Archive for August, 2007

The Thinker

Materialism in Perspective

Supposedly, the United States is one of the most religious nations in the world. Surveys tell us this is so. It is hard to traverse even a few blocks without running into a house of worship. Since most of us in this country who are religious claim to be Christian, you might expect we would be busy scrupulously following Jesus’ words and deeds. As I recall Jesus preached that possessions acted as obstacles toward knowing and serving God. Jesus told us that if we have things then we should give them away to the poor. Free of the burden of materialism we could concentrate on what matters: loving each other, improving our souls and spreading the good news of salvation. We should all live our lives like Mother Teresa’s. What good is the obsession with the number of coins in our pockets if in the process our souls are damned? The book of Timothy even tells us that “For the love of money is the root of all evil”.

For an allegedly Christian nation, we seem to have a few wires crossed. As much as recent revelations about Mother Teresa shocked me, at least she felt a genuine calling from God. At least she took the words of Jesus not as just good advice, but as a commandment. As for the rest of us, well it is not as if we do not do our share of tithing and charitable work, but it is for most of us a very part time thing. Ideally, instead of demonstrating our values in actual charitable work, we are rich enough where we can just write checks to charities. These checks are not large enough to empty our bank accounts, but measured doses of monetary kindness that allows us to help the poor a bit while making sure we still have our McMansions, SUVs and Hawaiian vacations.

Perhaps Jesus is looking down on us from heaven and saying to himself, “Tsk, tsk, tsk. Here I was busy dying for their sins and they still don’t get it!” Yet arguably, it is due to our material riches that we can lift any of the poor out of poverty. I suspect though that Jesus was not calling us to make the poor richer, but to relieve their misery. He wanted us to lead them and everyone toward beliefs and values that will enrich their souls, not our pocketbooks. I suspect he is hearing something like this from us instead:

Yo! Jesus! Get off my case, big guy! I am a bit distracted now. I am having way too much fun creating my avatar for Second Life. Spiritual rewards are all fine and everything, but heck, they are intangible buddy! I would much rather get my reward right now, while I am alive. An iPhone will do for starters.

Americans really worship at the Church of Mammon. We love money but if we cannot actually possess lots of money, having lots of stuff will suffice. Why are financial markets roiling all over the world right now? Because the American appetite for having our rewards now appears to be insatiable. If the love of money is the root of all evil, then credit cards must be the must be a beeline straight to Hell’s gates. Americans just love credit because it gives us things we want now even though in many cases we cannot really afford them. Until recently, owning our own home was out of reach for many of us who are financially challenged. This uncomfortable fact of life though could be overcome thanks to the cleverness of American capitalism. The mortgage industry invented no money down home loans and adjustable rate mortgages. This gave us the illusion that the financially challenged could become homeowners too. This worked fine until we discovered we had not read the fine print and we were way overextended. We eventually realized that a home loan was not like a charge card and adjustable rate mortgage payments could go up rather dramatically. Uh oh.

In the 21st century, we Americans measure our happiness not by how spiritual we are on the inside, but on how much we can super-size our lives. A station wagon just will not do anymore. We want a Ford Explorer. A three bedroom, one and a half bath ranch house is so 1950s. We want a McMansion, with a three car garage, with an upgraded kitchen (marble countertops please) and cathedral ceilings in the foyer. We will not be denied, even if we have to drive three hours each way to work to afford our lifestyles.

We deal with the hypocrisy between our espoused values and our actual practices by living lives effused in glorious cognitive dissonance. Rather than play lip service to our house of worship which, if we are reasonably devout we may visit once a week, we pay daily visits to our houses of capitalism. From the cup of java from the local Starbucks we grab on our way to work to the hours we spend traipsing from store to store at our local mall, there are endless ways to acquire newer and shinier stuff. Now we no longer have to be bothered to actually go out and buy many things. We can shop from the convenience of our computers. If we do not actually have enough cash on hand to buy what we want, we can plastic it. What possible virtue can there be in putting off for some nebulous future day what we can have right now?

With every passing generation, our obsession with achieving happiness via materialism becomes ever more myopic. Our spending habits are endlessly analyzed and probed by marketing wizards. Every conceivable variation of product must pondered for its potential profitability. Materialism speaks to an inner angst inside us that whispers that happiness is only a purchase away. It is the collection and variety of things in our lives that are our Feng Shui. We want to live in harmony with the environment, providing it is our environment. Living in harmony with nature is clearly a distant second.

In the end of course we die. Since our stuff does not disappear when we die, it appears we cannot take all this happiness with us after death. At least we will have lived a distracted life. Whether we achieved happiness with all our material stuff or merely received its illusion will perhaps be made clear in the afterlife, assuming there is one. If Hugh Hefner’s hedonism is too scary for us to emulate, we can at least emulate Ayn Rand. Like Ms. Rand, perhaps we should explicitly state that the pursuit of wealth and the outsized freedom it buys is our most cherished value. Perhaps like Ms. Rand we should go to our deathbeds with a dollar sign hanging above on the wall next to us. At least this way we would not by hypocritical.

Capitalism of course gives us the means to stay out of poverty. If you have been there, poverty does not so much purify your soul as give you incentive never to be impoverished again. This should be obvious. It explains why millions of Americans are not sneaking into Mexico. Beyond a certain nebulous point though, materialism appears to become a philosophy of life. In its extreme manifestations, it is tantamount to a religion. Ayn Rand appears to be one of its saints. Her religion of sorts, which she invented, was called Objectivism.

Can one be truly both spiritual and materialistic? As I understand the Christianity as it is presented in the Bible, the answer is a resounding “No!” I am not a Christian, but as I have known poverty and have no desire to experience it again, I also know that I will not give up my fundamental possessions. I see no value to a vagabond life living in boxes under highway overpasses. For me having stuff is not evil. In fact, I think we are programmed to move from misery toward comfort. Although materialism does not seem to truly make many of us happy, at least it is a tangible expression of what we imagine heaven to be: a place of comfort. The real world is a tough place. Our degree of materialism is something of a benchmark that shows us how far we have moved from our inner caveman. Somewhere in our DNA are distant ancestors that lived short, squalid lives wrapped up in fear. Materialism is a balm of sorts. It moves these distant but powerful memories further from our sight. That is its value. It is almost a form of therapy.

Yet materialism does not cure the angst so much as momentarily relieve it. This could explain why, like a junkie getting his next high, or Homer Simpson reaching for his next box of doughnuts, we eventually need a new materialistic fix. To cure it we must look deeper into each other and ourselves. Giving away our stuff, as Jesus recommended, is probably not the real cure. Human connectedness, manifested through mutual expressions of love, is likely the cure manifested by our materialistic angst.

It is my belief that anything taken to excess, be it religion or materialism, is fundamentally unhealthy. Moderation in both our materialistic needs and our spiritual demands may be the key that truly move us toward enlightenment. I suggest using materialism as a means to help you enrich your spirit and to help form mutually enriching connections with all life. When used in this way materialism can be ennobling.

