Resolve not to diet this year – it’s probably the healthy choice

The Thinker by Rodin

Since it’s the New Year, many of us have resolved to lose a few pounds, or more than a few pounds. Given the propensity of obesity in the country, many of us have probably resolved not just to take off dozens of pounds or more, but to permanently take them off too. Somehow this year, unlike all those other years, we’re finally going to summon the energy and commitment that ultimately we lacked in all those other years when we made similar pledges but ultimately failed.

Perhaps you’ve had the same conversation with your doctor that I’ve had. You go for a checkup, you are overweight and they suggest you lose weight for your health. I told my doctor lots of times that I’m great at losing weight. During my last big attempt in 2013 I lost more than thirty pounds in a little over two months. It was amazing how incredibly fast I lost that weight and without feeling particularly hungry. But that was more than three years ago. I’ve put it all back on and some extra.

This of course is the story of all my dieting over the years and probably yours as well. I might add that through all this dieting and not, I’ve never shirked staying physically fit. Most days I get my 10,000 steps in and I’m at the health club regularly. My latest blood test shows no issues with pre-diabetes, cholesterol or the usual things that alarm doctors. I’m basically a healthy overweight late middle age adult.

So I’ve been arguing with my doctors. They concede that with a few exceptions most of their patients who have taken off weight have put it back on and then some too. They really don’t have any solution to this problem other than to eat less and exercise more, something proven not to work for most people. If you are diabetic or have high cholesterol of course there are things you can do to address those issues. Obsessing about your weight is probably not one of them, but eating better and exercising regularly may be.

The evidence is clear for those of us that choose to see it: dieting almost always causes subsequent weight gain in excess of what you took off. In short, dieting works for a little while then it will recoil, exacerbating the problem. And you will doubtlessly feel guilty about the weight you’ve put back on, figuring it is due to some fault or lack of character on your part. Dieting then becomes not just a physical problem but a mental one too.

But here’s what the diet industry won’t tell you: it’s not your fault. Every time you diet your body sensibly thinks it is being starved and keeping it alive is its primary mission. It learns lessons by lowering your metabolism, so every calorie packs more punch. And because the body says, “I am not at the weight I should be” it will cause you to crave more food. The diet industry depends on diets to fail so you will start the cycle of concern and shame again and they can collect more money by building false hope.

In truth you don’t need to be a Skinny Minnie. And you don’t have to spend the rest of your life fighting cravings for food. The yo-yo dieting cycle will probably do more to kill you prematurely than being overweight and controlling your weight.

So resolve to stop dieting in this New Year. It’s counterproductive. Barring some new drugs that can reset your metabolism permanently (now there’s an area for some medical research!) you probably aren’t going to be a Skinny Minnie for the rest of your life. You may achieve it for a time, but the odds are you will yo-yo back.

Of course if you are overweight or obese and you continue eating the way you are now, you will probably gain more weight. But the reason you are eating more is that you have lost the ability to eat intuitively. That’s the premise behind Intuitive Eating, a book by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, two registered dieticians, a program with more than twenty years of success. Dieting has caused our signals to get crossed. Among other things we have lost the ability to feel satiated.

Learning to eat intuitively again introduces natural control over diet without feeling like you are giving up anything. This should give you a feeling of empowerment, feeling you can enjoy food again and reduce the pointless guilt trips that come with diets that rarely succeed in the long run. After months of pondering where to go from here in my journey, it is the next logical step. I’ve enrolled in a local Intuitive Eating course and the book is our foundational text. I’ll let you know how it goes.

It’s worth discussing what causes this destructive cycle in the first place. Part of it is clearly models, both literally and figuratively. Models are typically very slim and many have chronic eating problems of their own. We also tend to model actors, who are disproportionately slim and attractive as well. We project onto ourselves that they are examples of who we should be.

In fact, models and actors are the exceptions to the rules, freaks really compared to the rest of us. Those who are not dealing with their own eating disorders though are at a normal weight mainly because they are intuitive eaters. I have an older brother who is an intuitive eater. He always ate slowly and has been skinny his whole life. The rest of us: not so much. What they are doing is not all that special. It’s something they’ve had their whole life and no events have come along to set it out of kilter. Moreover, because they have not yo-yo dieted, their metabolism is relatively inefficient, meaning they can eat more of the same foods the rest of us do and by processing it differently they will convert less of it into calories.

The second part comes from body shaming. Parents seeing their children getting overweight will often start them on a rigorous exercise regime, often with calorie restrictions. This is the beginning of a destructive, often lifelong yo-yo dieting cycle, one that will likely cause a lot of mental distress, and drive overeating and insecurity. One of the worse things parents can do is restrict food choices for their children. Instead they should make food plentiful and available when desired and children will eat intuitively.

For those of us for which all this is too late, learning how to eat intuitively again makes a lot of sense. While we are unlikely to be Skinny Minnies again, we will regain weight control, stop the chronic craving that cause us to overeat, bring our metabolism into balance, lose the guilt, enjoy food again and feel we have control over our lives again.

That sounds like a resolution I can keep.

The folly of voting third-party for president

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s post Labor Day and it’s a presidential election year. You know what that means. According to our press, it means people are now starting to seriously pay attention to the upcoming election.

