Archive for the ‘Best of Occam’s Razor’ Category

The Thinker

Death by religion

Some years back I wrote about Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, and how I thought it was not only so much crap but dangerous and thoroughly discredited crap as well. It received some modest attention and still gets regular hits.

There are actually a lot of these addictive ideas that are killing us. Arguably capitalism is one of them but there are many others, including communism, fascism, socialism (in its pure form) and today’s topic: religion. Lots of people, mostly atheists, have been saying for a very long time that religion is harmful. They have lots of history to prove them right, as so many wars and so many millions of people have died because of religious conflicts.

Two related stories in Sunday’s Washington Post brought this home to me. One was the influx of foreign fighters into the conflict in Syria and Iraq, including hundreds of people here in America, to fight a religious war. Related to it was a disturbing article about Anjem Choudary, a Muslim cleric based in London who is a propagandist for the Islamic State. This “state” of course is busy overrunning much of Syria and Iraq not to mention beheading people and selling women into slavery. I zeroed in on this part:

Iraq and Syria, Anjem Choudary says confidently, are only the beginning. The Islamic State’s signature black flag will fly over 10 Downing Street, not to mention the White House. And it won’t happen peacefully, but only after a great battle that is now underway.

“We believe there will be complete domination of the world by Islam,” says the 47-year-old, calmly sipping tea and looking none the worse for having been swept up in a police raid just days earlier. “That may sound like some kind of James Bond movie — you know, Dr. No and world domination and all that. But we believe it.”

In other words, none of this peaceful persuasion that Islam is the true faith crap, but lots of war, death and mayhem to make sure we are all compelled to believe his version of the truth. Christians shouldn’t feel so smug, after numerous crusades not to mention the Spanish Inquisition in which we tried (and failed) to make the infidels (read: Muslims) believe our version of religious truth.

There is not a major religion out there, including Buddhism that has not killed to promote its values, despite doing so is arguably the greatest hypocrisy against their religion possible. All these centuries later, despite our vast knowledge and understanding of history, despite technology and the Internet, large numbers of us are utterly convinced that only their religion is correct. They are so vested in it that they will wreak literally holy mayhem to make sure their religion, and only their religion is the only one anyone is allowed to believe and practice.

It’s quite clear what people like Choudary would do to those of us unenlightened enough not to become Muslims: lop off our heads like they are doing to infidels in Iraq and Syria right now or, if a woman, sell her into slavery. This is, by the way, quite similar to what Columbus did to the natives of Hispaniola shortly after discovering America in 1492, and what Cortez and many other conquerors did to the unenlightened natives of South and Central America as well. Killing infidels with the sword often had the desired effect. The natives were soon proclaiming to believe in Jesus Christ while also working as slaves for their enlightened conquerors. Infidels are going to hell anyhow for refusing to be enlightened, so they might as well be dead, is what passed for their rationalization. Choudary doubtless agrees but worse is working to facilitate the transfer of fighters into Iraq and Syria to spread this sort of enlightenment.

It doesn’t seem to matter much what the form of religion is. They all seem to have this fatal flaw, which allows zero uncertainty to come between their religion and their actions. I believe this is because the human species is hardwired toward addiction to memes. And the religious meme is a powerful one: it promises us eternal paradise and the absence of all suffering, forever, in the glory of God if we just do precisely what some people say God wants us to do. People like Moner Mohammad Abusalha, a Florida native, who on May 25 became an American suicide bomber for the cause of Islam. He blew himself up in a Syrian café frequented by Syria soldiers. In his farewell video, Abusalha says:

“You think you are safe where you are in America,” he said, threatening his own country and a half-dozen others. “You are not safe.”

Doubtless he is enjoying paradise now with his 72 virgins. That should satisfy his sexual desires for a while. Or, much more likely, he is simply dead, another pawn cruelly used in a much larger game of pointless chess. Chess is a game and on some horrific level these religious crusades are games too. Games may be won, but winning them doesn’t really change anything. Thanks to conquerors like Cortez and the missionaries that followed him, South and Central America today are suitably enlightened, with Roman Catholicism dominating society there. But it is still as infected with evils as any other religiously “enlightened” state. If you need a recent example, try this one. Or this one.

No religion, no matter how universal, will change the fundamental nature of man. It never has and never will. Choudary and Abusalha are ultimately playing the parts of fools, helping to feed chain reactions of generational war, death, trauma and suffering wholly at odds with the religion they proclaim will solve these problems. The religious meme – the notion that one size of religion can and must fit all – that has been proven over and over and over almost to the point where you can’t count anymore as fundamentally false and destructive. Religion in this incarnation is harmful to man, creates chaos and retards the enlightenment these people profess it will bring.

I speak as a cautiously religious man. My own religion, Unitarian Universalism, is creedless so perhaps we have earned an escape clause as a toxic religion. Still, my denomination is hardly free of its own very human evils. A previous minister of my church, for example, was sexually involved with a number of women in our congregation (while married), a scandal some thirty years in our past that still affects our behavior. But Unitarian Universalism at least does not proselytize. We don’t assume our religion is the only correct one. This will occasionally drive others nuts. It resulted in some deaths some years back in a congregation in Tennessee, and more recently a very disturbing takeover of a service in Louisiana by some local antiabortion nuts.

So here’s my new rules on religion and I hope it is a new meme we can spread:

  • I will not consider believing in any religion that assumes it has all the answers about the nature of God and how humans must behave
  • I will not consider believing in any religion that thinks it has succeeded when everyone is believing in its version of truth
  • I will not consider believing in any religion that cannot peacefully co-exist with other different faiths
  • I will not consider believing in any religion that has at any time in its past caused religious warfare
  • I will actively do all I can to civilly and peacefully undermine any religion that promotes any of the above
  • I will encourage everyone, including you, who may belong to such a faith to leave it

Such faiths are not worthy of the God you claim to worship and are ultimately far more destructive than helpful. Reflect on it. Pray on it. God will tell you it’s true.


The Thinker

Why trickle down only trickles

We have more than thirty years of evidence that giving more tax cuts to those that don’t need it has hurt the economy, not to mention hollowed out the middle class. Why do so many of us still believe that doing more of what hasn’t worked will make us richer? Are we that impressed by talking suits on Fox News or CNBC?

Let me see if I can clear your head on this. This way the next time you hear this bullshit you can call the person on it. Let’s go through a thought experiment. What would you do with an extra $100, $1000, $10,000, $100,000 and $1,000,000? My assumption is that you are likely of modest means, which is a good assumption because most of us are not in the top 1%. I certainly qualify although since I am nearing retirement and the end of my professional career, unsurprisingly, I am in my peak earning years. According to the New York Times, I am in the top 7%, except when I retire I’ll be demoted to the top 23%.

So if I had an extra $100, I probably would not even notice it. Most likely you would not either. But, if you are of very modest means, you live paycheck to paycheck, and you found yourself $100 richer you would probably spend it. Maybe you would go to Target and buy a few gizmos from their electronics department. If this happens to a lot of people of relatively modest income at the same time over a significant period of time, not only do you get stuff that you want, but more money flows into the economy. Target and Wal-Mart would likely to report higher sales. The extra money might give them confidence to build new stores, or expand existing ones, and perhaps some people will have jobs they might not have. This is one reason raising the minimum wage makes a lot of economic sense. Almost all this extra money by the lowly paid will get spent, which is good for the economy.