 
The Thinker

Review: Elizabeth (1998)

Recently I saw a trailer for the upcoming movie Elizabeth: The Golden Age. It stars Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth I, the English monarch of the latter half of the 16th century. Cate Blanchett, like Jody Foster, is one of these actors incapable of giving a bad performance, so I made a note to see the movie when it comes out this October.

This movie will not be the first time that Ms. Blanchett has portrayed Elizabeth I. In 1998, she starred in Elizabeth, sometimes referred to as Elizabeth: The Virgin Queen. It is not often that an actor gets to reprise a role. To whet our appetite for this latest movie, we Netflixed the original 1998 movie.

Elizabeth I was a crucial monarch at a critical time in England’s history. She ascended to the throne on the death of her stepsister, Mary Tudor, a die-hard Roman Catholic. Since Mary Tudor ascended to the throne after the death of her infamous father King Henry VIII, Protestantism had yet to take firm hold in England. Mary Tudor, Elizabeth’s stepsister, came close to having Elizabeth executed for her Protestant inclinations. Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry’s second marriage with Anne Boleyn, spent two months in the Tower of London but was eventually placed under house arrest. It was the monarch Elizabeth I who institutionalized the Church of England. As the film makes clear, she did this at her own great peril. Elizabeth I had many enemies. Both Spain and France sought to control England by courting her in hand in marriage. The pope gave orders for her murder. Her refusal to get married for the good of the state established her as The Virgin Queen as well as the last of the Tudors.

The film does a great job of making you believe you are at the latter half of the 16th century. At the time, England was virtually broke. Its navy would come later. Only its relative isolation from the continent allowed it to escape invasion. Not that England had not suffered its share of invaders before, but none (not even the Romans) had wholly succeeded. Elizabeth I would prove a transformational monarch. After some initial missteps, she would demonstrate wise judgment that would eventually propel England into the league of great world powers.

Life was often short and brutal in those days. This is demonstrated in the opening scene, in which three Protestant heretics are publicly burnt at the stake. Elizabeth was just one woman vying for the throne. To the north was also Mary Queen of Scotts, a Catholic who, upon Mary Tudor’s passing, worked to end the apostasy of Elizabeth’s reign. As the queen’s counselor, Sir William Cecil (Richard Attenborough) did his best to ensure England’s safety by attempting to persuade Elizabeth to marry. In addition to foreign suitors, Elizabeth had a private lover, Sir Robert Dudley, the Earl of Liecester, played by Joseph Fiennes. Each though had their own motives and true love has little to do with their affections. As a young woman, Elizabeth has to make sense of the political intrigue and chaos around her as well as fend off multiple assassination attempts.

Fortunately, Elizabeth had one friend savvy enough to help her wend her way through the political intrigue all around her: Sir Francis Walsingham, played to perfection by Geoffrey Rush. The movie suggests that without his conniving that Elizabeth might have fatally faltered. How close the movie is to the actual truth is hard to discern, but his presence does make for a gripping movie. I am delighted to see that he will be reunited with Cate Blanchett in this latest movie. I do not know if there is a third story in the queen’s later life worthy of making a trilogy of films, but I hope there is.

For those who loved the movie Braveheart, Elizabeth will have a familiar feel. As you would expect for a major motion picture, the acting is uniformly excellent and the period is faithfully portrayed. If you are anxious to see the latest movie but have not seen the first movie, now is the time to rent it. If you are the squeamish type, you may find a few scenes quite disturbing but they likely understate the violence of the era. As for Cate Blanchett’s performance, you will not be disappointed.

Elizabeth earns a 3.3 on my 4.0 scale.

 
The Thinker

Mother Teresa on the couch

It is rare that I am riveted by a news story. Yet this story (and its many variants) had me riveted. It appears that Mother Teresa (the Roman Catholic nun who founded the Sisters of Charity, and who spent fifty years caring for the least of our brethren, mostly in the slums of Calcutta) largely did not feel the presence of the God she served.

What is next? Will we see secret diaries of Adolf Hitler saying how much he loved and admired the Jews? The irony is that Mother Teresa’s feelings, articulated only to a series of confidential confessors over many years, seems to be one of the reasons that she will be elevated to sainthood. It appears that in the eyes of the Catholic Church, being disconnected from the Jesus she believed means she suffered, like Jesus on the cross, so that makes her even holier. Perhaps her experience is somewhat akin to the forty days and forty nights that the Bible says Jesus spent in the desert tormented by the Devil. For Jesus though, forty days and nights was enough. Mother Teresa spent more than fifty years consumed by her humanitarian work while rigidly towing the Catholic line. Yet she did this apparently without the consuming zeal of a religious devotee.

Well knock me over with a soda straw! Yet, some part of me was unsurprised. I have discussed Mother Teresa in bits and pieces in a variety of other blog entries. While I cannot but help admire her and feel astonished by the scope of her humanitarian work, some part of me was also appalled. Perhaps I could understand her if it she found passion in her work, but apparently, that was not the case. She loathed it. Seeing such wretched people day in and day out for fifty years, by her own admission, filled her with immense inner pain and suffering. And yet she soldiered on, put on a happy face and towed the Catholic line all while feeling nothing from the God she worshiped and served.

Just who was Mother Teresa anyhow? Judging from her works the answer is clear. She was a humanitarian the likes of which will probably not recur for many centuries. Judging from the divergence between her public words and private thoughts, she was also something of a hypocrite. I hasten to add that her hypocrisy was not the type deserving chastisement. Hypocrisy is typically manifested as selfish or immoral behavior while pretending the opposite. That was not the case here.

It appears that Mother Teresa was a hypocritical humanist. Humanists like Mother Teresa and me generally do not feel the presence of a personal God in our lives. We believe that relieving the suffering of our fellow humans is nonetheless a worthwhile goal. We believe that all people have inherent worth and dignity and that includes rich and poor, as well as the moral and the reviled. Mother Teresa followed the Catholic faith, but appeared to receive no enrichment from it. Receiving the Eucharist, for example, sparked no closer feelings toward God. She followed and advocated the teachings of the Church but they did not provide her with the passion that motivated her to do her work. Rather than taking care of the wretched out of a feeling of passion, she did her work because she said she said she was called by God to do so.

What does it mean to consume your life doing something that fundamentally disagrees with you? Is this virtuous or insane? If I started cutting myself like many teenagers do I would be up to my armpits in therapists. It is generally understood that actions that are self-destructive are harmful. In her confessions, Mother Teresa acknowledges that her actions wreaked a dreadful psychological toll on her. Her actions helping the poor were clearly virtuous but the 24/7/365 nature of her work suggests to me that most clinical psychologists would say she was also mentally ill.