I find this hard to believe. Granted that I am something of a political junkie but it must be a very, very remote corner of Appalachia that hasn’t heard the endless thoughts spewing from the mouth and Twitter feed of Donald J. Trump. He’s the mouth that has roared for over a year now. And Hillary Clinton has spent decades in the public spotlight. We all have firmly baked opinions about her.

Perhaps to stir up some excitement, the press is agog about tightening polls showing Hillary Clinton’s lead dropping. It’s still a rare poll that shows her numbers below Trump’s, at least nationally but polls are generally showing her numbers moving to within margin of error numbers. It’s clear that large majorities of Americans don’t particularly like either Clinton or Trump and wants someone else to vote for. Unsurprisingly some are looking at third party candidates instead: Jill Stein of the Green Party and Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party. Those voters who follow through seem to want to make a statement.

And they will make a statement if they don’t mind shooting themselves in the foot. This happened to me in 1980 when I voted for John Anderson for president. I hate to say our electoral system is rigged but when it comes to the presidential vote it certain is and it’s by design. This is because an Electoral College actually votes a president into office and because 48 of the fifty states have laws that whichever candidate wins a plurality of the votes in the presidential race gets all of the state’s electoral delegates.

This means the system is rigged so as to make it virtually impossible for any candidate not in a major party to win. But it also means that if you are voting third party, you are throwing away your vote. The only exception is if your third party candidate wins a plurality of the votes in your state. And while that may garner some electoral votes for your third party candidate, a whole lot of other states have to do the same for your candidate to actually win. In short, you have to bet that both the Democratic and Republican party candidates are so dysfunctional that a wholesale national voting rebellion is going to happen, something that has never happened in our country as best I can tell and probably can’t happen now in our polarized political environment.

In practical terms, this means to a Massachusetts resident like me that if I would have otherwise voted for Hillary Clinton and I vote for Jill Stein instead, I am effectively voting for Donald Trump since it will bump up his share of the votes as a percent of the state’s votes. And if I am a non-racist Alabaman that normally votes Republican but I am so disgusted by Trump’s racism that I vote for Gary Johnson instead, I am helping elect Hillary Clinton.

In my case in 1980 as a 23-year-old voting for third party candidate John Anderson, I was effectively voting for Ronald Reagan, the last candidate I would have voted for. Fortunately in the blue-state of Maryland, it didn’t matter as Maryland’s electoral votes went for Jimmy Carter. Nationwide though John Anderson took 6.6% of the popular vote. Conceivably had Anderson not run and those votes had gone to Carter instead (as research suggests) then that election would at least have been a lot closer. Carter lost by nearly 10% of the popular vote but where it matters, he received only 49 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win. Reagan’s election was a landslide by any standards, thanks probably to John Anderson’s spoiler effect. As bad as that was the 1984 election was worse. Walter Mondale garnered only 13 electoral votes (his home state of Minnesota and Washington D.C.) Reagan got the rest (525) and that was with no serious third party opposition. For a more recent event that shows the folly of voting third party, look at the 2000 election. Had the Green Party votes in Florida gone to Al Gore, there would have been no President George W. Bush.

Trump is right that the presidential voting system is rigged, but it’s always been that way. The Electoral College mess was designed by our founding fathers to get a commitment from southern states at the time the constitution was ratified. Without it, southern states would have probably never been able to elect a president. With slaves counting as 2/3 of a free person for a state’s share of electoral votes, with a few exceptions (like John Adams) for decades it made it virtually impossible for a non-southerner to become president.

So hopefully I’ve convinced you not to vote for Jill Stein or Gary Johnson. If still not convinced, consider that the Green Party and Libertarian Party are minority parties because their views are simply not mainstream views. I find a lot to admire about the Green Party but it’s a party of ideologues, not a party of pragmatists. For example, GMO foods are not going away and it’s folly at this time to try. Libertarians are easy to dismiss because it is wholly unworkable. Imagine selling all our roads, sewers and schools. Imagine no laws against pollution. It would be an unmanageable nightmare.

Which leaves you dear voter ultimately holding your nose while you vote for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. (I realize there are some voters, particularly Trump voters who are actually enthusiastic about their candidate. Weird.) The other option is not to vote, but not voting is effectively the same as voting third party. You will effectively give more power to those that do vote.

So suck it up for democracy. Democracy ain’t pretty sometimes and it won’t be in this election. However, you have a duty to perform so do it mindful that the system is not perfect and your candidate won’t be either. If you really want the Green or Libertarian parties to grow, you have to do it the hard way by getting local and state candidates elected. With enough of them they may become a majority party in your state. Then you will have leverage, at least on the state level. Or you can work for a constitutional amendment to get rid of the Electoral College and make it based on actual votes.

Oh, and those polls? I’m still not worried. I think Clinton is still going to win based on state polls, which are the only ones that matter. With a majority of Americans saying they will never vote for Trump, the only way that Trump wins is if a lot of those voters stay home or vote third party instead of voting for Hillary. It’s unlikely but it can happen, and it could happen this year if you don’t vote with the left side of your brain instead of the right side.