With an extra $1000 most people with modest means would probably spend it, or perhaps use it to pay off debt. If you are rich, you won’t notice $1000. It won’t have any more of an effect on your spending patterns than an extra dime would have to someone on food stamps. It goes into an account somewhere and gets forgotten about.

With an extra $10,000 you might do some serious purchasing. Perhaps it would be a substantial down payment on new car. The smart thing to do for those of modest means would be to save it. But most likely it would be spent. A rich person won’t notice it and thus won’t spend it.

With an extra $100,000 you might be able to pay off your mortgage, or all your credit cards plus take a couple of nice vacations. If you are wealthy, $100,000 won’t buy you a new house except maybe in a bad neighborhood of Detroit. In any event you don’t have a mortgage. The money could buy you a super fancy car, perhaps a Tesla. If you are that rich though, then you probably have a Tesla already. You’d likely have a hard time finding the motivation to buy another car, probably because you would drive it sporadically at best, as you have as many as you want already anyhow.

With an extra $1,000,000 most of us would think we would be living grand, but it doesn’t buy as much as you think. You can buy a nice house in a nice neighborhood for cash and maybe afford to pay the taxes and maintenance on it with what’s leftover if you invest the money carefully. You might even have a house built to your exact specifications. That would keep a lot of people gainfully employed for a while. They would take the extra money and spend it elsewhere and where they spent it, those merchants or service providers would see a modest bump in income perhaps. By itself, $1,000,000 won’t have a huge wealth effect on the larger community because it’s just you spending it, and it’s unlikely a hundred people in your area will be similarly fortunate.

That’s what you might do with the money. If you are rich, say Mitt Romney, $1,000,000 goes into your portfolio. Maybe his son Tagg gets a bit larger inheritance than he expected when Mitt passes on. You already have a bunch of houses across the United States. You probably won’t use it to buy another one. It’s not enough to buy a private jet, assuming you don’t have one already. Mostly though Mitt has everything he needs. So whether it’s $1,000,000 or $10,000,000 or even $100,000,000, about a third of his net worth, he’s much more likely to save the money rather than spend it. A lot of it might go into stocks and bonds, which hopefully will generate more wealth, and is essentially another form of saving.

Perhaps with so much money, a rich person would put it into venture capital funds. Venture capital funds exist to fund the next Facebook, because most of the money put into them will be bad bets. It’s that one in 100 that beats the odds that you are hoping to have invested in, so you can snag part of its meteoric growth. Venture capital money is useful to these start ups, and does stimulate some growth, although much of it is ultimately unproductive because most of these start ups fail. Rest assured though that while the really rich people may be investing in some venture capital, mostly their money is not being spent this way. Mostly it is sitting in vaults, often in offshore banks and in stocks and bonds. It’s unlikely to go to a venture capitalist in your neighborhood. It is money that will not trickle down to you or your neighbors.

The basic issue is that there are a relatively small number of very rich people. Mostly they already have everything they need. It’s not that they won’t spend money, but they don’t need to spend a whole lot more of it. They already have estate managers, the freedom to fly to Paris on a dime and stay at first class hotels. Their lavish spending will make life better for those providing these services, but only marginally so, because there are only so many rich people. It’s a safe bet though that Bill and Melinda Gates, for all their billions in net worth, have a hard time spending more than $100M a year for their own personal needs. Most of that will be to maintain the lifestyle they already have, not to make it a bigger lifestyle. After all, there are only twenty four hours in the day, so they can only enlarge their lives so much.

Money sitting in vaults of course just sits there. It doesn’t pay anyone’s salaries or stimulate the economy. It’s all about churning money to buy goods and services. That sort of stimulation is what drives growth. If it’s not spent, i.e. if someone doesn’t use their money over a finite period of time, it has no effect on the economy as a whole. (If a whole lot of people stop spending money, then we get recessions and depressions.) Whereas if you and people of modest means like you have some modest increase in income, you will most likely spend that money. It would drive a lot of growth.

So the “trickle-down” economic theory is actually well named. Just a trickle of the money the relatively few wealthy people have will get spent, which means lots of people competing for those relatively meager dollars. When the rest of us have to compete harder for a smaller slice of the economic pie, our incomes tend to decline. Our labor is cheaper to acquire. Which is exactly what has happened to most of us over the last thirty years if you look at median household income. Our standard of living has eroded because money that used to churn more frequently churns less frequently, often because it got acquired and held by the rich, who mostly don’t need to spend it.

The trickle-down theory was sold as prosperity flowing down to the masses from the rich because they acquire more money and know how to spend it more intelligently. But of course it really does trickle down, and worse most of their new wealth used to be our wealth. The bad news for the rich is that when our economic and social systems fail, they too are swept up in the change. Even the very rich only remain rich while there are systems in place that allow them to spend their money. In truth, the rich are utterly dependent on the system that made them rich, just like us. Just as we all need roads to get from place to place, we need our economic system to enable broad prosperity. And it works as long as prosperity is possible, i.e. all social classes have a realistic expectation that they can acquire more wealth.

Economies actually grow from stability, predictability and generally from the middle class out. Innovation does not come principally from the rich, but from the middle where talent, attention and drive are in abundance. Wise rich people don’t mind paying more taxes to help out the middle class because they realize that the prosperity of the middle will trickle up to them in time. Unfortunately, too many rich people are so caught up in their own puffed up egos that they cannot see this. They think that because a formula worked in their particular case, it will work for everyone.

The Thinker

Value reprogramming our children

So many of us are raising our children mostly the way our parents raised us. It’s unclear why we do this. Perhaps we assume they did a great job, considering how awesome we turned out. Since we’re so awesome, we figure we’ll simply follow their formula and we’ll have awesome children too.

Or it could be we don’t want to suffer their wrath or disappointment. Parents can hurt us, even when we are in our middle years. Most likely, we don’t analyze our approach to parenting too much; we just do it reflexively. If we were raised Catholic, junior and his sister are raised Catholic. If we played Little League, our sons play in the Little League. If we went to Girl Scouts, our daughter goes to Girl Scouts.

Raising your kid differently than you were raised takes a certain amount of courage. Obviously, it takes less courage if you realize that you were raised wrong. If Dad beat you regularly with a belt, hopefully you won’t do that to your child, although chances are you will. Value programming seems to work this way. Both the good stuff and the bad stuff tend to get passed down from generation to generation. If your father beat up your mother, there’s a good chance if you are a male that you will beat your wife. Stranger still, if you were the daughter, there is a good chance you will be in a marriage where your spouse will beat you up. It’s unclear why this is, but it may be because we unconsciously seek out spouses that have characteristics of our parents. It happened to me: I married a gal from a poor family in Michigan, just like my father. At the time, this coincidence never occurred to me, but it was probably more than coincidence, particularly since my mother and I had issues.