Perhaps it must go this way if you are angling for sainthood. Mother Teresa went out of her way to not draw attention to herself. She was obsessive about being used as a means for people to find Jesus and Catholicism. If she were to take any pride in her accomplishments, she would perceive this as sinful in itself. The primary criteria for sainthood then seems to be the ability of the human will to persistently engage in actions perceived by the Catholic Church as beneficial yet contrary to our human nature. In other words to be a saint, you have to unlearn or deny yourself the right of personal happiness.

Yet it appears that as much as Mother Teresa tried, she could not stop feeling like a human being. Underneath her saintly demeanor was a thinking and passionate woman. Where she “succeeded” was in ruthlessly repressing her own human nature. This strikes me as tragic.

Some years back I wrote about toxic shame. I was introduced to it by the noted therapist John Bradshaw, who wrote this book on the subject. Bradshaw’s thesis was that shame can reach a toxic level, wherein it colors all of our actions. Instead of being a human being who can take joy in life, many of those inflicted with toxic shame become (in his words) human doings. Clearly, Mother Teresa was a human doing. It is now also clear from her confessions that she took no personal joy in her work. How she ended up this way is something of a mystery. However, if I had to bet, I would bet that her childhood was very rough indeed. A casual Wikipedia search did not return much information on her early life. Her father died when she was eight. She was born in Albania (Macedonia at the time), which is a poor country, known for large families. I would bet that her childhood was harsh and women were not valued very much. I also bet she did not get much in the way of parental attention. For whatever reason, she left home at 18 to join the Sisters of Loreto and never saw her family again. Her motivation for helping others might be a result of the lack of personal attention that she craved during her childhood. Obviously, I am speculating here, but it seems logical.

If so, then clearly many have benefited from her feelings of toxic shame. She inspired a new religious order, which continues to carry on with her work. Nevertheless, to be able to give out such love, yet to have been denied the kind of connection that she needed to feel from her God (and likely her family) strikes me as unbelievably tragic. Mother Teresa lived 87 years but it appears she was denied the love and intimacy she needed to feel like she was a human being. Instead, she became a human doing.

While I think humanitarianism is a noble cause, I do not think it should wholly consume anyone’s life. If it does, it should be because a person is truly passionate about it, not because someone feels they should do it. I suspect if Mother Teresa were alive and Dr. Sigmund Freud tried to psychoanalyze her, even he would throw up his hands in despair.

Mother Teresa for me remains an utter contradiction, at once both holy and someone for whom I feel even more compassion for than the wretched people she served. I hope her utter selflessness in her life earns her great spiritual reward in heaven. The irony is that, based on her own confessions, she would not enjoy such spiritual rewards. She would feel unworthy to receive them because they would dim the glory of the God she worshiped, but for whom she felt no passion.

 
The Thinker

Real Life 101, Lesson 7: Fitness and Health Basics

This is the seventh in an indeterminate series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthday.

Young man (or woman), look at this site. It should sober you up. It is not exactly news that obesity is a “growing” problem among Americans. Nonetheless, as you delve into the details you should feel aghast. Today a shocking 8 out of 10 Americans over age 25 are either overweight or obese. A quarter of us lead completely sedentary lifestyles. In less than twenty years, there has been a 76% increase in the number of adult Americans with Type II diabetes. This is the type of diabetes does not develop until adulthood. 85% of those who develop Type II diabetes are overweight or obese.

Maybe by comparing yourself to others at your school or college, you do not feel out of the norm. This may be because so many teens and young adults are following these unfortunate national trends. If you go back just sixteen years though, the number of obese young adults age 18-29 has doubled. It does not take a Texas Instruments calculator to figure out that if you are not already obese or overweight, the chances are you will get there one day. If you grew up eating pizza, drinking colas and your idea of exercise is keyboard calisthenics, project your current lifestyle ten, twenty and forty years in the future. What do you think is going to happen if you do not change some habits? (Hint: look at your parents, but most likely your situation will be worse.)

If you are overweight or obese, it is not necessarily all your fault. Placing blame does not solve the problem of course, but it is helpful to know that modern society will encourage you to be obese. Unlike hundreds of generations before you, your career is not likely to be hunter or farmhand. Your future will look a lot more like Dilbert’s. Our modern world needs knowledge workers, not farmhands, and encourages us to be knowledge workers by tempting us with higher salaries. You will likely spend your days in either a cubicle or its equivalent. Even if you aspire to be a truck driver, you are unlikely to escape the trend. Truck drivers sit on their butts all day too. These days we have machines to do our hard labor. Unfortunately, you inhabit a body that was designed to be a hunter-gatherer. Perhaps fifty generations hence our bodies will adapt to our new reality. Perhaps then, our livers will pass fats undigested instead of storing them. Little good that will do you now. Unless exercising is your passion, or you enjoy working outdoors with your hands, you have a big problem. You need regular exercise. You also need to eat better. If you do not, expect your lifespan to be shorter than your parents. Do not be surprised if the last third of your life is full of chronic health care issues. Is this how you envisioned your adult life?

Even if you are 18 and skinny as a rail, your body is going to throw you a curve ball. This is because about the time you graduate high school you should not just be grown up, but your body has finished growing up. All those extra calories will soon no longer be needed. If you never gained any weight during your adolescence and you continue your eating patterns, you are guaranteed to gain weight.

Not surprisingly, this was my dilemma as a young adult. One day in my early twenties, I weighed myself and was shocked that although I had never exceeded 180 pounds (I am 6’2″) all my life, I was suddenly 195 pounds. Now, at age 50, although not obese, I remain overweight. How do you know if you are not overweight? You need to have a body mass index (BMI) of 25 or less. In my case, given my height I need to be 190 pounds or less.

Being healthy as an adult though is a lot more than having a healthy weight. It also means you have to take care of your body’s other needs. You know, the boring stuff: eating healthy foods and getting regular exercise. If your weight is normal but you survive on pizza and you never exercise, you are leading an unhealthy lifestyle.

You already know what I am going to suggest: get regular exercise, maintain a healthy body weight and eat better foods. If you are overweight or obese though, none of these things is likely to be easy. Diet books will always be popular because we will always want to believe that by following one book that we will solve all these problems. What we really want is some sort of magical formula that will allow us to continue our sedentary lifestyles and eat like pigs yet stay in optimal health. You might as wish to win the lottery.

Obesity is going to be the challenge of your generation, just as smoking and drugs were the challenge for my generation. (Obesity though is affecting the baby boom generation too. We just started later.) You need to be very mindful of this. Staying healthy is likely to be a constant challenge for you throughout your adult life.

If you are at a healthy weight, then congratulations. You mission is now to stay this way. You need to start increasing your exercise without increasing your calorie intake. That does not mean you need to run marathons, unless you want to. This does mean that you need to work in regular sustained physical activities that hopefully you also enjoy. Since you are young and still have your joints, group sports like volleyball and basketball are excellent means toward accomplishing this goal. Pick activities you enjoy. Weigh yourself at least once a month. Once a week is ideal.