I’ll be using the left side and voting for the imperfect Hillary Clinton.

The meaning of Star Trek

The Thinker by Rodin

The media is agog over today’s 50th anniversary of Star Trek. Yes, it was fifty years ago tonight that the first episode of Star Trek, “The Man Trap” first aired on NBC. Then a product of Desilu Studios this futuristic show of zipping across the cosmos on starships quickly became a cult classic, but not enough to spare it from being canceled after three seasons. In fact it had been canceled earlier, but was saved for a while from petitions from fans.

What Gene Roddenberry hath roth! Roddenberry had no particular aspirations for the series when he produced it. In fact, he was a pretty inept producer of the series. TV series fifty years ago are going to suck by modern standards, and many of these original episodes badly sucked. For the most part this was due to Roddenberry’s inattention, NBC’s unforgiving cost controls and using a lot of hack writers. Roddenberry was never that much into his creation, at least not its management. His contribution to his phenomenon was mainly inspirational.

Star Trek depicted a far future for humanity that was hopeful, although it was originally badly depicted on screen. Roddenberry also threw in a few characters that caught our imagination: Captain James T. Kirk as an American cowboy in outer space but mostly Mr. Spock. Spock was a wholly aspirational character: a glimpse of not how ideal aliens should be, but how humanity could be. All this was wrapped around 49 minute episodes with five commercial segments, cheesy costumes and generally poor acting.

And yet Star Trek took off, in spite of NBC and in spite of Roddenberry’s inattention. Its meme was hopeful and a few of its characters were interesting enough to get into. The original series was never really reprised again. The movies were binary: either good or bad, with only the even ones being any good. It took twenty plus years for Star Trek: The Next Generation (STTNG) to emerge and a year or two for its shakedown cruise before Trekkies got what they really wanted: real Star Trek without the warts and blemishes of the original series. It got a lot better when Roddenberry stepped back, mostly due to his health, and let professionals manage the franchise. With STTNG, better budgets and independent syndication, the franchise really took off spinning off other shows, most not so memorable.

In 2003 I proclaimed the death of Star Trek, but it’s reimagination in the 2009 movie proved me wrong. Star Trek now sails into its next half century with a planned CBS series reboot, Star Trek: Discovery, apparently only available to paid subscribers. Curiously it’s no longer NBC property: CBS has taken over the franchise, as it owned by National Amusements, which own ViaCom, which owns Paramount.

There is a mystery to its longevity, as there is with Doctor Who, Sherlock Holmes and certain other series that manage to become timeless. The original series was not really that good, and it’s third season truly sucked. The same is true with Doctor Who and many of the later Sherlock Holmes stories. Keeping a series feeling fresh is hard.

Star Trek managed it with STTNG by keeping Star Trek’s essence and ejecting its bad parts. The 2009 Star Trek reboot movie succeeded by putting the original series in its own time warp, essentially creating an alternative timeline. Star Trek: DS9 worked by abandoning most of Star Trek’s peaceful premise and going back to Gene Roddenberry’s premise of a western in space. Commander Sisko became the sheriff for his part of the Wild West and tried to keep the peace. It’s clear what didn’t work. Voyager really gave us nothing new except a woman captain; many of its episodes we had seen many times before in other iterations. The short-lived series Enterprise proved even less interesting: its chief character of interest was the captain’s cute dog.

So what is Star Trek’s essence? Why do we find ourselves addicted to it, even when it is often mediocre? For me, I see two prominent memes in the Star Trek experience.

First is that no matter how interesting life is for us humans in the 21st century with its ever-expanding technologies, we crave a quantum leap. Our human potential is boundless, even as our humanity frequently proves that we don’t deserve to trek the stars. Star Trek opened the door to new possibilities: the universe on a grand scale that we could easily zoom around in. There we would find wonders beyond our imagination as well as challenges too. These wonders are its lure, but what really interested us are the challenges it posits. Just like a hacker is never satisfied with his latest cyber break in, we look for ever more challenging puzzles to solve and ultimately master. The universe, at least as depicted in the relativity-free world of Star Trek, offers us this tableau of potential to exploit.

Second, at its core Star Trek is hopeful. It speaks to our potential as an enlightened species, not the depressing reality we’re mired in. We crave utopia, but what we crave more is an enlightened and well-ordered society where we get along well with each other and channel our collective and individual energies in ways that help, not harm, but also enrich us as human beings. In Star Trek we see this reality modeled in a hopeful way. It’s a powerful meme and it — not Star Trek’s warp drive — is what really powers this series and its many spinoffs. There’s a place for all of us in this posited reality. Even conservatives can play in this universe, as evidenced by the many fans out there emulating the Klingon culture.

As I noted before, one of the curious things about Star Trek is how much of it has already been realized in just fifty years. Both the universal translator and the communicator are 21st century realities, albeit in different and less powerful forms than Star Trek depicted. Perhaps because of its warp drive, Star Trek is inspiring engineers to see if a warp drive is feasible. Star Trek’s impulse drive looks like a real possibility, although it is not quite out of the lab. It may get us to the stars, much more slowly than with a warp drive, but enough to be practical. It will leverage the power of solar energy and microwaves, if this research bears fruit.