Parenting comes with no rewind button. Instead, parenting is a continuous stream of events and choices applied to situations at the moment. From our children’s birth to our deaths it never really ends, but there is an unofficial end when our adult children finally move out of the house. (There is a good chance they will move back in some years later.) In retrospect, all of us parents wish we could have done some things differently. You do the best you can and try to forgive yourself for your parenting mistakes.

Parenting differently than the way you were parented takes reflection and mindfulness. My parents were not particularly physically affectionate. We got little in the way of hugs and kisses. They weren’t wholly absent; just that they were the exception rather than the rule. Unsurprisingly, I grew up feeling somewhat touch deprived. Also, my parents, although I am sure they loved each other, weren’t great at demonstrating affection with each other or really doing much together, other than dutifully raising us. Since I had about a decade as a bachelor, I had time to reflect on these concerns. I made up my mind that I would not replicate them with my daughter.

So I made a point to be lavish with hugs and kisses. I told her sincerely, and often, that I loved her. When near her I made sure to put an arm over her shoulder or around her waist. I wanted her to know that healthy human relationships should be naturally intimate, and that meant touching liberally. In short, I did not want to transmit what I considered to be a poor way of being raised. I wanted her to feel connection and intimacy. This meant more than words; it meant the constant pleasure and communication of touch. It’s delightful to see her as an adult being still so physically demonstrative with us.

My parents picked up something of a Puritan ethos common from their era. It meant the father made most of the major decisions, the mother’s role was to be supportive and children were supposed to quickly learn their place. It was generally understood that as children we were inexperienced and thus our parents knew best. We were told not just from them, but also from society in general, that our parents were our ultimate guides in life and to trust them implicitly. In general, the boys in our family learned that most emotions were better left bottled up, because we never saw dad cry or even get very upset.

Of course, society is a lot different now compared to then. The United States has more than doubled its population in my lifetime. Values have changed quite a bit as well. In the 1960s I did not know homosexuals existed. Today they have civil rights that were denied them including, increasingly, the right to marry. My country is much more ethnic in general too. I had to figure out how to put all this together in my parenting. It was not always easy and often it was lonely.

I had virtually no sex education, as was true of most of us Baby Boomers. I had to depend on factual books like Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex to get some rudimentary education. Reading about sex as opposed to experiencing it, of course, is quite different. Schools now generally teach sex education, but it is largely superficial. Certain topics are frequently off limits. Parents can teach their children sex education, but it is generally an awkward experience. It is better to come from an authoritative but independent source. Mostly, I didn’t want my daughter to start her sex life sexually ignorant. She needed a real grounding, both on the biological facts but on the physical and emotional issues of being a sexual person. I found such a program at my Unitarian Universalist Church: Our Whole Lives, wherein all these topics were discussed candidly but with trained facilitators. There is no question about it: sex is a big, complex and icky topic. But better to make sure she started with a firm foundation than to be ignorant and make the stupid mistakes I did when I became sexually awake.

Sex education is just one area where I deviated from the values I was taught. While many were the same (love, compassion, neighborliness, the importance of education) many were also different. I taught respect for people regardless of sex, race, religion or (the hard one) because they have different beliefs than me. I told her that I was a human being, not a god, and thus I make mistakes. I encouraged those values that helped me succeed, some that worked (reading, debate) and some that did not stick (striving for excellence, exercise and diet). In the end, like me, my daughter had a lot to absorb, analyze and figure out what was right for her.

At least she appreciates the complexity of our modern world. It is far more complex than it was when I was her age. No wonder then that today adolescence seems to extend well into their twenties. It’s quite a brain dump we give our children, and harder than ever for them to structure it in a way that will help them deal with their reality.

At the same time, my daring experience at value reprogramming has been satisfying. My parents did the best they could to set my values with the skills they had at the time. I did my best as well. I am glad I did not simply parrot the way I was raised, but trusted my own judgment instead. I used values that seemed to work (thriftiness, for example) and discarded what did not seem to work (religious orthodoxy).

My daughter says she won’t have a child, but she is toying with the idea of adopting a child when she is self sufficient enough. If that time comes, I hope she is smart enough to do what I did: and discard those things about the way we raised her that did not work, and substitute her own judgment of the modern world as she perceives it.

The Thinker

Bitcoin is libertarian bit nonsense

Are you intrigued by Bitcoin? It’s a digital currency much in the news these days. It even got a hearing on Capitol Hill last month. Surprisingly the foundation overseeing Bitcoin came out relatively unscathed. Some places are accepting Bitcoins as payment for actual goods and services. They do so on the assumption the currency has value. Like any other currency it has value because some people assert it has value.

Which raises the question, what is its value? There are clearly things you can do with Bitcoin that are convenient. It’s a sort of digital cash for our electronic age. Only it’s not really cash. Real cash doesn’t leave fingerprints. You make a Bitcoin transaction and the transaction is recorded in the coin itself.

If there is value in Bitcoin, maybe it is from the faith we place in its math. There is not much we trust anymore, but you can still trust math, and Bitcoin depends on math, not to mention encryption algorithms, to assert its value. The number of Bitcoins has a finite limit because of the power of math and algorithms. Each attempt to mint a new Bitcoin requires lots of computers to spend lots of time and use lots of energy. For all its electronic novelty, it’s hardly an environmentally friendly currency. In fact, it’s bad for the environment.

You can’t say that about gold. Granted, the process of getting gold out of the ground is often bad for the environment, but once you have it, there it is, probably to sit in highly protected bank vaults and never to be actually moved or for that matter seen. A Bitcoin is entirely virtual but it depends on lots of computer hardware to mint and to assert its value. You won’t be creating one of these with a pad of paper and a slide rule. In fact, a Bitcoin is entirely dependent on computers and high speed networks. No wonder then that it was abruptly devalued last week when China blocked Bitcoin transactions. Keep it from being used in the world’s most populous country and it has lot less utility. Of course, it’s useless to anyone without a computer or some sort of digital device, not to mention some network so you can trade the currency. So it’s not even universal. You can’t say that about the U.S. dollar.

The larger question is whether a currency built on nothing but math really can have value. It does have value at the moment, as I can actually trade Bitcoins for U.S. dollars, which in my country is what everyone accepts as currency. In the long run though I think Bitcoins are going to be worthless. I don’t plan to own any of them and maybe I can make a case why you shouldn’t either.

First, there is whether counterfeit Bitcoins can be created. New ones can be minted if you have the computer horsepower and these are “legal”, but if they can be created for virtually no computer time then they would be counterfeit. Call me suspicious but I bet either the NSA has already figured out a way to hack it or will soon. In short, to trust a Bitcoin you must buy into its assumption that it can’t be hacked. Since the dawn of the computer age, hackers have demonstrated their ability to hack anything. They love the challenge. It’s reasonable to believe that Bitcoin is going to be hacked one of these days.

Second, there’s the question of what its value represents. I’ve discussed the value of money before. My conclusion is that money essentially represents faith that the country coining the currency will remain solvent and viable. I based this conclusion on the observation that currency value falls whenever these assumptions are shaken. Having a currency based on the gold standard doesn’t seem to make any difference, as the United States has been off the gold standard since the 1970s. Printing new currency doesn’t seem to be that big a deal either, providing the new currency is used to acquire assets of value. This is what the Federal Reserve has been doing since the Great Recession: creating money (none of it actually printed, apparently) and using it to buy long term securities like mortgage-backed securities. Curiously, just printing money is not inflationary when it is used to buy tangible goods. This is providing that the institution printing the money is trusted, and the Federal Reserve is trusted. In any event, investors can value or devalue a currency based on examining its monetary system and the country’s economy. With Bitcoins, you can’t do this. It is backed by no country, which is its appeal to its adherents.