If you are already overweight or obese, you will have to change some habits. You can try Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig and similar commercial solutions. These diets are often quite effective at taking weight off. The problem is that almost all diets are temporary. Pounds will come off but they will soon come back. You may find yourself all worn out after a long day of work and use this as an excuse to skip your evening exercise. You will find yourself taking an extra donut when you know you should not. Sadly, there are no free calories.

There are three proven solutions to losing weight and keeping it off. The sooner you start the easier it is to do as a lifetime habit. Here they are: count your calories, weigh yourself regularly, and use support groups. I have a friend who recently lost 65 pounds. I was impressed. How did he succeed where others have so often failed? His wife convinced him to enroll in the George Washington University Weight Management Program. Most diet programs have a long-term success rate of about 5%. This program, while not perfect, has a 40% success rate, which is phenomenally high. The essence of their secret is to follow the elements above. This program is based on the understanding that weight loss and healthy living is a lifelong journey, not a short-term destination. Taking the weight off is wonderful, but is meaningless if it goes back on. Therefore, it offers considerable therapy and support groups to help people work through these issues. (I will need to see if my friend is still at his weight in a year. His odds are 40%.)

I am not suggesting that the only way to become and stay healthy is to use a program like this one. The younger you are the more flexible you will be both mentally and bodily to develop your own weight loss solutions. Unless your job involves heavy physical demands though you are unlikely to burn off the calories you consume unless you change your practices.

There are a few other things that I discovered during my own journey that you might find useful. First, aerobics is probably not enough. Granted, marathoners as a class tend to look extremely lean, but you are unlikely to be a marathoner. Here is the problem with doing just aerobics: as you grow older your muscle mass tends to decrease. Ideally, just as you want to keep all your brain cells as you age, you want to keep the same muscle mass you had as a physically fit teenager. If you do not engage in regular weight training (which probably should be in addition to regular aerobics) your muscle mass will decrease over time. This means that even if your weight is stable your BMI will increase over time, so you will become overweight. Why is it that so many of our elderly have such a hard time getting around? It is because they never did regular weight training. Depending on which experts you ask you will get different answers, but most will suggest you need to be lifting weights at least three times a week. The general strategy involves rotating the muscles that you exercise. Ideally you will have enough spare cash to work out with a personal trainer, who can show you how to do it correctly. Essentially, proper weight training involves lifting weights a lot heavier than you think you can lift. To do it correctly, you have to be able to start by lifting a set of weights but at some point find it impossible to continue lifting them. For most weight machines, this is between ten and fifteen repetitions per set. (Note: before starting any exercise program like this, consult a physician.)

All this takes a lot of time. I do it after work and on weekends mostly at my local Gold’s Gym. Each trip takes a minimum of an hour and often consumes two hours of my precious free time. I should enjoy it but most of the time I do not. (Listening to podcasts on my MP3 player while I exercise helps a lot.) This is the price that I have to pay in order to be a healthy human and work a sedentary job. The good news is that by doing both, while I am technically still overweight, my BMI is improving. It is quite possible to be overweight yet be healthy. Look at Arnold Schwarzenegger, at least before he gave up the weight training. Notice what happened since: Arnold is now overweight, but he has replaced a lot of his muscle with fat.

Welcome to real life, young adult. I hope that you can find some combination of diet and exercise that works for you. I am afraid though this will mean tearing yourself away from Second Life and instead engaging in real life. If this sounds like you, it is time to back away from that PC and get moving instead.

 
The Thinker

Review: Stardust

What movie would you get if you combined the best of The Princess Bride, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Village? Most likely, it would be something like Stardust, now playing in your local theater.

The result is definitely odd but also engaging and a lot of fun. You get the bold, personable and handsome adventurer out on a fantastic quest to win the heart of his true love. You get regular doses of humor, including a cross-dressing pirate captain. You get considerable action and adventure, and, naturally, an assortment of bad guys and evil ladies out to foil true love’s quest.

This curious combination of elements results in a well-done and very entertaining movie. Judging from my wife and daughter’s reactions, women will probably be enchanted by it. If you are a middle-aged man like me, you will have a fun time but probably will not feel quite as enthusiastic about the movie. However, you will not feel like your money was wasted. Stardust is fine summer entertainment.

The movie is set, at least initially, in the village of Wall, which is somewhere in England in the early 19th century. It is surrounded by (you guessed it) a wall. The wall has but a single breach, guarded night and day to prevent anyone from crossing it. As in the movie The Village, something lurks in the woods behind the wall, but no one in the village knows what until, invariably, a young man decides to find out. One thing is for sure: the place he ends up in is not in England. There he manages to fall in love and conceive a child, which is delivered to the wall nine months later. The boy, Tristan (Charlie Cox) is raised by his father until he too becomes a young man. One night while courting a woman he is madly in love with, a shooting star crashes into the earth far outside the wall. Tristan promises the woman he is wooing that he will retrieve the shooting star for her. If he can do this within one week, she has agreed to marry him.

The fallen star turns out to be a lovely, if somewhat acerbic woman named Yvain (Claire Danes). Using a special candle Tristan is able to instantly cross over the wall into the crater where the star landed. There he finds the somewhat dazed Yvain, looking impossibly skinny, cute, blonde and (since she is a star) radiant. There is no love at first site here though. Tristan has to bring her back to Wall and Yvain is not cooperative.

Of course, there must be evil people out to thwart Tristan, but they are there to amuse. Only young children will be frightened. Peter O’Toole gives a fine cameo performance as the old, evil king of Stormhold. On his deathbed, he gleefully sets his many sons on a ruthless fight to succeed him. Not too far away in an evil castle, live three very aged witches. They need a newly fallen star to regain their youth and magical powers. There is not much left of their last star. Naturally, because it is particularly gross, they must cut Yvain’s heart out. Michele Pfieffer plays Lamia, one of the evil witches. She is tasked to find and kill Yvain and return with her heart. Also on a similar evil quest is Septimus (Mark Strong), the son of the evil King whom, through fratricide, wins the right to be the next King. Unfortunately, to actually be crowned king, he must bring back the star’s heart too.

Director Matthew Vaughn does an admirable job of directing this movie. Without exception, his cast does a fine job of rendering this elaborate fairy tale. You will probably feel quite swept away by this lovingly rendered comedic fantasy. To me the only serious incongruity was the cross-dressing Captain Shakespeare, played by Robert De Niro. De Niro certainly enjoyed his atypical part. However, a cross dressing captain in a movie that is essentially a lightly comedic fairy tale of true love struck me as pushing the movie a bit out of kilter. Judging from my wife and daughter though, Captain Shakespeare was the highlight of the movie. If the weirdness of De Niro in drag does not throw the movie a bit off for you then you will find the movie wholly charming and delightful. I do not think I will spoil the plot by telling you that true love will be found and won.

I think it would be an impossible movie to loathe, and probably impossible not to enjoy. Buy yourself an extra large popcorn because the movie overall is a delightful treat for the acerbic child in all of us.

3.2 on my 4.0 scale.