It turns out there is nothing like a model to stimulate human imagination. Star Trek provided a model, both on a technical and sociological level. Since its appeal is universal, it connects all cultures and provides a common foundation to ponder our place in the universe and how to actually sail these oceans of stars all while inspiring us to live up to our ideals. It’s taking us from imaging a new reality to inspiring us to implement it.

Yes, Star Trek is ultimately just a meme. But it’s a meme for good and a meme that calls us to our potential. It’s often great entertainment but it’s not a waste of our time. Ultimately, Gene Roddenberry’s experiment of a western in outer space may literally help take us to the stars and help mankind reach its most noble purpose. It’s a long shot, but it’s a meme with huge energy behind it. I hope it can sustain our passions for the next half-century.

Why do we hate the poor?

The Thinker by Rodin

Have you ever been poor? I’m not sure where the dividing line is between poor and not poor, but if you are poor you will know it. By that standard I have been poor. One thing I learned during those years is that being poor totally sucked. Anyone who has ever been poor has every incentive in the world to get out of the state and will if they possibly can.

So many of us though resent the poor. We see them as moochers leaching off the rest of us. I’m trying to figure out why this is. At one level it’s easy to say it’s a classist thing. We hang out with people we feel comfortable with and these are generally in our socioeconomic group. Unless you have had the experience of being poor, it’s hard to empathize with those who are poor. It’s easy to think, “How hard can it be? Just apply yourself! You can work your way into the middle and upper classes. Get off your lazy asses!”

Lots of people manage it somehow; it’s the American dream after all. But lots of people don’t or simply can’t. And some people who used to live that dream have had it taken away from them, at least for a while. Count among these autoworkers, garment workers, coal miners and those who find their skills become obsolete. When it happens to these people, it’s clearly not their fault; they were unfortunate. It’s pretty clear where many of today’s Uber drivers will be in ten years: not taxiing people around. Uber is quite interested in the automated car and that’s because it can pay for the software that will drive people around quite easily, probably for no more than a couple of hundred bucks a year per car. Those Uber drivers probably earn at least ten bucks an hour. Uber would like to keep rates the same but channel the cost of their labor into their bank accounts instead.

When I was poor (i.e. independently living but not quite scraping by, roughly 1978-1981) I found the experience depressing. I preferred sleep to being awake because dreams were not as dismal as my life was. I had graduated college with a bachelor’s degree but like in 2008 the economy at the time sucked and my degree was not particularly marketable. I earned just over minimum wage doing retail work. I had roommates and I lived in a cheap part of town. I could not afford my car, so I sold it for scrap and walked, biked or took the bus when I needed to go somewhere. I ate cheaply but never well. Retail employment proved ephemeral. My hours were cut to almost nothing and only moving to another department let me pay my bills. I had no dependents but I did have a student loan to pay. I couldn’t even afford a vacuum cleaner for my apartment. My low status and lack of wheels made me largely friendless and dateless.

I never went on food stamps, mainly because it never occurred to me to try. I probably would have qualified for food stamps, which were much more generous back then. I wasn’t unemployed so welfare was not an option, but like many enlisted people today what I was paid wasn’t enough to really live on, unless you meant a basic and fretful existence, never quite sure whether if ill fortune struck if you would be out on the street.

From my perspective being poor really sucked, but I’m really glad I’m not poor today. Today to get food stamps I’d likely have to pee into a cup and I might not get them at all having no dependents. There were more homeless shelters back then and some states (I was in Maryland at the time) were progressive enough to maybe help you get back on your feet. Maybe there was Section 8 housing that you didn’t have to wait ten years to get.

I also knew that if worse came to worst, my parents might loan me some money or let me stay with them for a while. As there were eight of us, the expectation was that we could handle life somehow. We did but we were blessed in many ways. We were raised in love, treated humanely and attended good schools. Our parents had our backs. We had a pretty good idea how the world worked, knew which pitfalls to avoid and our parents lived sober and sensible lives that were not hard for us to model. In essence life put us a few rungs up on the ladder. Some sizeable but unquantifiable portion of this came from the privilege of being born white.

Being white, racism was not something I ever experienced. We weren’t part of any minority group, except possibly from being Catholic, which was hardly unusual, just that there were more Protestants. My mother’s ancestry was Polish, so there was the occasional Polish joke directed our way, but it clearly made no sense as most of us got straight A’s.

Had I been born black and poor the likelihood that I would have ascended into the middle class would have been much less. As I was born into the middle class, one crushing part of being poor was knowing I was faking it. But at least I had a brain, understood most of the social cues, could read, write and do math and was both white and male. It was these skills that made my years being poor relatively brief.

Those years though were not wasted years. They gave me insights into life that wholly elude Donald Trump, most Republicans and conservatives and many who simply haven’t experienced it. Being poor is hard and incredibly stressful. You are never sure when the next shoe will drop but often you have to simply hope for the best. I am quite confident that as hard as it was for me, it is magnitudes harder for those who were born poor. I never had to worry about gangs or being shot in the street. Burglary virtually never happened where I lived and our schools were well funded with decently paid and engaging teachers. I had regular parental supervision, and two parents to turn to. A frequently absent single mom that worked three jobs and that shuffled me between many babysitters did not oversee me. I never went hungry or malnourished. My clothes were sometimes second hand but they were usable.