What is Bitcoin really about then? It’s about a political idea; more specifically it’s about libertarianism. It’s trying to be a means by which libertarianism becomes institutionalized. If you are not familiar with libertarianism, it’s all about freedom, buyer beware and minimal (and ideally no) government. Libertarians (at least the committed ones) are vesting their wealth in Bitcoins because it’s how they show loyalty to the cause. They want money to be frictionless and outside governmental control. Arguably, Bitcoin does a good job with this, providing buyers and sellers will accept it as having value.

But libertarianism is an idea, not a thing. Libertarianism is really more of a verb than a noun. A currency though has to be based on something real. The U.S. dollar is essentially backed up by the collective wealth of all of us who possess dollars, or assets valued in dollars, or really any property within the United States. It’s based on something tangible. You buy a house in dollars instead of Bitcoins because everyone in the transaction has faith that those dollars mean something. This is because everyone else is trading in dollars too to buy real goods and services. If the U.S. dollar gets too low, there are things we can do about it. We can petition Congress or the White House to take action. There is no one to go to to complain about the sinking value of your Bitcoins. Assuming the currency cannot be counterfeited, its only value is its finiteness, enforced by math and increasingly expensive computational processes to make new coins. That’s it. As those libertarians say, caveat emptor (buyer beware). Bitcoin buyers, caveat emptor!

This tells me something important: Bitcoin is a bogus currency, at least in the long term. Yes, you can buy stuff with it now, but only from a very limited number of sellers: those who have faith in the idea of a libertarian currency. It’s obvious to me that libertarianism is just not doable as a sustainable way of governing. I have no faith it in whatsoever because its philosophical underpinnings do not actually work in the real world.

I would like to see it in Glenn Beck’s libertarian community, however, if it ever gets built. One thing is for sure, no one is going to build it for Bitcoins. They are going to demand U.S. dollars.

The Thinker

The abortion of a child’s potential is the real crime

In case you haven’t been following the news, states are getting very creative in finding ways to skirt the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, which in theory allows a pregnant woman to have an abortion during the first trimester of a pregnancy. Calling these laws “creative” is generous. “Illegal” is more appropriate for some of these state laws. It will just take some years before courts fully strike them down or as pro-lifers hope, the Supreme Court overturns its 1973 decision. It’s hard to see though how some of these new laws can possibly cut the mustard.

For example, some states require counseling prior to an abortion, a curious requirement as in most other things, like smoking, drinking and gambling, there is no similar requirement. The law assumes that adults are entitled to make judgments without coercion by the state because they are, well, adults! Even more intrusive are vaginal ultrasounds, required for women who want an abortion in states like Texas and Louisiana. Curiously there are no similar laws requiring anal ultrasounds of the prostate before men undergo vasectomies. North Dakota decided that if you can discern a heartbeat no abortion is allowed, which suggests no abortions are legal past six weeks of pregnancy. Thankfully, a federal judge overturned the law but as there is only one abortion clinic in the whole state, it’s kind of moot. Other states like Virginia (where I live) keep tightening the screws for abortion providers, most recently by requiring facilities to have hospital-wide corridors.

The intent is not hard to discern: to make abortion as difficult to get as possible until effectively it’s impossible to get because it has been regulated away. Curiously many of these states claim to be all about freedom, such as the freedom to bring a loaded gun into a teen recreation center (yes, it’s legal here in Virginia). Apparently freedom of choice is not for pregnant women. Apparently the moment a woman gets pregnant they become value impaired.

An abortion supposedly destroys a life, but what “life” means to the pro-life crowd is peculiar. In the case of a fertilized egg that is not yet implanted into the uterus, it is arguably not alive as it does not move or grow. As the blastocyst matures into a fetus though clearly something (or someone as pro-lifers would say) is alive. A tiny fertilized egg is hard to see even in a petri dish but this is a life? Then the mole on my neck must be a life too. However apparently my mole can be surgically removed with impunity – no state counseling is required, even though, like the zygote, it can’t think but it does have something resembling a circulation system. In reality, there is no magic moment when a fetus becomes a person. At eight months it’s ridiculous to claim it is not. At eight days it is laughable to claim it is. The Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision was imperfect, but reasonable. I have yet to hear of a fetus expelled during the first trimester surviving through prenatal care.

I am hardly the first to remark (as many others have) that carrying a child to term does not mean that the child will be loved, clothed, fed and nurtured. With a few minor exceptions, the pro-life people are wholly indifferent to the fate of the child after birth. Mostly they are indifferent to the mother during pregnancy as well. I have not heard of any state law requiring pregnant mothers to take prenatal vitamins, for example, to increase the odds of a healthy child, but they are myopic about vaginal ultrasounds and hospital-wide corridors. Go figure. After birth, most pro-lifers could not give a crap what happens to the child. They willfully don the eyeshades of ignorance, start humming happy tunes and plug their ears.

This is usually not true for those women who are forced to carry a child to term. Typically the reason they seek an abortion in the first place is because they realize they cannot fit a child into their complicated lives. While the life of the poor may seem deceptively simple, in reality it is quite complicated, a far more complex chess match than any of us moneyed people are ever likely to experience. If you have ever lived in poverty, or near poverty, you know this is true. (I know this from experience.) Try surviving on Walmart wages, particularly with a child you are supposed to raise and doing it without government money. (So many Walmart employees are on food stamps that it’s practically required in order to work there.) Try doing this with no or little support system in place as well. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of these mothers either fails or does a substandard job.

It would be nice if government picked up the slack. Sometimes it does, with food stamps and credits for childcare and the like. Yet these are usually not nearly enough for a child to thrive, and sometimes not enough to even fend off malnutrition. Nor do these measures begin to measure the psychic cost to children from living in poverty: lack of parental attention, lack of a father in the house in most cases, lack of nurturing because the mother is usually working, the shuttling from one substandard home to another, neighborhoods full of crime and poverty, and schools where education is generally substandard. It’s completely reasonable to draw these inferences just by looking at scores of children at these schools on standardized tests.

Thus it’s wholly reasonable to ask pro-lifers: If this will be the fate of these children who might not otherwise be born, why did you force these mothers to carry them to term in the first place? Maybe, just maybe, the mother had a pretty good idea of what her life would look like, and this wasn’t what she wanted for her children. Maybe it was because it is how she spent her childhood and youth. The next reasonable question is: How can you make any person carry an unwanted child to term if you won’t take care of it once they are born if the parents cannot?