 
The Thinker

For the love of Dilbert

There is good news for us Dilbert fans! The latest compilation of Dilbert comic strips, Positive Attitude is out. In my family, we depend on our Dilbert compilations. We keep a stack of Dilbert books in our bathroom for our leisure reading. The only problem is we have virtually every comic strip its creator Scott Adams has ever written. We can quote from them like some people can quote Shakespeare. So Positive Attitude was very welcome, although it too has been quickly consumed and memorized.

Dilbert is the comic strip for us white collar Baby Boomers and Generation X’ers. The artwork may leave a little something to be desired, but the cast of strange characters feels very familiar. They are parodies of the sorts of denizens that we who inhabit cubicle-land meet on a daily basis. I identify with all the characters, which by itself is rather scary.

As a software engineer, I identify the most with Dilbert himself. Fortunately, my success rate with women is somewhat better than his is. Although no one would mistake me for Cary Grant, I can confidently say I am much more attractive than Dilbert. Nonetheless, I know his geeky world like the back of my hand. Until 2004 when I got a management job, I spent my white-collar career in a cubicle. For many of those years, I too was an impotent project manager and technical leader. Like Dilbert, I had the responsibility, but not really the authority, to accomplish my many tasks. Puppet masters far up my chain of command made regular ill informed and counterproductive pointy haired boss type decisions. A few, like this one, I have documented. Like Dilbert, I am socially awkward. I feel much more comfortable in front of a computer than at a party. I still do not understand why brutal honesty should be so frightening. Moreover, like Dilbert I know that even if I were not married, a real babe would no more fall in love with me than with Genghis Khan.

I also identify with the Pointy Haired Boss, not only because I have worked for more than a few of them but also because I am now one myself. I hope I do a better job of managing than the Pointy Haired Boss. However, since I have a position of power, I suspect my underlings must be whispering at least a few uncomplimentary things about me behind my back. I can guess what some of them are. Like the PHB, I must suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder, for I seem to have a very limited attention span. I cannot see the trees in the forest most of the time. I am a big picture type, generally not interested in the messy details of actually accomplishing major goals. I also like to please my bosses, so I have a tendency to over-commit my resources. I hope I am not as susceptible to flattery or as terrified of the CEO as the Pointy Haired Boss, but I am hardly in a position to assess myself. So I may be a PHB too.

I love Alice because she when her hormones take over she can do or say things about which the rest of us can only dream. When her hormones are not raging, I admire her for her professionalism and fanatical devotion to her work. It is hard to know how she manages given her many fruitless projects. Even after all these years, every time Alice’s uncontrollable fists of death comes out, I laugh hysterically.

I also love Wally, the ultimate slacker. He should be a civil servant like me. I hasten to add that civil servant slackers are actually quite rare, but not so rare that they cannot be found. At least in the corporate world, the Wallys of the world tend to quickly be discovered and discarded. Thankfully, I now work at a highly functional agency. I can honestly say that no one I work with regularly is a Wally type. Yet I have known a number of Wallys in the other agencies I worked at during my 25 years in the civil service. With their tenure, they skate by on minimally satisfactory performance ratings. I even knew one coworker from my days in the Pentagon who, like Wally, could not be bothered to bathe. I will confess that even though I had a reputation as a hard worker, there were times, particularly when my management became progressively dysfunctional, when I slacked off like Wally. What I love most about Wally is how he revels in his slacking. Slacking is both his religion and his reason for being. He has refined the ability to skate through life to a fine art. Nothing motivates him. He seems to live on caffeine and popcorn.

I love the intern Asok too for his wide-eyed naivety. He does not quite understand cynicism and still operates under the illusion that his lowly efforts matter. He takes delight in the stupidest things, like being a “product process owner”. He is obviously so smart that he could run the company all by himself. The irony of course is that he is isolated into the most meaningless position imaginable.

Carol, the pointy haired boss’s secretary, is a very familiar character too. She should be married to Wally. Vain and vindictive, she is evil but is forced to exert her evil in small but nefarious ways. Without Carol’s continuous obfuscation, Dilbertland might occasionally work. She acts as the block that ensures total dysfunction.

In addition, what is not to love about Catbert? He reminds me of our late lamented evil cat Squeaky, but he is much more selfish and evil than Squeaky was. The more misery that he can dish out as Director of Human Resources the happier he is. He loves wandering around the cubicles and finding sadistic ways to make the employees apprehensive.

Rather than being immoral, Dogbert is simply amoral. He is the ultimate con artist. He has a sixth sense on how to exploit people and he does it with ruthless efficiency and genuine joy. Like Catbert, he can be cruel, but cruelty is not his primary motivation. Rather he thrives on exploitation.

Without a doubt, my favorite character is Ratbert. He never fails to crack me up. I love his tendency toward masochism and his total gullibility. He is gloriously unaware that his potential is so minuscule. Consequently, he is unafraid to step into assignments way over his abilities. He thrives on being immature and easily distracted. He reminds me a lot of George W. Bush.

Even the ancillary characters are fun. Tina the Tech Writer’s anxiety complex is always close to the surface and a source of frequent laughs. Anyone ever notice Ted? Ted has no personality, but he shows up a lot. It is always Ted who is invariably about to be fired, or was downsized, or will be played the fool. Phil, the ruler of Heck is a sardonic, low class and dispirited manifestation of the devil, sort of a Catbert-lite. Bob the Dinosaur plays a general buffoon.

The result is a brilliant comic strip where the cubicle denizens are always oppressed, incompetence is rewarded and ruthless exploitation is glorified. In Dilbertland, life is always futile. It is a consistent nihilistic vision of office life yet it is funny at the same time. The strip is nearing twenty years old. While it probably reached its peak in the mid to late 1990s, it remains quite fresh. With so many real life experiences coming in from his readers, Scott Adams should have no trouble finding sources of inspiration in the years ahead.

Scott may well be the cynical, amoral man he projects into his characters. I just hope he does not decide to retire prematurely. With the success of Dilbert, he must have made his fortune many times over. We cubicle workers need Dilbert. It is as vital to us as our daily jolt of Starbucks coffee. Dilbert gives us a means to laugh at our relatively tame office chaos. We are better with Dilbert in our life. For if the strip goes away we will find ourselves stuck forever in Heck. Yet with Dilbert we can somehow cope.

Keep them coming, Scott.

 
The Thinker

Quick Political Hits

Rather than focus on a single topic today, as is my usual practice, I just want to dump a potpourri of political thoughts that are running through my brain at the moment.

Karl Rove’s Resignation. There is plenty of evil to go around within the Bush Administration. Arguably, Bush, Cheney and Bush’s political strategist Karl Rove formed something that resembled a triumvirate of evil. Perhaps this was why Bush was so quick to notice an Axis of Evil: it takes one to know one. Cheney is the administration’s immoral head. Cheney is smart enough to know that certain actions like their torture policies, illegal electronic surveillance and the turning the Justice Department into another wing of the Republican agenda were both wrong and illegal. Rove was its amoral head. Rove simply did not care, which was arguably worse. None of them cared a whit about upholding the rule of law if it conflicted with their political agenda. It was always party first, country second. The U.S. Constitution became their toilet paper. At least with Rove’s resignation one of the heads of this hydra is gone. Karl, the 2006 election gave you the kick in the pants you deserved. The 2008 election will prove the ultimate undoing of your “legacy”. Good riddance.

