems to know what he's in for.


First Chapter


The Audacity of Hope


It's been almost ten years since I first ran for political office. I was thirty-five at the time, four years out of law school, recently married, and generally impatient with life. A seat in the Illinois legislature had opened up, and several friends suggested that I run, thinking that my work as a civil rights lawyer, and contacts from my days as a community organizer, would make me a viable candidate. After discussing it with my wife, I entered the race and proceeded to do what every first-time candidate does: I talked to anyone who would listen. I went to block club meetings and church socials, beauty shops and barbershops. If two guys were standing on a corner, I would cross the street to hand them campaign literature. And everywhere I went, I'd get some version of the same two questions.


"Where'd you get that funny name?"
And then: "You seem like a nice enough guy. Why do you want to go into something dirty and nasty like politics?"


I was familiar with the question, a variant on the questions asked of me years earlier, when I'd first arrived in Chicago to work in low-income neighborhoods. It signaled a cynicism not simply with politics but with the very notion of a public life, a cynicism that-at least in the South Side neighborhoods I sought to represent-had been nourished by a generation of broken promises. In response, I would usually smile and nod and say that I understood the skepticism, but that there was-and always had been-another tradition to politics, a tradition that stretched from the days of the country's founding to the glory of the civil rights movement, a tradition based on the simple idea that we have a stake in one another, and that what binds us together is greater than what drives us apart, and that if enough people believe in the truth of that proposition and act on it, then we might not solve every problem, but we can get something meaningful done. It was a pretty convincing speech, I thought. And although I'm not sure that the people who heard me deliver it were similarly impressed, enough of them appreciated my earnestness and youthful swagger that I made it to the Illinois legislature.


Six years later, when I decided to run for the United States Senate, I wasn't so sure of myself.
By all appearances, my choice of careers seemed to have worked out. After spending my two terms during which I labored in the minority, Democrats had gained control of the state senate, and I had subsequently passed a slew of bills, from reforms of the Illinois death penalty system to an expansion of the state's health program for kids. I had continued to teach at the University of Chicago Law School, a job I enjoyed, and was frequently invited to speak around town. I had preserved my independence, my good name, and my marriage, all of which, statistically speaking, had been placed at risk the moment I set foot in the state capital.


But the years had also taken their toll. Some of it was just a function of my getting older, I suppose, for if you are paying attention, each successive year will make you more intimately acquainted with all of your flaws-the blind spots, the recurring habits of thought that may be genetic or may be environmental, but that will almost certainly worsen with time, as surely as the hitch in your walk turns to pain in your hip. In me, one of those flaws had proven to be a chronic restlessness; an inability to appreciate, no matter how well things were going, those blessings that were right there in front of me. It's a flaw that is endemic to modern life, I think-endemic, too, in the American character-and one that is nowhere more evident than in the field of politics. Whether politics actually encourages the trait or simply attracts those who possess it is unclear. Lyndon Johnson, who knew much about both politics and restlessness, once said that every man is trying to either live up to his father's expectations or make up for his father's mistakes, and I suppose that may explain my particular malady as well as anything else.


In any event, it was as a consequence of that restlessness that I decided to challenge a sitting Democratic incumbent for his congressional seat in the 2000 election cycle. It was an ill-considered race, and I lost badly-the sort of drubbing that awakens you to the fact that life is not obliged to work out as you'd planned. A year and a half later, the scars of that loss sufficiently healed, I had lunch with a media consultant who had been encouraging me for some time to run for statewide office. As it happened, the lunch was scheduled for late September 2001.


"You realize, don't you, that the political dynamics have changed," he said as he picked at his salad.


"What do you mean?" I asked, knowing full well what he meant. We both looked down at the newspaper beside him. There, on the front page, was Osama bin Laden.


"Hell of a thing, isn't it?" he said, shaking his head.


"Really bad luck. You can't change your name, of course. Voters are suspicious of that kind of thing. Maybe if you were at the start of your career, you know, you could use a nickname or something. But now ..." His voice trailed off and he shrugged apologetically before signaling the waiter to bring us the check.