Sadly, our world is overrun with children whose mothers, if they had the option, probably would not have carried them to term. Many of them would have been happy to take a morning after pill to preclude the possibility, but in much of the world a $50 Plan B pill is unaffordable, if it is even available. Every child has potential, but that doesn’t mean that they can actually realize their potential when born into poverty or dysfunctional circumstances. It is only possible with a huge societal investment in time, money and nurturing. This seems to be the freight pro-lifers won’t pay for, unless it is for your own son or daughter. What could be much crueler than bringing a child into the world who will know little but insurmountable obstacles? Why do we want children in this world whose circumstances will doom them to be just ten percent of who they could be? These children are much more likely to be flipping burgers as adults instead of doing scientific research, writing a great novel and building our bridges.

This is the real abortion: the abortion of a child’s potential by requiring them to be born into substandard circumstances. A largely indifferent and uncaring society snuffs it out after birth. These children are cut off at the kneecaps at an early age. They face a life full of endless obstacles. Scaling over just a couple of them is beyond most of us, and we expect them to scale hundreds of them. Add to this sad story the cost to the planet to bring a child into the world and we have set up a cycle where each generation leads more difficult, shorter and less endurable lives. Through being “pro-life”, we are creating hell on earth and worse, being willfully ignorant of the consequences.

It is this versus giving the mother the simple dignity of deciding whether to have a child and if she does not then making it safe and legal for her to terminate the pregnancy. It is so much cheaper and actually much kinder not to have the child until she is ready. Birth control pills are quite cheap and can prevent fertilization altogether. Even if they are not available a morning after pill is much cheaper than 18 years of trying to care for a child with inadequate resources.

Every child should be a wanted and a nurtured child. No child should be born to live a life of misery, but only into conditions that will nurture him or her as a valued member of society where they have a reasonable expectation of achieving their potential. A sustainable earth and our common humanity require nothing less.

The Thinker

God gets revised

Yes, it’s pretty cheeky of man thinking we can revise God. It’s cheeky unless you think that God is largely a creation of man anyhow. I happen to be in that boat. So seeing the book God Revised: How Religion Must Evolve in a Scientific Age by one of my favorite Unitarian Universalist luminaries for sale had me plunking down twenty bucks or so for the hardcover version.

Its author is Galen Guengerich, the senior minister at the All Souls Unitarian Church in Manhattan. What made this book particularly interesting to me is that I got a preview of it four years ago, when I first attended the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association. I got introduced to Rev. Guengerich in a large conference room over two days. Yes, there was so much meat in his seminar that one-day would not do it. Clearly that occasion was on his mind. He even alluded to it this year, during another seminar that he gave. You might say I was there in the beginning of this book. This book is the result of four years of thought.

Guengerich himself is something of a contradiction, but that makes his story all the more interesting. He grew up in a Mennonite community near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. As a Mennonite community, it was considered moderate, but Mennonites are very much a cloistered religion where you generally entered the faith with birth, married someone in the faith, lived your life in a Mennonite community and died therein. Guengerich eventually left the faith, but not the ministry. It is in the family blood as his father was a minister. His rambling search for a faith consistent with his rational mind and his calling toward ministry eventually lead him into my Unitarian Universalist denomination and to the very prestigious church in Manhattan as its senior minister.

In Unitarian Universalist (UU) circles, he comes close to being a rock star. UUs are uncomfortable with this designation, but he is clearly one of our leading theologians and luminaries. In this book, Guengerich ponders what God is in the scientific age and if so what it means to be religious. His conclusions will seem radical to those enmeshed in a traditional faith, but not so much to Unitarian Universalists. I was not surprised that he still sees the need for religion. However, religion is clearly in decline, at least in the secular areas of the world. More and more people have ditched religion and prefer to be labeled “spiritual”, a bland word that really describes nothing. As a minister that caters to people who are more spiritual than religious, Guengerich sees this type of person all the time. Mostly they consist of people too rational to believe in most of the clearly wacky and antiquated notions of God, and who often have been spiritually wounded by the faith of their youth. However, try as they might this “spirituality” thing isn’t working for them. There is nothing much to lash onto. Many feel disconnected and flighty, carried by currents they don’t understand.

This book was really written for these people, not people “of the book” who find their revelations in the Bible, the Torah or the Quran. Those in the latter group, if they read the book at all, are going to feel offended. It’s not that Guengerich dismisses them or their beliefs. One of the curious things about this book is how respectfully he writes about all people of faith, and how he qualifies his own faith (such as it is) with uncertainty.

One can accept the mystery of holy books full of contradictions, as billions are glad to do, even though it leads to cognitive dissonance. Or one can look at these holy books, put a yellow highlighter to them and see that much of the advice or beliefs are just wrong, or simply don’t work in our modern age. Guengerich does the latter, and systematically but respectfully goes through many of these beliefs and shows why they not only should not be believed, but also are dangerous to believe. He goes through the consequences of people believing in some of these ideas, the wreckage of which is all around us. The Taliban are an overly extreme but not unique example. They would keep women ignorant, cloistered in their houses and covered in all public spaces (well, at least while they have periods).

His conclusion, unsurprisingly similar to mine, is that there is no personal God, but that our universe is worthy of reverence. He pretty much agrees with my independent thesis some years back that God is not a noun, but a verb. He also believes that religion is necessary. It connects us with a higher purpose and gives us the courage we need in an impersonal world to change it, but also to feel real community. The practice of worship, he argues, connects emotion with reason, for we need both to find the courage to make our dispiriting world a better place. To the extent that God exists, he argues, it is through us. As I mentioned some posts back (and I confess I stole this idea from his lecture), we are very much the hands of God. (He says we are the fulcrum, the change agent that makes change possible.) The world can be made a better, more civilized and loving place only through our actions. In congregation and through the practice of worship, we find the stamina and the courage to turn abstract hopes into concrete actions. We become the change agents for the better world that we need.

This conclusion should not be surprising but is not something we routinely think about. You look at how great positive change occurs in the world, and it arrives by practicing faith that typically gets set in houses of worship. It’s how slaves won freedom and found safe passage north. It’s how Gandhi won independence for his country and how Martin Luther King reoriented our moral compass. It’s how suffrage happened and Catholic abuses of indulgences were ended. Without worship space for like minds to come together as people of faith, positive change is much less likely to happen.

Guengerich writes eloquently but sparsely, packing ideas into short sentences that connect well with his larger themes. His one largest theme is gratitude as the basis of faith. Having the gift of life, in spite of its complexities, is still an amazing experience. We exist only because of our utter dependence on each other. Breaking our bonds of connection is suicidal. He says that we need a reverence for our relationships with one another and the natural world. A positive religion for the 21st century will help get us there.

His book is a great read for open minds but is also straightforward, easily readable, and just the right length to keep you turning the pages and to never feel bored. Put it on your Kindle for just $10.67.

The Thinker

It’s better outside

I have a blessedly short commute to work, about three miles each way. The fastest way to work involves driving through a suburban, tree-lined neighborhood. This neighborhood is a lot like mine: single family homes with a third to half acre lawns, streets with sidewalks, trash collected on Tuesday and Fridays (I know because I am often dodging the trash truck), mailboxes on posts along the street, and lots of SUVs and minivans in the driveways.

I have been driving this route for years but only recently have I focused on a particular house I pass. It is peculiar in a way that should not be peculiar, but it is. Pretty much every time I pass it, in almost all sorts of weather except for rain or snow, there is at least one adult in a lawn chair parked in front of the garage. She looks like the mom of the house, and there are usually a couple of other neighbors in lawn chairs chatting with her as well.