Being poor depressed me but for the chronically poor the symptoms look a lot like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Worse, the PTSD occurs at the worst time in life: when you are a child, and can last decades or a lifetime. It sets in motion patterns of behavior that become instinctive but become nearly impossible to change, driving many mental, physical and emotional issues that tend to carry through adult life.

When you are poor you really want people with the empathy to cut you some slack. But these days that’s largely not an option. Rather, those with the power will turn the screws even more. They will reduce your food stamps. They will introduce ever more burdensome obstacles simply to summon the very basics to survive. Today’s safety net has many holes in it. Whether the net will catch you at all or let you slip through it depends on many factors, but it’s problematic at best. No wonder it’s increasingly difficult for the poor to ascend another rung or two in life. The mines are laid everywhere. You will take some hits; it’s guaranteed. You simply hope for the best but there is too much road kill around you to have unrealistic expectations that you are all that special.

As miserable as it is to be poor, it’s much worse to be homeless. It’s a combination of pain, poverty, hunger, despair and feelings of unworthiness and shame that feels equivalent to being in hell. I can’t say this from personal experience, but it’s easy enough to infer. I can see the searing pain etched on the faces of the homeless I see in the streets everyday.

Why do we hate the poor? The answer doesn’t matter. What does matter is understanding that being poor is difficult at best and traumatic and potentially life threatening at worst, and it should require society to act compassionately. It is to be avoided at all costs if possible, but as there are no guarantees in life it’s always a possibility that it can happen, even to you. It’s unrealistic to expect people to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, particularly if you don’t have any boots. If you have been poor, you will feel nothing but compassion for those who are poor. If you have not, count your blessings. Only good fortune is keeping you from finding out.

Eulogy for my father

The Thinker by Rodin

Grace: (in Christian belief) is the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.

My sister Mary related an anecdote about my father, who passed away on Monday at age 89. Two days before his death, she had to return to Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Maryland to retrieve her cell phone. He was rapidly losing his war on pneumonia and pulmonary fibrosis. So she trudged back through Washington’s daunting traffic, through security and back to his room on the sixth floor. Dad looked zonked out but she did explain to Dad why she was there just in case he was listening. As she was heading out the door he heard him say in a calm and soothing voice, “Good night, dear.” It was the last coherent thing he said to her.

My father at his 80th birthday celebration
My father at his 80th birthday celebration

That was my father: so full of the milk of human kindness that even on his deathbed with hardly enough breath to form a sentence, he took the time to be kind. This was actually my father all through his 89 years and nearly four months of life: a kind, gentle and heartfelt man. It was who he was and it was apparently as reflexive as breathing.

He was this way with everyone and harsh with no one. When you were with him you felt special, heard, listened to and deeply appreciated for the unique soul that you were. It didn’t matter whether you were related to him, whether you were some momentary encounter on a bus or saw him every day. That’s the kind of father I was fortunate enough to grow up with, a true Mr. Rogers who took honest joy and interest in everyone he met, warts and all. While you were with him you thought here’s someone who really gets me and when you left him you felt the warm glow of connection.

Such empathy is sometimes expected in women, but it often feels forced. It is rare to find this in a man, but he took real joy in your presence. He was never judgmental, but always accepting, always open with a loving heart, and always happy to pass on his love to whoever he encountered in life.

A devout Catholic, he was catholic in the best sense of the world. The definition of catholic is universal, but you rarely see this kind of catholicism from Catholics. Instead you get dogmatists. Do this, don’t do that, avoid sin, lead a clean life and you will get into heaven. And my father did all of that, just absent the in-your-face dogmatism. He was about modeling the religious life than preaching it. He was abstemious to the point of fanaticism. Communion wine was as close as he ever got to drinking, and most of the time he only took the host. He never smoked. Despite having served in the Navy, he never learned the art of swearing. I only recall hearing him swear twice in his whole life, and only under the greatest duress.

He might have been seen as queer or effeminate but as best I can tell he was never perceived this way. It was not that he did not enjoy sports: he could toss the football with us and often coaxed us to do so. He was more interested in spending time with us than being outdoors or getting exercise. He was an engineer by trade, quiet and bookish, freakishly sober but gentle beyond words. Dad had to be experienced, and once experienced you rarely forgot it or him.

Dad never had grand ambitions. He never ran for political office or spoke that much about politics in general. One of the great mysteries of his marriage is where he fell politically. All we knew is that he and my mother were in different parties, but they wouldn’t discuss their feelings on candidates or elections with us. Late in his life I deciphered his quiet political leanings. He was where I thought he was all along: a Democrat, not so much because of its ideology but because he aligned with candidates that felt we needed to be compassionate to people. Curiously, in his second marriage he married a Republican, a woman who admired Bill O’Reilly but who was also a devout Catholic. They made it work somehow. My mother was the submissive in his first marriage. In the second one, his new wife was the brass and outspoken one. Dad just kept being dad, but I think he enjoyed the change of pace.