I suspected he was right, and that realization ate away at me. For the first time in my career, I began to experience the envy of seeing younger politicians succeed where I had failed, moving into higher offices, getting more things done. The pleasures of politics-the adrenaline of debate, the animal warmth of shaking hands and plunging into a crowd-began to pale against the meaner tasks of the job: the begging for money, the long drives home after the banquet had run two hours longer than scheduled, the bad food and stale air and clipped phone conversations with a wife who had stuck by me so far but was pretty fed up with raising our children alone and was beginning to question my priorities. Even the legislative work, the policy-making that had gotten me to run in the first place, began to feel too incremental, too removed from the larger battles-over taxes, security, health care, and jobs-that were being waged on a national stage. I began to harbor doubts about the path I had chosen; I began feeling the way I imagine an actor or athlete must feel when, after years of commitment to a particular dream, after years of waiting tables between auditions or scratching out hits in the minor leagues, he realizes that he's gone just about as far as talent or fortune will take him. The dream will not happen, and he now faces the choice of accepting this fact like a grown-up and moving on to more sensible pursuits, or refusing the truth and ending up bitter, quarrelsome, and slightly pathetic.


Denial, anger, bargaining, despair-I'm not sure I went through all the stages prescribed by the experts. At some point, though, I arrived at acceptance-of my limits, and, in a way, my mortality. I refocused on my work in the state senate and took satisfaction from the reforms and initiatives that my position afforded. I spent more time at home, and watched my daughters grow, and properly cherished my wife, and thought about my long-term financial obligations. I exercised, and read novels, and came to appreciate how the earth rotated around the sun and the seasons came and went without any particular exertions on my part.


And it was this acceptance, I think, that allowed me to come up with the thoroughly cockeyed idea of running for the United States Senate. An up-or-out strategy was how I described it to my wife, one last shot to test out my ideas before I settled into a calmer, more stable, and better-paying existence. And she-perhaps more out of pity than conviction-agreed to this one last race, though she also suggested that given the orderly life she preferred for our family, I shouldn't necessarily count on her vote.


I let her take comfort in the long odds against me. The Republican incumbent, Peter Fitzgerald, had spent $19 million of his personal wealth to unseat the previous senator, Carol Moseley Braun. He wasn't widely popular; in fact he didn't really seem to enjoy politics all that much. But he still had unlimited money in his family, as well as a genuine integrity that had earned him grudging respect from the voters.


For a time Carol Moseley Braun reappeared, back from an ambassadorship in New Zealand and with thoughts of trying to reclaim her old seat; her possible candidacy put my own plans on hold. When she decided to run for the presidency instead, everyone else started looking at the Senate race. By the time Fitzgerald announced he would not seek reelection, I was staring at six primary opponents, including the sitting state comptroller; a businessman worth hundreds of millions of dollars; Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's former chief of staff; and a black, female health-care professional who the smart money assumed would split the black vote and doom whatever slim chances I'd had in the first place.


I didn't care. Freed from worry by low expectations, my credibility bolstered by several helpful endorsements, I threw myself into the race with an energy and joy that I thought I had lost. I hired four staffers, all of them smart, in their twenties or early thirties, and suitably cheap. We found a small office, printed letterhead, installed phone lines and several computers. Four or five hours a day, I called major Democratic donors and tried to get my calls returned. I held press conferences to which nobody came. We signed up for the annual St. Patrick's Day Parade and were assigned the parade's very last slot, so that my ten volunteers and I found ourselves marching just a few paces ahead of the city's sanitation trucks, waving to the few stragglers who remained on the route while workers swept up garbage and peeled green shamrock stickers off the lampposts.


Mostly, though, I just traveled, often driving alone, first from ward to ward in Chicago, then from county to county and town to town, eventually up and down the state, across miles and miles of cornfields and beanfields and train tracks and silos. It wasn't an efficient process. Without the machinery of the state's Democratic Party organization, without any real mailing list or Internet operation, I had to rely on friends or acquaintances to open their houses to who ever might come, or to arrange for my visit to their church, union hall, bridge group, or Rotary Club. Sometimes, after several hours of driving, I would find just two or three people waiting for me around a kitchen table. I would have to assure the hosts that the turnout was fine and compliment them on the refreshments they'd prepared. Sometimes I would sit through a church service and the pastor would forget to recognize me, or the head of the union local would let me speak to his members just before announcing that the union had decided to endorse someone else.