If school is out, the kids are outside as well. They are mostly on bikes. The smaller ones are on Hot Wheels or pulling red wagons by their handles. Some are just running around the yard, sometimes with a dog in tow. Some are drawing on the sidewalks or driveway with colored chalk. The parents (usually mothers) sit in the lawn chairs, keep an eye on the kids (but not vigilantly), and chat while drinking coffee or iced tea. The kids, being outside and hollering, attract other kids. In fact, it appears that kids from blocks around are there, driven by the energy of other kids being outside.

Yes, this does happen, even in extreme weather. Northern Virginia gets more than its share of scorching hot summer days, with oppressive heat, humidity and bad air quality too. Those kinds of days drive me indoors. I get sweaty just thinking about being outside on days like that. It helps that this particular street is lined with tall trees that provide plenty of shade. Me? I have a porch that faces south and also looks out onto a street. The tree that used to anchor our front lawn was taken down this year, a victim of age. But even when it was in its lush prime, it wasn’t quite leafy enough to wholly block the sun and provide some measure of coolness under its canopy. This house, and most of the street, sits in the shade, which invites children to be outside comfortably.

To make a real kid-friendly neighborhood like this in the 21st century seems to require a mom, or maybe a bunch of them, plus a few neighborhood dads that I see from time to time, often with a can of beer. They seem to like being out there. And they are out there a lot. Mornings. Afternoons. Occasionally I will drive by in the evenings and I see kids and a parent or two out there. In fact, it seems like the mother of this particular house spends more time each day outdoors than she does indoors, and she is mostly parked in a lawn chair in front of her garage door.

In this environment, kids start playing with other kids who might otherwise be indoors on a Gameboy or zoning out on television. They start riding bikes relentlessly up and down the street, often in small gangs of four or six, getting plenty of natural exercise. Sometimes there is a lemonade stand, sometimes even in 2012 some are wearing roller skates, but they always wear helmets of some sort when they are on wheels. They all seem happy, healthy, whole and gloriously alive.

As for the adults, between their iced teas and cups of Starbucks or other brews they are laughing and chatting in the lawn chairs under the trees. They are interacting too, pretty much every day, weekends included. No doubt they are discussing their children and the issues of the day. Matters great and small are likely discussed, but if I had to guess more small than great. They are quite literally shooting the breeze. They are taking life as it comes, mostly outdoors. They are imbued in nature.

Nature can do that to you. It does it to me, at least when the weather is nice, like it has been this week. My doctor’s office is a short half-mile walk from my office, so there is no reason not to hoof it when I visit him. It takes no more than fifteen minutes to walk there, but the simple act of doing so usually perks me up. The view from my fifth story office window look out on trees and mountains, but it is not the same as simply being outside with nature. I don’t hear it. I don’t smell it. I don’t feel it. I just see it through a pane of thick glass.

Even when the weather is not optimal, there is something to be said about the value of being outside. When you are outside, nature fills your senses, whether you want it to or not. Most of the time, even in inclement weather, I find that being outside actually is preferable to being indoors, providing nature’s pests don’t use me as lunch. These days, if you still want the Internet, it’s not a problem. You take along your smartphone.

I’m wondering if that’s what the parents and kids in this neighborhood near Glade Drive in Reston, Virginia have also discovered. Life lived mostly outdoors can be a connected life: with nature, with neighbors, with children, with gardens, and with life. Perhaps we live so much of our lives indoors at our own peril, tuning out the world and seeing life through a filtered prison.

How would our lives be different if most of us spent most of our days outdoors? On a shady street off Glade Drive in Reston, Virginia the answer seems to be that life is a lot better.

The Thinker

The Antichrists have arrived and they are called Christians

Sorry, Jesus. But it appears that most of the people who claim to follow you are more in line with Satan than with God. At least that’s the way it seems lately. Yes, I know my observations are judgmental and you warned us not to judge others. So I’m judging. So are, best as I can tell, most of the so-called “Christians” out there.

The most recent and egregious example is “Pastor” Charles Worley of the Providence Road Baptist Church in Maiden, North Carolina. He wants to exterminate all gays and lesbians, not just shooting them outright but through starvation. He’s got a plan: build two big pens and make each, say, a hundred or 150 miles long. Put all those homos and lezzies inside, one camp for each. Don’t call it a concentration camp. That might be too good for them because at least the Jews in concentration camps got fed, at least some of them, before eventually going to the gas chambers. No, put all our gays and lesbians in big pens and don’t feed them anything. They eventually die. Thus endeth our problem with those sinful gays and lesbians. And his congregation cheers “Alleluia!”

Gah! As if killing gays and lesbians will mean there will never be another gay or lesbian again? Where does he think they come from? In vitro fertilization? Maybe in a handful of cases, but clearly at least 99% of gays and lesbians come from heterosexual parents. Oh but that’s right, he also believes that your sexual orientation is a choice. Like you can turn heterosexual with the right prayer or something. Clearly, science doesn’t matter much to him, but he also probably believes the world was created six thousand years ago as well.

It seems that most Christians here in America are doing the complete opposite of what Jesus preached. If there is one word that defined Jesus it is simply this: love. More specifically, love broadly and universally. How on earth can someone like Charles Worley become a pastor and not get that? Love, love, love! Love people! Love everyone. Jesus was very clear about this. He made this clear in numerous parables, but particularly in the parable of the Good Samaritan. At the time most Jews in Judea scorned Samaritans. They thought of them as apostates. Jesus went out of his way to make sure his followers understood that they were brothers too. You had to love those who are very different from you, and everyone has the same capacity to love.

Jesus was not about exclusion; Jesus was about inclusion. He hung out with the dregs of Judea: the lepers, the thieves and the prostitutes. About the only thing he hated were the moneychangers at the temple. Jesus was not about hate; Jesus was about toleration. Jesus was not about getting rich, he was only concerned about spiritual riches. In fact, he told us it was hard for a rich person to get into heaven, perhaps because their priorities were misplaced. The currency that really matters, he told us, was your ability to live a compassionate life and thus model what God believes.

How on earth could such an overwhelming message get totally missed? “You will know we are Christians by our love,” we used to sing as a youth when I was a Catholic. Now the Catholic Church is sending goon squads to make sure its sisters spend their time keeping women from getting health care.

This is all so terribly wrong, so antithetical to everything Jesus preached. You can argue about whether Jesus thought homosexuality was a sin or not, but his approach would not be to cast judgment (he specifically said do not do that) but to love them unconditionally instead.

I think it might help if Christians threw away the Old Testament. Trying to resolve the dichotomy between the Old and New Testaments seems to be driving “Christians” crazy, and the Old Testament seems to be winning. “Christians” seem crazily focused on select passages from the Old Testament, like killing homosexuals and adulterers, while selectively ignoring the ones that should bother them, like their self imposed views against polygamy. (Look up how many wives David and Abraham had, just for starters.) There is plenty in the New Testament to throw away too. Paul said we should be kind to our slaves. Doesn’t that imply it’s okay to own slaves? Paul said it was better to marry than to burn. Doesn’t that imply we should avoid marriage to prove we are sufficiently spiritual? Or that marriage, rather than being sacramental, is kind of a moral failing?