As I said in this post, Dad was saint-like, but not a saint. He did have some human foibles. Gluttony perhaps was one of his sins, although he was never obese. He enjoyed chocolate and baked goods too much, although it seemed to have no effect on his lifespan. My mom was the submissive in their marriage, but the dominant with the children. She was a harsh disciplinarian. She was in fact emotionally and physically abusive to some of us. For some of my siblings it simply washed over them like rain on a duck’s back. In my case it hurt and nearly crippled me psychologically, perhaps because I never saw it modeled in Dad. It took months of therapy after my Mom’s death to make sense of it. I was a victim of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD); at least I had all the symptoms. Perhaps Dad should have stepped up to the plate and stopped my mother’s behavior, or maybe he was unaware of it because it happened when he was at work.

When Dad came home from work all his children were tickled pink to see him. We’d yell “Daddy’s home!” and run around the house excitedly. My mother was jealous of the attention he got. Sometimes a few of us would hide in the back of his closet and pretend to sneak up when he came in the bedroom to change clothes. (Our giggles generally gave us away.) We loved Dad with an honest and sincere intensity, counted our time alone with him as precious, and looked up to him.

I certainly looked up to him. Compassion forms a major part of whom I am, although I inherited a lot of my mom’s judgmental ways, so I am quick to scold. I will never be as good a man on my best day as my father was on his worst. But he taught me volumes: how to be thrifty, how to plan our finances, an engineering outlook where you make your future predictable, the importance of science and the value of empathy. I picked up some of his passions too: musicals, theater in general and an appreciation for classical music.

My friend Tom whose own father passed away recently related his relationship with his father, which was much different and much more challenging. I took my father for granted but he always wowed me. I just assumed most fathers were like mine. They were not. My father was exceptional in just about every way a human being can be exceptional. His religion gave him a frame for living his life that fit him like a comfortable glove, and amplified his native tendencies. He was not saintly but he was saint-like who intuitively and effortlessly touched people’s souls. He is a tough act for anyone to follow.

He lived a long, happy, healthy and productive life. I am convinced his life was so long in part because he was at peace with himself, and so few of us are. Like all of us, he was one soul adrift in a sea of many souls; he was just never lost. He reveled in the love all around him and drew it near him effortlessly. He lived the life that matters: not of power, or material possessions but of character, of love and the value of relationships.

I am so blessed to have spent 59 years with the man. His passing of course is a great sorrow, but bittersweet. He touched my soul so many times and I am an infinitely better and more humane person because of him. He was a gift of grace to all who knew him. I am humbled and full of gratitude to have known him.

What a man! What a life! He was a father indeed, a father in deed.

Danger: white male

The Thinker by Rodin

Since I’m a white male, I’m starting to think that maybe I need to be profiled and tracked. It seems like we white males as a class are pretty dangerous critters. Maybe we need a tag, neuter and release program. (Good news: I’m already neutered.) These days it seems like any one of us white males could go off like Vesuvius at any moment and probably take out a dozen or more innocent bystanders in the process. Of course we’ll use a gun, a semi-automatic one if we can get one. It makes killing strangers so much faster and lethal. Not a problem, according to the NRA and, hey, Buy American!

I know what you are thinking: “Mark, what the heck are you talking about? It’s the black males that are being tracked and profiled mostly because it’s black males that are committing most of these crimes. Why should a relatively prosperous, older, white guy like you be thought suspicious?”

Dear reader, it’s because it’s us white guys that are most likely to pop their gaskets and do crazy stuff. You know something is up when you encounter this statistic: white men make up 36% of the population but cause 75% of mass shootings. I may be out of the woods, as I am pushing sixty, living in Massachusetts and my testosterone levels are now officially low. If you are looking out for dangerous men though you’d be smart to profile us white guys. I can see it now: police cruisers driving around bowling alleys and American Legion halls and pushing around white guys in undershirts with rolled up shirtsleeves. Particularly when we are in our early manhood years, we can be teakettles on high boil without a ventilation hole. But it’s also possible we’ll go postal if we feel we are victimized, unloved or suffered one too many misfortunes. We are white men, after all. If there is supposed to be one privileged class in the United States, we’re it. After all, all but one of our presidents was a white guy.

It seems though that surging with testosterone and a sense of entitlement, psychologically we white men are more often on a hair trigger. I base this in part on my own personal experience. Ages eighteen to 22 were particularly challenging for me. My testosterone levels could not have been higher. There were times when walking down a hallway I would literally shake from another testosterone surge. I’d ache for the intimate touch of a woman (never forthcoming) the way an alcoholic craves that next spot of gin. I was reading arguably crazy and wacky books like this one and that one and kind of accepting them. Eventually my hormone levels receded to the point I realized I felt embarrassed that I even took those books seriously. (I’m wondering if Rand Paul’s hormones are still surging. I mean, Atlas Shrugged? Grow up!) To quote the musician Meat Loaf, I was “all revved up with no place to go”, just like Dylann Roof. I obviously did not go psycho but it’s not like the occasional psycho thought did not pass my mind. Sometimes they frequently passed through my mind. Lots of days I battled an inner rage masked by weak smiles and hiding behind books.

