Saturday, August 31, 2013

You Had Me at "Forgive Me": a thought for the High Holy Days

Last year at this point in the Jewish calendar, I posted an entry entitled "It Is Not Too Hard for Us" (  I think it is worth reposting as we approach the High Holy Days. Happy 5774!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: a review

What is serendipity?  Is it stumbling upon something by a happy accident, or shrewd observation and deduction, Sherlock Holmes style?  Does it involve looking for something and finding something else, or coincidence occurring without any effort on the part of the finder?  Does it pertain to finding books and documents, or discovering facts and ideas?  Can it be taught, encouraged, solicited, and if so, through individual effort or through organizational structure?  Is it talent or pure luck, or a combination of the two?

Robert K. Merton and Elinor Barber chased down the word "serendipity" from its first use by Horace Walpole in 1754 through its use in scientific papers in the 1950's, when this book was begun.  Their answer is "All of the above."  At different times, people have used the word in all these different ways.  Serendipity clearly answered a need for a way to talk about the ways that we find out things when our rational plans and orderly methods would never bring them to light.  Because we still don't understand exactly how that happens, we use the word variously to express our reactions to it: surprise, amusement, disdain, wonder.

I am with the authors in appreciating serendipity.  I believe in planning, but that includes planning to improvise at appropriate moments.  Be prepared to be spontaneous!

Being mentally and morally prepared to act in the moment is a trait of character that anyone can cultivate.  It takes a particular kind of organization (whether it's a business, a lab, or a nonprofit) to welcome serendipity and learn from it.  That's the kind of place I'd like to work, and that's the kind of environment I'd like funders to support.  Thomas Szasz once wrote of "the seriousness of a child at play."  As a society, we need to loosen the reins and give a little play to our endeavors.  Imagine what might happen then!

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Return of Alien vs. Predator, or, Why Liberals Lose When They Take on Corporate Power: Part II

On August 2, I wrote, "Modern liberals use state power to check and constrain the power of capitalism, which they see as posing the greatest threat to our ability to live free and flourish....

Does the strategy of posing state power against corporate power work? Only if we control the state AND state power is stronger than the power of capitalism. But neither of these is true."

If you want to re-read Edward S. Greenberg's arguments demonstrating that elections don't keep elected leaders faithful to the wishes of the people, go back to August 2. But I think the point that corporations often escape government control is obvious if you've been reading the headlines for the last decade. Enron. Halliburton. Qwest. Arthur Anderssen. Global Crossing. In Massachusetts, Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, which gave us leaky tunnels years after Bechtel gave us Iran-Contra criminals Caspar Weinberger and George Shultz. And these are just the ones that have gotten caught.

One of the biggest employers in America, Wal-Mart, has repeatedly been fined for paying workers less than minimum wage, making them work longer than legal hours, and allowing sexual harassment in the workplace but refusing to allow union organizing. They just pay the fines and keep on doing it. Some of the biggest financial institutions in the country knowingly lent money to people they knew could not afford to pay it back, then sold the loans to investors, creating the housing crash and the Great Recession.  And the conservatives complain we're an over-regulated society!

This all goes to the second reason the liberal strategy is just not enough to rein in corporate power. Government is frequently NOT stronger than corporations. Here are some of the reasons:

* Government officials rely on corporate money to run their election campaigns. It buys "access," which means the chance for the corporate leaders to explain what they want and, if the elected officials don't give it to them, to know the reason why.

* Government officials often ARE corporate leaders. They take a turn "serving their country" before going back to "making a profit"--but all too often the way they think and act in the two roles is exactly the same!

* If government creates rules or imposes taxes that corporate capitalists don't want to live with, they can do the big money equivalent of taking their ball and going home: namely, they can stop investing for a while and go on "capital strike." Alternatively, they can move their money to investments in other countries. Then, jobs will disappear, wages will decline, and "the economy" will be bad (in that phrase we use without thinking about it to describe what affects rich people--we never use "the economy" to mean the minimum wage, for example!). Without their overtly making it happen, corporations will exert power over government, using us as their tool. Politicians will come under public pressure to do something about "the economy"--with the public never realizing that it's "the economy" which is doing something nasty to them!

* For more than a hundred years, we have been taught that freedom = "free enterprise," meaning corporate power goes unchecked by democratic political power. Every law, regulation, and enforcement action is defined as a threat against freedom. It's ingrained in us to think government power used against Microsoft or McDonald's is power that could turn against you and me. So we give away our power in the name of a freedom that only other people enjoy.