Bombings in Ninevah Province, Iraq. These bombings were horrible but predictable. While it will take days to get an accurate death toll, it looks like al Qaeda terrorists murdered at least 200 Iraqis. How reprehensible but unsurprising it was that al Qaeda chose to target a small ethnic sect, the Yazidis, in these attacks. It is impossible to know whether these bombings were the consequence of our Whack a Mole strategy or not, but it seems likely. These bombings suggest two things to me. First, it demonstrates the ultimate futility of Bush’s surge. The price of modestly reducing the violence in and around Baghdad alone took most of our armed forces, yet no one is calling for a draft. In fact, it was explicitly ruled out recently. To apply our surge across the entire country of Iraq would require a draft. Yet even we could summon the will, this sort of carnage would still continue across Iraq. Second, al Qaeda’s real aims have little to do with destroying America. It is abundantly clear that al Qaeda’s goal in Iraq is to kill and terrorize Iraqis. To me the “fight them there so we don’t have to fight them here” strategy amount to voluntarily relocating our citizens 6000 miles so they can be targeted by terrorists. Since our presence seems to add to the violence and needlessly kill our soldiers, why the hell are we still there?

Iowa Straw Poll. What a meaningless event. The votes do not count. Those who bother to vote have to be bribed to attend. It seems to be a way for campaigns to squander their money and for campaign consultants to earn fat paychecks. Historically there is not much correlation between winning the straw poll and winning the Republican nomination anyhow. The mainstream media would do us all a favor by simply ignoring event.

Early Voting. This crazy strategy of states trying to one up each other to be one of the early states to have primaries and caucuses has to stop. It makes no sense to cast the first votes for a party’s nominee nearly a year before the election. It raises the cost of campaigns, limit our choices and lengthens the time between determining a party’s nominee and the general election. Increasingly, if you are not politically connected or have at least a hundred million dollars of fortune stashed away, you should not even bother to run for president. However, these early voting initiatives are a great way to establish an oligarchy. It strikes me that we are halfway there already.

Declaring Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corp “Terrorists”. This is just so wrong. When we have solid evidence that members of their Guard have been ordered to fill cars with explosives and blow themselves up in crowded markets then maybe we can call them terrorists. Calling them terrorists is like calling the Chinese Army terrorists for moving ammunition into North Vietnam to aid the Vietcong during the Vietnam War. This declaration is all about building a case for attacking Iran and is doing so using broad brush propaganda tactics worthy of Goebel. It is unworthy of our great nation. Iran’s guard may be supporting their Shi’ite brothers or may be helping Iraqis end an occupation, but that is not terrorism. Let us not cheapen this dreadful word, lest it lose its meaning.

 
The Thinker

Is mutual interdependence the solution?

That is what I have been asking myself this evening. As often happens, I was getting dishpan hands this evening while listening to the radio. Tonight, C-SPAN Radio was featuring speakers at yesterday’s Republican Straw Poll in Ames, Iowa. I happened to tune into a speech given by candidate and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. He was winning kudos from the friendly crowd by speaking of the virtues of energy independence. He proposed a plan that within ten years would make our country energy independent. He also warned of an even bigger national security issue: food independence. A nation that cannot grow the crops to sustain itself could be blackmailed, he warned. He warned the crowd that we could not let this happen. He received warm rounds of applause for these points.

I too have made similar points in the past. When discussing illegal immigration, I pointed out the consequences to our nation if much of our agriculture disappeared because we could not find sufficient migrant labor to pick our crops. When discussing global warming, I pointed out that conservation and renewable fuels could help us become energy independent. Once we were energy independent, the consequences of another war in the Middle East would trouble us a lot less.

While I still think that both goals are laudable it occurred to me that there is a downside to all this independence. What we are really saying when we talk about energy or food independence is we want our nation to be completely self-reliant. If we can take care of ourselves, then, if necessary, we can seal our borders and live in relatively happy isolation from the world’s chaos.

In our interconnected world, we will never be isolated from the world’s problems again, if we ever were. It is still said that when Wall Street sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold. This seems to be borne out by the turmoil the last few weeks in our risky sub-prime mortgage market. Now it is also true that when stock markets tank in South Korea or in China, Wall Street catches a cold. These effects of course simply reinforce my point that we are increasingly interdependent. There is no way to go back to our isolationist past. We need to accept this reality. That our economy is growing at all is largely a result of our interdependence. Imagine how you would feel as a shareholder of Microsoft if it could only sell inside the United States.

So what does this mean? It means, as I have suggested before, that nation-states are moving toward obsolescence. I see this in small ways in my own life. I earn a few bucks on the side installing software for clients. I have yet to meet any of my clients in person. There is one client twenty miles or so away, but even in his case, all of our interaction was accomplished through email. Most of my clients live in the United States, but I have had clients in Israel and Great Britain too. It is not hard to transact business. They send me money via PayPal. I do the work over the Internet. At least in my case I can state that the Internet has made such things that used to matter, like the country where someone lives, irrelevant. Their money may be in a different color when they go buy groceries, but it is green when it arrives in my PayPal account.

It looks like before we ingloriously leave our debacle in Iraq will cost us at least a trillion dollars. Why did we do it? President Bush was quite candid about his rationalization before we invaded: because he perceived a real threat from Iraq to our national security. We thought that given more time Iraq could create atomic weapons that it might lob at us. Apparently, that was unacceptable to the cost of about one trillion dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives. Our ability to remain an independent nation apparently trumps all other needs including the need for all nations to peacefully coexist.

Most economists tout the virtues of free trade. They see it as a cure to the world’s economic ailments. Free trade, they intone, raises all boats. If it is cheaper to import vegetables from Mexico because the labor is cheaper there, this is ultimately good. Consumers benefit. Our farmers may be a bit put out but overall both the United States and Mexico would benefit. Our agriculture would change to be more efficient, or we would develop new industries to replace it. However, what free trade also does is that it promotes our world’s mutual interdependence.

From listening to politicians running for office, I am left to conclude that the world’s mutual interdependence is a bad thing. Is it? Maybe what we really need is to encourage our interdependence. Maybe nation-states are entities that are on their way out. Maybe what the world needs is world federalism instead. If this is where we need to go, from a world of autonomous states, to a world of federated nation-states then we need more interdependence, not less.

My firm conviction is that these dynamics are already well underway. Those who adapt to this new reality, like Europe, are likelier to prosper. The longer that the United States of America deludes itself into thinking that we will always be completely sovereign the more painful and costly our adjustment will be. Arguably, the debacle in Iraq is a one trillion dollar consequence of our delusion.