So if you want to talk about who’s likely to be a deadly and homicidal wacko, it’s hard not to single out us white guys. I think Americans tend to deny the obvious because there are so many of us. It also helps to be the sex and race that basically runs most of the United States. I might add that as a class we aren’t doing a great job of it. It’s hard to imagine that any other class of people couldn’t do a better job of running the country.

And then there’s the stuff we do just to get attention. Of course there are the stupid jock tricks, puking our guts out, harassing women, drag racing on public streets, knocking over mailboxes and plastering graffiti, which is actually the more benign stuff. When it comes to the really wacko stuff though, white males are Number One. Take a look at this Wikipedia page of rampages in the Americas and sift through those that occurred in the United States. With a few exceptions, it’s us white guys going postal. Here are a few in the top dozen:

  • James Eagan Holmes, white male, age 24, killed 12 and injured 62 in Aurora, Colorado in 2012. He is just now coming to trial. (I blogged about this one.)
  • George Pierre Hennard killed 23 people and wounded 12 in Killeen, Texas in 1993. He was 35 and white.
  • Michael McLendon, white male, age 28, killed 10 and injured 6 in 2009 in incidents in three cities in Alabama
  • Charles Raymond Starkweather, a white male, age 19, killed 10 people at various places across the United States 1958
  • Michael Allen Silka, age 25, killed 9 and injured 1 in two incidents, one in Alaska and one in Alabama in 1984

I did find a few exceptions. James Edward Pough was black and he killed 11 and injured 6 in Jacksonville, Florida in 1990. Caril Ann Fugate was an accomplice of Charles Starkweather and was only 14 at the time. She holds a dubious record of sorts: the youngest woman to ever be tried and convicted for murder as an adult. Jiverly Wong is sort of white (Vietnamese) and a naturalized American citizen. At age 41, he killed 13 and wounded 4 in Binghamton, New York in 2009.

Anyhow, check out that Wikipedia page. It’s not hard to document that white men, most of them age 30 and younger, were responsible for most of these rampages. Dylann Roof’s recent racist rampage killed nine worshippers in a Charleston, South Carolina black church. Guess what? He is a white male, age 21, and a social loaner that is convinced that whites are superior. He says black men are disproportionately raping white women, although there is no evidence to back up this preposterous claim. He also conveniently forgets to mention the raping that often was instigated by white slave holders on their black female “property.” This likely included our third president, Thomas Jefferson.

It’s likely that all men suffer disproportionately from the same tendency, so the roots of these rampages are more likely environmental than genetic. You rarely hear about a woman going postal, even though women tend to suffer more from mental illnesses. I have a number of logical guesses for why white men are usually to blame for these mass murders here in the United States. These include:

  • Expectations for white men are unrealistically high. They are expected to clear more hurdles more regularly than other men and women.
  • White men compete with other white men for social status. Most of us won’t be in the top 10%. It’s hard not to feel inferior or worthless if you are on the left side of the bell curve.
  • The male self-reliance myth that is mostly handed down from father to son, but is also part of the white male culture. When real life shows that we white men are as human, vulnerable and need help and meaningful connections from others like everyone else, it sets up a bad case of cognitive dissonance.

It all amounts to feeling disproportionately inferior and put upon, which can feed introversion and social disconnection. Eventually it leads to hurt feelings, and sometimes the anger we saw on Dylann Roof’s web site. In extraordinary cases it results in a rage so extreme it generates mass homicides of strangers.

It’s these myths imposed as things that white men must live up to that I believe are often triggering these men. Until more white men give up these stereotypes and these myths, more events like the one in Charleston are sadly predictable. Also predictable will be the sex, race and age bracket of the perpetrators.

Don’t be the roadkill on the global climate change super highway

The Thinker by Rodin

Most Americans are comfortably in denial about global climate change. In some places, like in the Florida state government, saying the phrases global warming or global climate change may get you in trouble. Governor Tim Scott doesn’t believe it’s happening and doesn’t want to hear his minions utter these naughty words. His overwhelmingly Republican legislature is happy to back him up. Meanwhile, in places like Miami and Fort Lauderdale, where rising sea levels are already happening, city and county officials are funding mitigation strategies to minimize flooding that is already underway. A king tide can pull ocean water onto streets at certain times of the year when the earth is closest to the sun and the moon is closest to the earth. Meanwhile, condos keep going up along Florida’s coasts.

My sister lives in Hollywood near Fort Lauderdale. She has the typical ranch house. Despite having a house on concrete blocks, twice in the last few years her house has flooded. Like most of her neighbors, she loves living in Florida and particularly near the coast. Her boat is parked at a local marina. Retirement is on her horizon. She is not stupid and understands that rising sea levels are already affecting her and it will be more of a problem in their future. Her retirement plans, such as they are, are to move inland to Arcadia, where the cost of living is very cheap and the elevation is 57 feet above sea level, which it at least higher than Hollywood’s 9 feet.