And yet, and still...sometimes, in limited ways, government can force corporate business to act in the public interest. It's worth using the liberal approach, if not as a strategy, at least as one tactic, one tool, one finger in the dike to stop the flood from rising further. Moving people who haven't ever understood why you would WANT government regulation is a worthwhile endeavor, too.

It's simply not enough. It never will be enough. It doesn't change the underlying structure of power. Without that, we can count on seeing things get worse and worse. That's why I cheer and applaud my liberal friends, and at the same time, I encourage them to think deeper--more radically--about what it will take really to make things better.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Western Motel, by Wendy Drexler: a review


In bright detailed glimpses, Wendy Drexler shows us two landscapes: the Western landscape in which she grew up, and the terrain of her marriage, divorce, and falling in love again. 

My favorite section is the thread of poems entitled "Gas Stations, Drive-Ins, The Bright Motels."  My favorite single poem is "What Distance Brings." I know Wendy and her family personally, and other readers may close the book and think they do too.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Jewish Holiday Calendar 2013-2014

Here's a guide to scheduling around the Jewish holy days that I thought you might find useful.   I didn't write it, only edited it slightly and updated it each year, but I vouch for its accuracy.

Category I.     MOST JEWS PARTICIPATE.  Please do not schedule meetings around these dates.

ROSH HASHANAH (Jewish New Year) begins at sunset Wednesday, September 4, 2013 and continues through Friday, September 6.

YOM KIPPUR (Day of Repentance) begins at sunset on Friday, September 13 and continues through Saturday, September 14.  While Yom Kippur is a fasting day, meals are prepared in advance for the breaking of the fast at the end of 27 hours.

Typically, even some of the least religiously observant members of the Jewish community do not work on Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah.   Please keep in mind that even though the holy day may begin at sunset, these are home ritual centered holy days, so a great deal of advance preparation is required.  In other words, please don't schedule a meeting for the afternoon preceding Rosh Hashanah because I will be cooking!

PASSOVER (Celebration of Freedom from Slavery in Egypt) begins at sunset on Monday, April 14, 2014; continues through nightfall on Tuesday, April 22.   THE FIRST TWO DAYS (through Wednesday evening, April 16) require refraining from work.   LOTS of cooking and preparation before this holy day.

Category II.   Many observant Jews refrain from work.  I count myself as

SUKKOT (Festival of Booths, or Tabernacles) begins at sunset Wednesday, September 18, and lasts through Wednesday, September 25.  THE FIRST TWO DAYS traditionally require abstaining from work.

SHMINI ATZERET (Eighth Day Assembly, ending Sukkot) begins at sunset on Wednesday, September 25, and lasts through Thursday, September 26.

SIMCHAT TORAH (Rejoicing with the Torah) begins at sunset on Thursday, September 26, and lasts through Friday, September 27.

The LAST TWO DAYS of PASSOVER begin at sunset Sunday, April 20, 2014 and last through Tuesday, April 22.

SHAVUOT (Festival of Weeks, or Pentecost) begins at sunset on Tuesday, June 3, 2014; continues through Thursday, June 5.

Category III. Observance doesn't require refraining from work.

(Festival of Lights) begins at sunset on Wednesday, November 27 and continues through nightfall Thursday, December 5.  Every night, candles on the Hanukkiah (eight-armed candelabra, sometimes called "menorah") are lit.

PURIM - Begins at sunset on Saturday, March 15, 2014; continues through Sunday, March 16.

And a few other seasonal and historical holy days that I won't mention, because enough already!  If you want to know more about the meaning of these holidays, you might consult or the book Seasons of Our Joy, by Arthur Waskow.

Typically, if you ask a Jewish man if the afternoon preceding a holy day is an acceptable time to have a meeting, he will say yes, because what most Jewish men do is show up at the dining table, fork in hand.  For women, the two days preceding each holiday are incredibly intense because of the cleaning, preparation and food preparation that takes place.  We look forward to the day when these tasks will be more equitably distributed.

A final note which I thought worth adding from my own experience: Even if someone (who might even be Jewish) tells you "It's no big deal" to schedule meetings and conferences on these days, doesn't mean that that's true for all Jews.   People maintain different levels of observance, and a more secular Jew may work on a day when I would not.   When in doubt, please ask!   I can't speak for other Jewish consultants, staff, board members, and interns, but I know I always prefer to be asked.

Thank you!

Friday, August 2, 2013

Alien vs. Predator, or, Why Liberals Lose When They Take on Corporate Power: Part I

All right, it's the moment you've been waiting for. I've been explaining why "liberal" is not a badge of shame (as the O'Reillys and Limbaughs of the world would have it be) but the name of an honorable tradition of thought about freedom, justice, and the pursuit of happiness. So why don't I call myself a liberal? What more do I want?