I am not a Christian. I am not a Christian in part because I don’t believe Jesus was divine, just very wise. But also I don’t want to be associated with most Christians because like Charles Worley they march off in a completely different direction than the one Jesus tried to lead people toward. However, if I did believe in Jesus’s divinity, I would be a member of the United Church of Christ. It’s one of the few denominations out there that seem to get real Christianity.

Christianity as Jesus preached it is about loving universally, sharing communally, being tolerant, open and accepting and giving your whole heart and soul to all people. You do this so they can be free of misery, to help them find God and to understand Jesus’s true message. Real Christianity is about a welcome table.

So yes, I, a judgmental non-Christian (but in some ways a follower of Jesus) must say simply that most of you Christians are not the least bit Christ-like, but are modeling the Antichrist. You have a twisted and frequently sick theology based on exclusion, hate and misery, rather than universal love and brotherhood. If you want to experience real Christianity, the closest you are going to get to it will be at a United Church of Christ congregation near you. So why not attend a service and get the real Jesus?

The Thinker

Dealing with political bullies

In April I discussed how Republicans win through intimidation. I said in a future post that I would give my thoughts on how to deal with their bullying. Today I finally get around providing my thoughts on the question.

This is a tough problem for Democrats because, with a few exceptions like Howard Dean, we haven’t learned to fight in a way that sways. Thus, Republicans have a natural advantage. They are used to having their way and they generally get their way through a lot of intimidation, bullying and money, which they have aplenty. Meanwhile, Democrats tend to be civilized people. We think it is impolite to shout and figure everyone has the right to be heard. We like to believe, against all evidence to the contrary, that Republicans have a better and pluralistic nature. And so pretty much every time we debate, we avoid going for the jugular. We don’t want to be seen as one of them, which in our minds is worse than winning.

All bullies understand one thing very well: to wield power over someone, you must connect with someone emotionally, not logically. Chances were that when you encountered a bully in school, one encounter was enough. The bully never tried to reason with you. Instead, he went straight for the jugular and used every weapon is his well-stocked arsenal: physical, emotional and mental. You quickly learned to avoid the bully because man, this dude is a loose cannon. If encountered, you found it pragmatic to give them what they wanted to avoid retribution. Why does this work? It is because for most people it takes about ten logical propositions (or more) to overwhelm one emotional proposition.

To really beat a political bully, it helps to have cut a few of them down to size. This come from standing up to bullies, which few of us have tried. Oddly enough, most bullies, when confronted by an opponent with determination, will give way. This will happen particularly if they sense from those around them that by standing up, many others will find the courage to stand up as well. This is because a crowd against you has more power than any bully by himself.

One way bullies deal with this uncomfortable fact is to have more bullies stand up with them. This way you become something of a gang, and a gang is more powerful than a single person. Yet the powerful bully actually walks a fine line. He must be seen as powerful and intimidating, but not so powerful that it behooves those they are intimidating to join ranks. Success often comes from being very loud, carrying a big stick but wielding it selectively.

In fact, this is pretty much how the Confederates managed to dominate the first half of The Civil War. It helped that Union generals tended to be wimps and ineffectual while Confederate generals like Stonewall Jackson were brilliant tacticians. (The Union started winning when soldiers like Grant proved they would not allow their armies to be intimidated.) The “rebel yell” was very effective for the Confederate Army, and involved them forming a line, pointing rifles and sabers forward then running forward en masse, often in sync, yelling and whooping the whole time. Union soldiers found the rebel yell unnerving because it was, well, crazy, and often gave way. It was a great tactic while it worked, and it stopped working when the Union Army found its courage. Today’s Republican bullies may be channeling the spirit of their rebellious forefathers. Using sabers against political opponents is not a good idea, but yelling is still politically acceptable, as is charging en masse, which today means honing a finely tuned and simple message and broadcasting it repeatedly everywhere.

See these tactics at work with attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. It’s amazing that they get away with it. The Affordable Care Act, after all, is the law of the land. Civilized people of course respect the law, even when they disagree with it. If they don’t like it, they will work to repeal the law. That’s not good enough for these new Confederates. The law must be killed through all means, fair and unfair. This includes deliberate foot dragging from red states, outright refusal to begin the process of setting up health care exchanges (despite The Supremacy Clause), and filing endless legal challenges, mostly with friendly courts. Some of their tactics give new meaning to the word chutzpah, such as refusing to fund the law that was already enacted. Make it a law in name only. Whatever works, fair or foul, is okay. Civilized people, of course, retch at these tactics, but if you are a bully it is just one item in your bag of tricks.

Curiously, the very best Democrats at fighting Republican bullies come from deeply red states, in particular Texas. This becomes less curious when you consider this behavior forms part of the culture of the state. Former (now deceased) Texas Governor Ann Richards had mastered the art, as has Jim Hightower. Many of these luminaries worked for The Texas Observer, a monthly magazine principally about Texas politics with a Democratic bent that was widely read. The late Molly Ivins and Jim Hightower both worked for or contributed to The Texas Observer, as did Larry L. King, who is perhaps best known as the author of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Democrats trying to counter these Republican bullies would be wise to study and emulate their tactics.

Their success comes down to two main factors. First, they learned the art of mean-mouthing other politicians in a way that called into question their lack of character. Barack Obama, responding to one of Mitt Romney’s crazier talking points, will give a polite and academic reply, maybe with a hint of sarcasm. Molly Ivins, if she were still alive, would not only lampoon the argument with innumerable logical holes, but would not be afraid, after providing many examples, to publicly state the logical conclusion in personal and emotional terms. If she were alive, I imagine her response to Romney’s proposal to keep cutting taxes for the rich as a solution for reducing the deficit would include a colorful metaphor. (“He wants to take money out of his little daughter’s piggy bank so he can go binge drinking at the saloon down the street.”) Metaphors like this are hard to excise from your head, particularly when they ring true. It’s even harder when it defies common sense and you can tie the allusion to an ordinary experience.

The truth, if it can be turned to an issue that a common person finds of concern, can be devastatingly effective politically, provided it is given with the right emotional punch. If is doesn’t move you, then it won’t work. A political ad on Haiti policy, for example, might concern the one percent of voters who care about Haiti, but most don’t, so the money on such advertisements is largely wasted.

Perhaps the most devastating political ad of all time was the Daisy ad that Lyndon Johnson used against Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election. Why did it work? It worked because it combined a powerful truth with the inescapably devastating emotional consequences for everyone. Johnson portrayed himself as the sane person in the room who would avoid nuclear war. He didn’t even have to reference Barry Goldwater because the implication was obvious. Goldwater was on record as being trigger happy with the nation’s nuclear weapons.

What do people really care about most today? Principally they want a good paying job, but also a hopeful future. Issues like gay marriage animates a fringe, but only a fringe of the electorate. What will make independent voters’ spines shiver will be simple and concrete ads showing Mitt Romney’s disdain for the working class. There is plenty of material on the record to work with, including his statements that he hoped General Motors would go bankrupt. His work while leading Bain Capital is also rife with examples of working people being laid off or having their wages cut, such as at Staples, to line his pockets. Find a couple of indisputable examples, tie them to working people who experienced the wrath of his decisions, and such an ad is bound to hit the double whammy of both logical and have strong emotional impact.