Perhaps that will work for her. As sea levels rise, it will be harder to get goods to places like Arcadia. In general there will be a lot of people along Florida’s coasts slowly coming to grasp the magnitude of climate change events underway. It’s not hard to predict more dikes and heightened sand dunes along the coasts as a coping mechanism. It’s not hard to figure out who will eventually win: Mother Nature. Rick Scott may want to deny it, but you can’t change chemistry or pretend it’s not happening. Add more carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere, and the atmosphere will warm, ice will melt and sea levels will rise. I’ve urged my sister to move out of Florida altogether, or if she must live in Florida to pick a place like Tallahassee where the elevation gets as high as 203 feet.

Meanwhile, California is trying to grasp with the magnitude of its issues, which is driven by global climate change, which was triggered by global warming. It’s not news to read they are about a decade into a steadily worsening drought. Only 5% of the normal snowpack fell in the mountains this year. Governor Jerry Brown, who does acknowledge global climate change, is trying to ration water but there are lots of legal exemptions. California is browning up, but it’s hardly alone in the west. Much of its population is in real risk of having their taps run dry in the next few years. In some places in California, it already has as wells run dry.

As Bachman-Turner Overdrive sang: “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” To grasp the future, look at what is happening today in the Mediterranean Sea. Almost daily there are heartbreaking stories of refugees fleeing Africa and the east coast of the Mediterranean for Europe, and many are drowning at sea when their boats capsize or are deliberately sunk. It’s true that a lot of these refugees are escaping war or political unrest, and overpopulation in that area is also straining resources, which is contributing to their poverty and desperation. But climate change is certainly a factor there as well and some believe provided the fuel for wars in Syria. When it becomes sufficiently painful, people will use whatever resources they have to move from poverty to wealth and from war to peace. Thousands have already perished at sea but still they come despite the risks. As climate change worsens we’ll see this problem only get worse, and it will drive a lot of war and conflict. As sea levels rise people will simply vote with their feet and move to higher elevations, causing political instability and turmoil.

Global climate change is inescapable, but that doesn’t mean a lot of it cannot be mitigated. My wife and I are now residents of Massachusetts and were formerly residents of Northern Virginia. Nestled now in mountainous western Massachusetts, we are strategically positioned to minimize the effects of global climate change on our lives. The one comment we invariably got when we disclosed we were moving north was, “But you are supposed to move south when you retire.”

That’s the old rules. In 36 years of living in Northern Virginia we have already witnessed climate change (not to mention explosive growth). What were once native plantings in our area are no longer suited for the new climate reality. They are now considered native further north. We’ve seen temperatures rising in general and more frequent severe weather. Life was a lot more bearable in Northern Virginia in 1984 when I first moved to Reston than 31 years later. New England is changing too. It’s becoming the new Mid-Atlantic, with more severe weather and higher temperatures. It will get into the eighties up here this week, and it’s only the first week of May.

We made a conscious decision not to retire out west, at least not to those areas that are already impacted by climate change, which is most of the west. Their problems are only exacerbated by population growth. California is very vulnerable, but it is hardly alone. Most of the population of the southwest survives due to the largess of the Colorado River, which on average is recording reduced streamflow every year. The Colorado River is typically dry before it hits the Pacific Ocean, all due to human usage.

That’s not a problem out here in western Massachusetts, at least not yet. We’re nowhere near the coast, so coastal storms will affect us less, although the last few years around here have seen record snowfalls. Water is in abundant supply and there are huge reservoirs to supplement the supply during droughts. We are close to local farms as well as major interstates. Not coincidentally we are not too far from major cities like New York and Boston, so we can enjoy their amenities as we age.

In short, our retirement choices were built around the reality of global climate change to maximize our happiness and to reduce our costs and vulnerabilities due to climate change. We have chosen to be proactive about this obvious problem rather than stick our heads in the sand like Rick Scott is doing.

We will all be impacted by climate change, and I suspect the majority will be severely impacted eventually. I can and do advocate for changes to reduce the rate of global warming. Entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, who sees the future and plans to profit from it by offering batteries to power the home encourage me. In the new neighborhood we will call home when our house constructed is finished, about half the homes already have solar panels. I expect within a few years we will as well, with the eventual goal of going off-grid if we can. Massachusetts agrees as well, and offers generous credits for those interested in solar power and reducing energy usage. Don’t expect Rick Scott to do anything this intelligent for his citizens.

Human nature being what it is, most of us will live in ignorance or choose denial about global climate change until it is too late. By then it will be far more costly to do something about it than it is today. In the case of my sister in Florida, I’ve urged her to sell her house now. It’s not practical for her at the moment since she is not retired, but now she can get full price for her house. As the reality of global climate change settles in down there, it’s going to lower everyone’s home prices. Eventually these properties will be worthless and much of her net worth could be irretrievably lost.

I don’t want her to become roadkill on the global climate change superhighway. I don’t want you too either. It is time to get past the self-destructive denial on the issue, and plan your lives to minimize its impact. It’s coming at you and it will change everything but unfortunately it’s hard to see because it seems so abstract and nebulous. But it’s coming nonetheless.

Be prepared.

Death by religion

The Thinker by Rodin

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.

 

Why trickle down only trickles

The Thinker by Rodin

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.

Value reprogramming our children

The Thinker by Rodin

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.