Plenty! Let's remember what liberalism has always been about: liberty, the freedom to make a good life of one's own design. And let's recall the strategy that liberals have used since the late nineteenth century to ensure liberty. Modern liberals use state power to check and constrain the power of capitalism, which they see as posing the greatest threat to our ability to live free and flourish. 

Does the strategy of posing state power against corporate power work? Only if we control the state AND state power is stronger than the power of capitalism. But neither of these is true.

Do We Control the State?

The primary tool of democracy is elections. Leave aside all the questions about stolen or fraudulent elections that agitated so many of my friends in 2000 and 2004, and even the voter repression tactics the Republicans practiced in 2008 and 2012. When elections run right, are they a powerful enough tool so we, the people, can use them to get the government we want?

Edward S. Greenberg once asked "what parties and elections would have to look like if they were to truly be vehicles by which political decision makers were kept responsible and responsive to the American people" (The American Political System: A Radical Approach, 1989). I like his answers.

1. Candidates and parties should present clear policy choices to the American people, and these policy choices should concern important issues.

2. Once elected, officials should try to carry out promises made during the campaign.

3. Once elected, officials should be able to transform campaign promises into binding public policy.

4. Elections should strongly influence the behavior of those elites responsible for making public policy.

It's not clear that ANY of these four conditions are met in America.

1. Sure, the last presidential race presented us with clear choices on some crucial issues. Some of these choices were very narrow, however.  Should we keep on using drone strikes abroad and surveillance at home at the current, unprecedented level, or become even more aggressive?  Should we cripple the economic recovery through across-the-board federal budget cuts or by targeted cuts?  For most of us (and especially for the poor and the unemployed), these are not choices but threats.

Meanwhile, out of 535 Congressional elections, only a handful were seriously contested. Bottom line: if you wanted to change the way government works by finding enough candidates who agreed with you and electing them into office, you were out of luck.

2. Do candidates try to keep their campaign promises? The answer seems to be, "When they must." But LBJ ran promising "no wider war" in Vietnam and then sent tens of thousands more troops. Ford (an unelected president) pardoned Nixon after swearing not to. Reagan ran against "big government" and created the biggest budget deficits in history, before the current administration! George H.W. Bush famously promised "no new taxes," but bowed to reality and broke his promise. Clinton ran on "putting people first," but as Bob Woodward documented, he actually put the needs of bond markets first--he cut social programs that help the many and the vulnerable in order to shrink the budget deficit, pleasing the few and the rich.

George W. was the dangerous exception to the rule. If we hadn't stopped him from keeping his campaign promises, God help us!  Obama was very careful to raise hope without making very many promises.  He also has the built-in excuse that whatever he tries to do, the Republicans automatically oppose.

3. American government is set up to keep elected officials from making broad changes in policy. Most of the time, control of the three branches of government is split between the two major parties. When the national government is split, it's difficult to make dramatic changes on issues people know and care about.

When the Presidency, the Congress, and the Supreme Court are all dominated by people from one side of the political spectrum, they still have a tough time making changes. Each branch is protective of its own powers and jealous of giving too much to either of the others. They compete as much as they coordinate, despite party. Besides, as we have seen in the recent NSA scandal, the Republican Party includes moralists and libertarians (and some out-and-out fascists). The Democrats house technocrats, progressives, and socialists. Party affiliation doesn't make them concert their efforts around one platform. Most are too busy calculating what will ensure their own personal re-election!

Finally, if the federal government seems united, then state and local governments can oppose and at least delay the national agenda. Look at Massachusetts with gay marriage, California with medical marijuana and tough clean air standards, or southern states' opposition to civil right and anti-poverty legislation and programs. For better or worse, we live in a system of fragmented state power. And this is the tool we want to use to humanize an entire economic system based on self-interest?

4. Even if we had competitive elections with choices that reflect what people truly need--and politicians tried to keep the promises that got them elected--and government weren't set up to impede the progress of any dramatic changes--most of the choices that affect our daily lives are not made by government. Quoting Greenberg again, "Elections hardly affect decisions relating to the location of businesses, the growth of cities, the development of technology, the center of work, the shape of educational experience, or the distribution of wealth and income."

Beyond Wishful Thinking

It's still worth fighting elections to put candidates in office who can use state power for what it's worth. But it's not worth as much as we imagine. We are strangers in our own land, and when liberals think they can address the alienation of vast parts of the population through another law or another policy, they are engaged in the wishful thinking that has become another synonym for "liberal."