But whether I was meeting with two people or fifty, whether I was in one of the well-shaded, stately homes of the North Shore, a walk-up apartment on the West Side, or a farmhouse outside Bloomington, whether people were friendly, indifferent, or occasionally hostile, I tried my best to keep my mouth shut and hear what they had to say. I listened to people talk about their jobs, their businesses, the local school; their anger at Bush and their anger at Democrats; their dogs, their back pain, their war service, and the things they remembered from childhood. Some had well-developed theories to explain the loss of manufacturing jobs or the high cost of health care. Some recited what they had heard on Rush Limbaugh or NPR. But most of them were too busy with work or their kids to pay much attention to politics, and they spoke instead of what they saw before them: a plant closed, a promotion, a high heating bill, a parent in a nursing home, a child's first step.


No blinding insights emerged from these months of conversation. If anything, what struck me was just how modest people's hopes were, and how much of what they believed seemed to hold constant across race, region, religion, and class. Most of them thought that anybody willing to work should be able to find a job that paid a living wage. They figured that people shouldn't have to file for bankruptcy because they got sick. They believed that every child should have a genuinely good education-that it shouldn't just be a bunch of talk-and that those same children should be able to go to college even if their parents weren't rich. They wanted to be safe, from criminals and from terrorists; they wanted clean air, clean water, and time with their kids. And when they got old, they wanted to be able to retire with some dignity and respect.


That was about it. It wasn't much. And although they understood that how they did in life depended mostly on their own efforts-although they didn't expect government to solve all their problems, and certainly didn't like seeing their tax dollars wasted-they figured that government should help.


I told them that they were right: government couldn't solve all their problems. But with a slight change in priorities we could make sure every child had a decent shot at life and meet the challenges we faced as a nation. More often than not, folks would nod in agreement and ask how they could get involved. And by the time I was back on the road, with a map on the passenger's seat, on my way to my next stop, I knew once again just why I'd gone into politics.


I felt like working harder than I'd ever worked in my life.


This book grows directly out of those conversations on the campaign trail. Not only did my encounters with voters confirm the fundamental decency of the American people, they also reminded me that at the core of the American experience are a set of ideals that continue to stir our collective conscience; a common set of values that bind us together despite our differences; a running thread of hope that makes our improbable experiment in democracy work. These values and ideals find expression not just in the marble slabs of monuments or in the recitation of history books. They remain alive in the hearts and minds of most Americans-and can inspire us to pride, duty, and sacrifice.


I recognize the risks of talking this way. In an era of globalization and dizzying technological change, cutthroat politics and unremitting culture wars, we don't even seem to possess a shared language with which to discuss our ideals, much less the tools to arrive at some rough consensus about how, as a nation, we might work together to bring those ideals about. Most of us are wise to the ways of admen, pollsters, speechwriters, and pundits. We know how high-flying words can be deployed in the service of cynical aims, and how the noblest sentiments can be subverted in the name of power, expedience, greed, or intolerance. Even the standard high school history textbook notes the degree to which, from its very inception, the reality of American life has strayed from its myths. In such a climate, any assertion of shared ideals or common values might seem hopelessly naive, if not downright dangerous-an attempt to gloss over serious differences over policy and performance or, worse, a means of muffling the complaints of those who feel ill served by our current institutional arrangements.


My argument, however, is that we have no choice. You don't need a poll to know that the vast majority of Americans-Republican, Democrat, and independent-are weary of the dead zone that politics has become, in which narrow interests vie for advantage and ideological minorities seek to impose their own versions of absolute truth. Whether we're from red states or blue states, we feel in our gut the lack of honesty, rigor, and common sense in our policy debates, and dislike what appears to be a continuous menu of false or cramped choices. Religious or secular, black, white, or brown, we sense-correctly-that the nation's most significant challenges are being ignored, and that if we don't change course soon, we may be the first generation in a very long time that leaves behind a weaker and more fractured America than the one we inherited. Perhaps more than any other time in our recent history, we need a new kind of politics, one that can excavate and build upon those shared understandings that pull us together as Americans.

That's the topic of this book: how we might begin the process of changing our politics and our civic life. This isn't to say that I know exactly how to do it. I don't. Although I discuss in each chapter a number of our most pressing policy challenges, and suggest in broad strokes the path I believe we should follow, my treatment of the issues is often partial and incomplete. I offer no unifying theory of American government, nor do these pages provide a manifesto for action, complete with charts and graphs, timetables and ten-point plans. . . .