Ultimately, bullies only hold power as long as the crowd lets them wield it. Political bullies are rendered powerless when they are ignored. It happened to Glenn Beck, it is happening to Rush Limbaugh and it happened most recently to Newt Gingrich, in most cases because they traversed a serious line or became a parody of themselves. Mitt Romney will use mostly surrogates for his bullying of President Obama. He will likely disclaim actions of surrogates when politically dangerous, such as a recent attempt by a PAC to resurrect the Jeremiah Wright controversy.

Democrats should concentrate forces on a half dozen or less key distinguishing issues that are emotionally charged and that appeal to swing voters. The Republican War on Woman, one of the few frames Democrats created that actually stuck, is one example. Why did it stick? It stuck because it was so obviously true and it is also helpful because the majority of voters in this country are female. The frames that will be effective must connect a candidate with a concern or fear that Middle America will find deeply disturbing and undeniably true.

Do this and the bully is rendered harmless.

The Thinker

Googly-eyed at the Googleplex

At least some of the Left Behind crowd think that Rapture means that the Earth will become paradise, a perpetually blissful Garden of Eden for the virtuous where death is banished. The raptured get to live forever on a happy, lush Earth singing praises to God and effused with eternal bliss.

Stan the Dinosaur near the center of the Googleplex

Stan the Dinosaur near the center of the Googleplex

Well, I got news for the Left Behind crowd: if you are a geek lucky enough to be hired by Google and work at its headquarters in Mountain View, California (officially called The Googleplex), there is no need to wait for The Rapture. You can have it today. Yes, paradise is already available on their campus. Heck, you might even have a hard time finding the motivation to go home, which I am sure is by design. What is the point of ever going off campus? I mean, going off campus you have to deal with bills, your cranky spouse, and your Ritalin-laced kids. Stay on campus and there are none of these bothers, just all the gourmet food and smoothies you can eat for free within a short walk, exercise rooms galore, seminars by leading luminaries in various computer and scientific disciplines, twenty percent of your time (if you are an engineer) to play creatively, discount massages just down the hall, and a room or two on your floor filled with snacks and drinks (all free). There are even free classes in how to dance that are specifically tailored for us left footed engineers.

I know this from visiting the campus first hand on Wednesday. The tour came at the end of the meeting, but we got a prequel at lunch. Paradise could not have been any more picture perfect: blue skies, dry air, light winds, and with the temperature hovering about seventy. Crossing the street we had to beware not just of automobiles, but also of bicyclists on the many bike paths. Most of the bicyclists rode on the ubiquitous Google campus bike, with its big basket on the front and decked out in Google’s signature fluorescent colors. Of course the campus was perfectly manicured with palm trees rising nearly a hundred feet in the air framing the background. The closest cafeteria was just across the street. To get in you had to have the official Google badge. Our official nametags would have to suffice, but fortunately our hostess had an official badge and let us in.

The ubiquitous Google bikes

The ubiquitous Google bikes

The cafeteria was more than a bit overwhelming. Maybe you like a good salad bar and Ruby Tuesdays comes to mind. Multiply that salad bar by about ten and stock it full of organic produce, cheeses, nuts, all attractively arranged and constantly restocked. The salad bar was just one feature of this cafeteria. There were many, many entrees to choose from. I sampled the pork with almonds and regretted not taking seconds. It was delicious. About the only part of the cafeteria that was understated was the dessert section, but each dessert was organic, unique and of those I sampled, beyond delicious. And yet you did not want to gorge. None of the desserts spiked your blood sugar. When you have Google’s billions in profits, you can hire chefs who know these sorts of secrets. Also oddly missing: the cash register. Lunch, like almost anything on campus, was free.

I could find no part of the campus untouched by the Google creative team. You would think a trip to the loo would be safe, wouldn’t you? I was in for a start when I sat down and the seat was almost hot: no need to suffer the indignity of having cold buns. Looking for something to read in your stall? Each stall has a collection of Google newsletters (oddly issued on paper) that you can read. It looks like they have a whole team working on newsletters for their toilet stalls. Google will use every opportunity to communicate information, and if that means a newsletter in a stall or healthy eating strategies written on the walls of the cafeteria, so be it.

Idea boards along the corridors

Idea boards along the corridors

It’s hard to look anywhere without seeing the Google design team’s touch. In the building we were in the walls were covered with what look like bubbles of Braille. Just down the hall from the snack room was a massage room which, when I peeked, had a note saying that a session was in progress. If you are not important enough to warrant an office, you can still personalize your cubicle. There must be some things you cannot do to your workspace. Perhaps putting up Playboy centerfolds is against regulations, but I doubt it. Personalizing your space (and this includes your laptop, almost universally Apple, often festooned with logos) is encouraged. It might stimulate a creative thought when someone passes your space, and that’s good.

When the bulk of our work was behind us, we got a somewhat hurried campus tour. Much of the campus is built on top of a landfill. You can see methane pipes to allow the landfill to vent. Some of this methane is captured for energy use, but the campus also has lots of solar panels. About a third of its electricity is generated from renewable sources on campus.

The campus is fairly new since Google is a fairly new company. This gives the campus a feeling of impermanence, but it is undeniably gorgeous. Food is everywhere and free. When you have Google’s deep pockets, you don’t want to waste your highly productive engineers’ time by making them go off campus to get it. It’s not only free, it’s terrific and high quality stuff: the best foods, the best coffees and smoothies, and even the best desserts often just a short walk down the hall. Got to go somewhere on campus? Take a bike. There are usually a half dozen parked next to each building. Working in exercise during the day is encouraged, but if you prefer more formal exercise, there are plenty of enormous exercise rooms, allowing both structured and unstructured exercising.

Engineers like to show off their works. It’s hard to go far in any building without seeing some of them. Go into a 3D Google Earth simulator. See real-time global simulations of Internet traffic (with most of Africa in the dark). In one building we saw a vintage server rack (1999 is vintage), stuffed with commodity hardware you could have picked up at a Best Buy, which forms the nuts and bolts of Google’s enormous hosting platform.

We wandered by seminars in progress, free to anyone on campus, a hall of pictures of dignitaries, all posing with Google’s largely unknown “Jolly Good Fellow” Meng Tan. It’s hard to find a dignitary who has not visited the Googleplex, and they include President Obama and the Dalai Lama.

Suffice to say us decently but not obscenely enumerated government employees were impressed and more than a bit jealous. While we pay to attend our own Christmas parties, Google employees have practically every convenience of life available to them within, at worst, a short walk, much of it for free. While our time is metered like lawyers, they are allowed to have time to goof off. They are constantly stimulated by the presence of so many brilliant people, an infectious working environment and are given practically any freedom on the assumption that it will all contribute to the bottom line. Given Google’s enormous profits, it’s hard to argue with success.

If my pictures don’t suffice, try watching the YouTube video:


Switch to our mobile site