Imagine a different world where this is no my country vs. your country competition except in sports. I am not naïve enough to think that such a world will happen overnight. However, I do think that since the process is already well underway, the longer we delude ourselves then the more painful our transition will be. We need to discard ourselves of foolish notions like we can provide entirely for our country’s needs. While energy independence may help us find cleaner means of generating energy to reduce global warming, its ultimate goal is to find ways for the world to also do this. For global warming, like much of what ails us, can only be solved globally.

The more we rely on other countries, and other countries rely upon us, the more natural incentive there is for all of us to get along together in peace and harmony. These ties truly bind us together as a planet. We need to listen to the message. China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, India and many other countries need to listen too. The European Union has already heard the message and is prospering.

We cannot solve our national problems by being independent in all things, or even in areas that we consider critical to our sovereignty. This is delusion. However, the world can solve its problems by engaging in them together. Economic interdependence is the means by which a newer and saner world order could emerge. It is likely to be messy, as are most things in human affairs, but it offers a hopeful vision, and seems more viable than our current tactics.

Imagine there’s no countries

It isn’t hard to do

Nothing to kill or die for

And no religion too

Imagine all the people

Living life in peace…

You may say I’m a dreamer

But I’m not the only one

I hope someday you’ll join us

And the world will be as one

- John Lennon, “Imagine”

 
The Thinker

Even more thoughts on love

(I wrote two earlier essays on love, here and here. In addition, I have expanded on marital love’s purpose in this essay. In fact, I have a whole tag library on love. This essay is more of the same. Maybe it is time for me to write a book.)

If you spend an afternoon pruning, planting, weeding and hedge trimming as I did today then your mind will probably wander. Mine wandered into the challenging subject of human relationships. By the time I was done five hours later (okay, I don’t do outdoor chores as often as I should) I realized that loving is both selfless and selfish.

This may well be obvious to you but was not obvious to me at all. I was schooled in Catholic theology. I learned that the highest form of love was expressed by doing things for others that gave you no pleasure in return. By the time the sweepings from that last hedge had been bagged, I realized that you have to get something back from your loving acts. Otherwise, you will stop doing them.

I do not know why it took me fifty years to figure this out. If you slavishly perform loving acts even when you do not want to and in particular, if you are not getting much reciprocation, you probably have a pathological condition. If this sounds like you, maybe it is time to visit a headshrinker.

Nowhere is this truer than with romantic love. You respond in a loving way to your lover because you want to make them happy. Why do you want them to feel happy? You want them to feel happy so that they will have incentive to keep finding ways to make you feel happy. This is why mutual infatuation is such an adrenaline rush. It is also why, after a period of weeks, months and occasionally years, it comes crashing back to earth. Eventually you realize you were just playing mind games with yourself. Enduring romantic love is actually something quite a bit different.

The problem with romantic love relationships is that over time we tend to become complacent. If, for example, we perceive true love as getting our feet rubbed every night, this works great until, of course, you get it every single night for years. After a while, it does not feel quite so special anymore. You take it for granted. You will notice it if your spouse stops rubbing your feet, and you will probably resent him/her because of it. Most likely, though, unless you are the type who can be content through endless simple repetition of the same loving acts, you will want all those foot rubs and something else. Your spouse, trying to make you happy, will try to accommodate. However, the way the love paradigm works, you are not supposed to come back at your spouse and say, “Hey, because I am now also giving you a back scratch every night too, will you now agree to take out the trash all the time?” Your partner is supposed to want to give more back unilaterally when they are given more love. The typical reality though is that after a while, this quid pro quo arrangement gets too burdensome, and one side will unilaterally stop it. This may be at the crux of much marital unhappiness.

Thus unless we temper our expectations of romantic love, it can ultimately become self-defeating. It will lead to the loss of that loving feeling and, ultimately, that “I’m not in love anymore” feeling. We have to put romantic love into perspective. This kind of love is great while you can get it, but it is unrealistic and truly myopic to think you should expect this degree of love to be demonstrated all the time. It is like Pavlov’s dog hyper-salivating every time the bell rings. After a while, poor Pavlov’s dog’s brain was probably damaged from all the focus that food could be delivered at any moment. This suggests to me that too much romantic love is inherently unhealthy. Perhaps that is why I am suspicious of certain religious figures, say nuns who are “married to Christ”. They spend much of their day in prayer, presumably communing with God, endlessly playing through the same script that I love God, God loves me and when I die if I am worthy enough I will be embraced in God’s love for eternity.

In Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World the cure for all of life’s traumas and disappointments was a soma pill. Soma was guaranteed to make and keep you mellow. Love too can be like using soma. It can distort the brain, set false expectations and, perhaps most importantly, keep you from engaging life. If there is a reason for being alive, it is likely not to stay in the flush of romantic love indefinitely. We are likely here on a mission of some sort. While mutual infatuation can feel addictive while it consumes you, we must be sanguine and realize that love expressed as mutual infatuation must necessarily be temporary. A love that feels more like the contentment of a cat purring on your lap is nice, but not terribly exciting. Yet this is the long-term kind of love, if we are lucky enough to get it, that we will experience with our life partners. This kind of love, of course, is the healthy kind because it is limited in scope. You can put on the shelf as needed so you can engage the world. It may feel about one tenth as powerful and interesting as the infatuatory phase of love, but it is the one on which we need to settle.

Of course, there are other kinds of love. Parental love. Fraternal love. Unrequited love. Altruistic love. Regardless of its form, unless you receive something back in at least the measure in which you give it out, it is unlikely to endure.

Of all the forms of love, parental love is perhaps the most challenging. It is true that parents do tend to get love back from their children, particularly when they are very young. As they mature, of course, children feel the obvious need to create more distance from the parents. The early bond, at least if it is strong enough, allows for both parent and child to keep expressing love in different ways as the child pulls away. As any parent can tell you, parental love can be extremely challenging and vexing. Most who get through it successfully claim that of all forms of love, it is the most rewarding. Perhaps because like many parents I have found it so very challenging, I am a big believer in planned parenthood. If you are not psychologically ready to invest so much of your time and energy for such a long period then you should simply not be a parent.

Unrequited love is an illusionary love. It thrives on the wan expectation that it may someday blossom into genuine romantic love. Fraternal love is so amorphous that it may not count as genuine love. Of course, you will tend to have positive feelings for people with whom you share much in common. Altruistic love is fine, providing that in dishing it out you feel a sense accomplishment that you made the world a better place. I still think that obsessive altruistic love is ultimately unhealthy, however much it may help those on the receiving end. Human beings needs time apart from others. An extreme form of altruistic love, such as Mother Teresa’s, may win brownie points in heaven, but is likely the manifestation of coping with childhood feelings of shame or low self worth.