Social Security vs. Individual Security

[This post is a re-run from three years ago (March 7, 2005). At that time the president and his Republican supporters were trying to advance the nutty idea of "privatizing" Social Security, leading to what looks to me like Individual, not "social" Security. With the presidential race now underway, it's time to revisit some of the old struggles to remind people how different the two parties stand in this debate.]
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Nothing new here, folks...
Feel free to scroll down to the next post...
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Josh Marshall was listening to Meet the Press yesterday.
[I heard the same program on my car radio, but didn't pay much attention because like so many of the pundit shows it struck me as a babbling contest of soundbites as this or that clever turn of a phrase tried to out-spin another one. Words and phrases like predicate something or other... suffering from... waning of... yadda yadda (suffering? Gimme a break) -- phrases like that turn me off, especially when content is about an inch deep, without the benefit of being a mile wide.]

He zeroes in on a central point about Social Security:

The real point, though, is that when you set aside all the practical matters of debt and transition costs, this is an ideological debate -- or to put it less antiseptically, a debate over different sets of values.

The idea behind private accounts is that people should rely on themselves alone and bear the consequences of their successes and their failures and random chance on their own shoulders. If things don't pan out for you in retirement, that's something to take up with your children.

The concept behind Social Security is fundamentally different. The first premise is that if you put in a lifetime's work there is simply a level of destitution below which society will not let you fall. Maybe you made so little during your working years that there wasn't enough to save. Or maybe you just didn't plan ahead well enough. Or maybe you suffered some misfortune. Whatever. If you worked you won't be destitute when you retire. People who made big bucks through their lives don't get a particularly good 'deal' from Social Security, if you insist on seeing it in investment terms. But that's a distorting prism, sort of like thinking you got a rotten deal on your medical insurance if you never have a catastrophic illness.

Here, in easy to understand language, is the difference between what we have and what is being proposed by that wonderfully appealing idea of "private" (Damn! That's great! I get to own it myself myself!) "accounts" (Gee! Just like the bank! My own piece of the rock that nobody can take away! Wow!). Well what we have already has accounts. And the accounts are better than private. They are collective, like insurance. Have you looked at your Social Security statement lately? It's humbling to see. There is a record of your earnings going all the way back to those scrimp and scrape days before you earned enough to piss away on a date to the movie.

I would like for someone to grab a random bunch of statements, representing a balance cross-section of American wage earners, do a bit of arithmetic backwards, and figure out exactly what they would have been "contributing" (I still hate that word. It's income tax with no deductions.) to a pretend "private account."
Next, with a bit of analytical projecting, take each one and figure out what it would be worth today had those little bits been collecting in some kind of investment. Remember, now, the investment cannot be in real estate, privately owned business, or other hard assets...just paper. Not just any paper, but the "safest" (read low-risk, another word for low interest rate) places. We need to discover how well a very conservative person would do over a lifetime of work if those moneys had been placed in a private account rather than being used for Social Security (and oh, by the way, to also feed the kitty of the general fund, leading to what we now call the so-called "trust fund" that many argue is worthless). My guess is that most people would not have anything like enough to maintain them when they were no longer able to work due to age or health. It is certain that those we now refer to as the working poor would be SOL.

Josh Marshall's insurance analogy apt for Social Security. If you never have a catastrophic illness you might think your insurance premiums are a ripoff. Same is true for Social Security. Young people like to see themselves as comfortable and well-cared for in their retirement years, because that is how young people tend to think. At least that is how young people think around those who sit around the movers and shakers who make policy.

Very few policy makers actually get out into the population they presume to represent and pay attention to the large numbers of people who make up the economy. Like the Kennedy clan trekking up the hollows of West Virginia, genuinely shocked and saddened by what they found, very few of our politicians take the trouble to venture into places where the underground economy operates, with drug money, bartered child care, and I-1099's that never get filed by "sub-contractors" who are really casual laborers, often illegal.

This appeals to me:

I like to think of this as the moral equality of work. In our society, we allow the market to assign all manner of different cash values to different sorts of work or even the same sorts of work under different circumstances. And by and large, within some very small limitations like the minimum wage or certain non-discrimination laws, most of us think this is how it should be. I certainly do. (In this sense, I think collective bargaining amounts to another competitive arrangement within a market economy -- though doctrinaire free market folks have always seen it in contrary terms.)

But the cash value of work isn't the same as its moral value. And if you look at the values embedded in all those Social Security actuarial tables, you see this principle: whether you were a janitor or a fast-food worker or a doctor or a tycoon, if you worked during your working years you shouldn't be left destitute when your working years are over (retirement) or when, through no fault of your own, you can't work anymore (disability). No matter what. The common denominator is a life of work -- skilled or unskilled, impressive or unimpressive, remembered or forgotten. It doesn't matter.