For most of us, romantic love will remain our favorite kind of love. It is important for us to keep romantic love in perspective. Its adrenaline phase by necessity must end. This is both healthy and necessary. We should not sell ourselves on the illusion that we need periodic doses of infatuating love. We should feel grateful if it comes but a few times in the course of life. Genuine romantic love is more often expressed through the gifts of presence and compassionate listening. These are wonderful gifts and if we can get them in a partner, we are truly blessed. They provide a solid foundation to a committed relationship as well as provide a support structure that allows us to tackle life’s many challenges.

 
The Thinker

Hug an illegal immigrant today!

Here is a basic truth about American history that you are unlikely to find revealed in our history books: our success as a country is due to immigration. Most likely, our country’s decline will start when immigrants decide to go elsewhere.

Immigrants have always been crucial to our country’s success. When we could not get enough immigrants, we captured slaves and brought them over here instead. Yet through much of our history, whether here legally or illegally, immigrants have been scorned. In truth, immigrants are the gasoline that fuels our economy. We say we do not want them in our country, at least the ones who are not here legally. Yet if they were to go, our standard of living would decline precipitously. Inflation would go through the roof. Immigrants make it possible for the rest of us to live the American Dream. My vaunted six-figure salary is directly due to the guy making $15,000 working for Goodwill who doesn’t seem to speak English and who hauls away the trash from my office everyday.

Thankfully, there is little chance that people will stop coming into our country, no matter how impressively we build our barriers. It does not matter how low on the totem pole immigrants will be when they get into this country. Invariably they will be better off than where they came from. Cleaning out toilets in airports may not be your idea of a great job. It is probably not their idea of a great job either, but it beats starvation, or regular dysentery drinking the polluted water back home, or raising an uneducated child in a tarpaper shack.

Thank goodness, we have people willing to clean toilets at any price. How long do you think your local airport would be able to stay in business if they had no one willing to do this disagreeable task? How many restaurants would be in business at all if all the illegal dishwashers and potato peelers in this country suddenly disappeared?

The argument I hear is that, “Well, if they all went tomorrow, businesses would have to raise salaries. Good Americans would fill those jobs. And what’s wrong with that?” As a liberal Democrat, I like the idea of our citizens making more money. I just hope it will actually improve their standard of living. I do suspect though that if there are 200 jobs needing to be filled and only 100 people willing to work for wages businesses can afford to pay, there are going to be some economic adjustments and they will not be for the better. Of course, businesses would do their best to cope. They would try to become more efficient and resourceful. At some point, we would end up with an effective unemployment rate of zero. Then the excrement would hit the fan. I am not sure which businesses would be the first to go under, but I bet people who are asked to do the most disagreeable jobs would be the first to bolt. Dishwashers would become very hot commodities. Those restaurants profitable enough to employ them at higher wages would thrive. Those which cannot, and restaurants tend to survive on tiny profit margins, would close shop. I can even see a new version of the draft, not to fight our wars overseas, but to make sure restaurants have enough people to serve meals, sweep floors and do the dishes.

Perhaps with higher wages more of us who are already employed would be willing to work a second job (if we are not already, trying to keep pace with the cost of living). At some point, that market would exhaust itself too. The likely result would be a phenomenon we remember from the 1970s: stagflation. Stagflation is rapid inflation during a period of recession. We would be lucky though if this were the worst of it. The short-term result would be that as unemployment up the food chain increased from the fallout, more and more people would be willing to work in these relatively low wage jobs. The effect though would be to push down standards of living for all of us. These jobs, while necessary, are simply not as productive as those that generally pay more money. Decreased productivity is one of the major drivers of stagflation.

A workforce of course is the fuel of any economy. We may think we can automate everything using computers, but even if that were possible, someone has to keep those computers going. Goods do not magically get from points A to B. It is our willingness to be employed, and in effect be the lubricant that keeps our complex society functioning, that makes our advanced society possible.

In effect, our economy, much like our social security system, is a great Ponzi scheme. Growth, as is always the case, comes from the bottom up. If we cannot convince lots of poor people to start at the bottom and engage in economic Darwinism to try to ascend the economic ladder, the system eventually collapses. I see signs of it already. My daughter, though she has never held a full time job and just recently graduated high school, refuses to work just anywhere. She has her standards. She has decided that she can work at a Barnes and Noble or a Vie de France, but not at a Bloom supermarket, nor at a McDonalds, nor at a Subway … in fact, her list of places she is not willing to work is much larger than her list of places she would work. Fortunately for her the labor market is pretty tight here in Fairfax County, Virginia so she has the luxury of being somewhat choosy.

Of course, she has to survive. If her choice were between starving and working at a McDonalds, I am sure she would choose working at McDonalds. However, why should she do what she considers demeaning work in a business that she does not like? For example, why work at a Wendy’s when she would likely be the only Caucasian woman working there and she cannot speak more than a dozen words of Spanish? Why get hot and sweaty trying to keep up with jangling timers continually going off on the French fries machines when she can work behind the counter in a nice, cool and air-conditioned Vie de France restaurant instead? Others, who came from a harder school of knocks, are supposed to work at Wendy’s. For them a Wendy’s job probably really is opportunity. She perceives it as a low-grade horror.

Arguably, if all the Wendy’s in America went out of business we would probably be a lot healthier. Still, Wendy’s alone pumps a huge amount of money into the economy. The parent company Wendy’s International had sales of $2.45 billion dollars in 2006, owned 12.7% of the burger market and employed 57,000 people. If it closed because it could not profitably stay in business, more than 57,000 people would be affected. Its suppliers would be laying off people. Cattle ranchers would reduce herds. Grain prices would fall. Perhaps other businesses would pick up its market. However, if we did not have enough people willing to work at the bottom of the labor scale the effect on the labor market would quickly spread across the economy, likely causing a chain reaction.

If there were no more immigrants I would end up mowing my lawn again, which might not be a bad thing either. It would cost me more to get my roof replaced, if I could find anyone willing to do it at all. Either my six-figure income would feel a lot more like a five figure income, or I would be a lot busier incompetently trying to do the things I pay people to do for me. I would have to hope that I would die in my bed. It is unlikely I could afford a nursing home at any price. It would be a luxury only for the richest among us. Perhaps the poor house would make a comeback.

While I do not particularly like the idea of immigrants streaming across our borders illegally, I also understand why it has been in our economic interest to look the other way for so long. That our standard of living is rising at all is largely due to our glorious cognitive dissonance on this issue. If we could actually fully enforce our immigration laws then within a year we would be protesting en-masse on the Mall in Washington demanding the immediate repeal of these laws. The last thing we will give up is our slice of the American dream. Immigrants serve us that slice.

The good news is the immigrants who come to our country choose to come here, often at the cost of enormous peril. They understand the tradeoff. They will do our scut work for us, gambling that in time given their perseverance, luck and circumstance they will be in our shoes someday. They might aspire to be Bill Gates, but even if they only get up half the ladder, they are better off than they were. So are the rest of us.

Therefore, instead of railing against immigrants and protesting at local day laborer sites, as some want to do here in Herndon, Virginia, perhaps, if you speak their language, you should be thanking them for coming instead.

 

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