Yesterday I heard another report of someone living the fulfillment of the American Dream. A young woman where I work tells of her family's journey. Her parents came from a poor Caribbean country where they simply worked hard at anything they could do. With no special training, and with ambition that only comes from having no other choice, they migrated to America where they were able to rear a family, save enough to buy some real estate and now live in retirement, a retirement which came to them, incidentally, before they were sixty.

I made my heart glad to hear this story. It reminded me of one of my all-time favorites, a man from Cambodia who started years ago as a dishwasher in the cafeteria and has become one of the most sought-after sushi chefs in the Southeast, with a beautiful wife and three incredible kids, living in suburbia.

But these stories are few and far between. Most of the stories I know about are filled with children growing up with only one parent or being reared by another relative because one of both parents cannot do the job for one reason or another. Substance abuse, unresolved medical problems and corrosive social habits seem to be the norm for many people.

But even with all the problems I have witnessed, I am still observing a group of people at work, earning whatever they can at very low wages to make ends meet. Some have more than one job. I cannot imagine what it must be like not to be able to work at even the lowest rungs of the economic ladder, but I do know that the numbers of job applications far outnumbers the number of available jobs, even at the lower edge of the economy. With thirty-five years in the food business, I can speak with some authority about conditions at the lower edge of our so-called "service economy." (When I hear pundits talk about "moving us from the industrial age to the information age" it makes me roll my eyes. The vast numbers of people at work in America have no idea about "ages" and "eras" and "trends." They are simply trying to make a living the best way they can, with whatever resources they can manage. )

Anyone who thinks that replacing Social Security with some kind of Individual Security is a good idea is not living in the real world. Life in the real world is for many - in the words of Thomas Hobbs - "nasty, brutish and short." Sure, we now have flush toilets and cell phones, but these and other benefits of modern society are no reason to pull the economic rug from under people who have participated as best they knew how in the society until they could no longer do so.

Earlier this morning I came across the list of Slate 60, listing the sixty most generous philanthropic donors for 2004. As I perused the list I couldn't help thinking how far removed from where I live these people live and move.

In this, the ninth annual compendium of the country's 60 biggest givers, let us take stock of the State of the Turner Sweepstakes. Back in 1996, when CNN founder Ted Turner, provided the inspiration for Slate's list of top givers, he expressed the hope that the competitive juices that have nourished America's great fortunes might spill over more generously into the cup of human kindness....Overall, the Slate 60 pledged, paid, and bequeathed a heart-warming $10.1 billion in 2004, up from $5.9 billion in 2003.

Ten billion dollars.
Ten. Billion. Dollars.
That's a bunch of change, you know. Between that end of the economy and the other end, there is a range of wealth. We are not, thank God, either rich or poor with not much in between. In America the economic plane is less steep, the top and bottom less extreme.
Somewhere up the ladder, somebody is making a bit more than ninety thousand bucks a years. Whoever they are, and going on up to about one hundred fifty grand, I don't think it is unreasonable to ask them to start chipping in a bit more for Social Security.

Raising the cap for "contributions" ( I still can't keep from putting that word into quotes) seems to me the most realistic and reasonable remedy for whatever ails Social Security.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Hootsbuddy's Profile -- 2004 to 2008

[This profile, archived February, 2008, ran with few changes since the blog started. Some blogs appeal to a community of interactive readers but mine does not. I'm pleased to get comments, both positive and negative, but they are few and far between and I have learned to blog without them. Nearly all my visitors are from searches. I used to be linked occasionally by other bloggers but I seem to have lost whatever appealed to them. Sigh. As far as I can tell I have fewer than fifteen or twenty regular readers which is very small potatoes in the blog world. I'm thinking about a new profile which will be more generic, less personal.]

"Semi-retired child of the in his sixties. A career in food service had me working while others enjoyed a social life, but I managed over a thousand subordinates during my years in management, and dealt with the public for thirty-five plus years. I currently work in a retirement community. My blog is a way of keeping track of subjects that catch my interest. Your polite comments and constructive criticisms are welcome. Most of the hits to this blog are from searches but a handful of erudite people are regular readers. If you are a first-time visitor and have the time, feel free to look around. This blog is like a flea market...lots to see, lots to skip, but something for almost everyone. If you choose not to leave a comment I can be reached privately by g-mail addressed to Hootsbuddy."

[It is now March, 2009 and a new profile is going up. I'm tired of the old one and no one cares about a neologism (blusker) made up by me. The dynamic of my blogging has changed very little. The advents of Facebook, Twitter, "Followers," You Tube videos, group blogs and other techno-quasi-personal networking innovations are changing the face of the Internet. This is a great time to be alive.]

"Hootsbuddy's Place is a playground of eclectic interests (see blogroll) and a critical habit of mind. Traffic here is mainly from search referrals. One of two sitemeters is open for public viewing by the curious. This link leads to a profile of the blog host but you may think of me as a BLUSKER. That's an original neologism created by combining "blogger" and "busker" (an entertainer or musician who works sidewalks and parks for contributions). Hootsbuddy is a blogging counterpart, working search engines for traffic instead of networking. I give credit when due, but I'm not a link whore. Comments are welcome and subject to moderation, mainly to avoid spam. I can be reached privately via Hootsbuddy (at) G-mail (dot) com. Make yourself comfortble and enjoy your visit."

Ted Sorenson and Barack Obama

John F. Kennedy's famous speech writer and advisor, Theodore Sorenson, recognizes in Barack Obama many of the same qualities that Kennedy had. As he approaches the age of eighty his eyesight is failing but his political instincts and vision for the future are as positive as ever.

Younger readers who may not appreciate this man should know that as an advisor to and speechwriter for JFK it may have been Sorenson who penned the words "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." He may also have been the ghostwriter of Kennedy's book Profiles in Courage. When pressed about these questions he is coy. But there is no doubt that what he has to say carries a lot of weight.

This is about twenty-five minutes long. If time is limited, drag the time tab forward to twenty minutes and listen to the last five minutes of this program.

LINK to the Charlie Rose site.

LINK to the speech that Sorenson wrote in response to a request by Washington Monthly.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Finding the White Lobster

"People here now go beachcombing for miles, they walk until they find packets. Even the lobster fisherman now go out with the pretence of fishing but really they are looking for la langosta blanca - the white lobster."

Take a look at how the War on Drugs is going. There is so much money involved that a whole population finds prosperity in what is tossed overboard on the way to market.

At first glance, Bluefields in Nicaragua looks like any other rum-soaked, Rastafarian-packed, hammock-infested Caribbean paradise. But Bluefields has a secret.

People here don't have to work. Every week, sometimes every day, 35kg sacks of cocaine drift in from the sea. The economy of this entire town of 50,000 tranquil souls is addicted to cocaine.

Bluefields is a creation of the gods of geography. Located halfway between the cocaine labs of Colombia and the 300 million noses of the United States, Bluefields is ground zero for cocaine transportation. Nicaraguan waters are near Colombian territorial limits, making the area extremely popular with cocaine smugglers using very small, very fast fishing boats.
The US military calls them "go fast boats", which is a bureaucratic way of describing these mini-water-rockets. Typically these 12m boats have 800 horsepower of outboard motors bolted to the stern. A Porsche 911 Turbo, by comparison, has 485 horsepower.

While they are very fast, they are also very visible to the array of radars set up by roaming US spy planes, Coastguard cutters and helicopters which regularly monitor the speeding cocaine traffickers.

"With night vision equipment, I have seen a lit cigarette from two miles," a US Navy pilot said. "Or the back light from their GPS screen? It looks like a billboard."

When the Americans get close, the traffickers toss the cocaine overboard, both to eliminate evidence and lighten their load in an escape attempt.

"They throw most of it off," says a Lt Commander in the US Coastguard. "I have been on four interdictions and we have confiscated about 6000 pounds [2720kg] of cocaine, and I'd say equal that much was dumped into the ocean."

Those bales of cocaine float, and the currents bring them west right into the chain of islands, beaches and cays which make up the huge lagoons that surround Bluefields on Nicaragua's Atlantic coast.

"There are no jobs here, unemployment is 85 per cent," says Moises Arana, who was mayor of Bluefields from 2001 to 2005.

"It is sad to say, but the drugs have made contributions. Look at the beautiful houses, those mansions come from drugs. We had a women come into the local electronics store with a milk bucket stuffed full of cash. She was this little Miskito [native] woman and she had $80,000."

More at the link.