Monday, June 28, 2010

What I Believe

There is a lot of turmoil and angst in the American political scene today. Groups and Individuals are fractionalized along deep rooted lines of political, spiritual and cultural ideologies. This causes concern, stress and mistrust among and between people that must coexist in order to make our community work. Today, I commented to someone during a heated political debate that I was independent of any political party and they responded that “if you can’t take a stand, then you stand for nothing”. That comment bothered me, in that I do have deep and passionate beliefs in how things “should be”, but no political party or religion or social organization that I am aware of, has yet to cover enough common ground with my belief system, for me to identify or label myself as a member or affiliate.

While I think that the written ideas that Christ espoused are lovely, I have yet to meet a Christian that lives as Jesus supposedly did. While Confucius had many great insights into how society can function effectively, no government has yet been able to achieve anything similar to the Confusion model.

While our human failings to uphold these (and other) grand ideals does not in and of itself make me despise humanity, it does further explain why I choose not to affiliate with organized groups OR to label myself as Left or Right or Liberal or Conservative. I will leave the labeling up to you, after you read this article.

Categorization seems to be the way that political, spiritual and social “report cards” are graded these days, so I will enumerate and categorize my belief system in a topical fashion below. However, before I do, I wish to write about my general theory of life and humanity. This theory builds the framework for why I believe what I believe and offers some structure to hang the specific, topical ideas upon. This general theory of life and humanity MAY also provide some common ground for those who are quick to label me or my beliefs. It is my sincerest hope that by reading this general theory of life and humanity, that all readers will identify with at least some small part of what I say and then appreciate and respect my beliefs, even if on a categorical basis there are many disagreements.

General Theory of Life and Humanity

The purpose of all life is to sustain oneself as long as possible and to reproduce new, autonomous life in our own image, passing genetic and (for advanced life) cultural traits from one iteration to another.

While this seems like it could be a relatively benign process, problems arise when there are not locally available, infinite resources for all of the life that wishes to fulfill this mission. Competition occurs between species and within species to fulfill the purpose of life, at the lowest short term cost (energy, health, overall risk) when resources are not infinite and locally available. This competition creates stress between individuals and in the case of more advanced life forms, causes neurosis that lead to culture.

Now, I get that I may offend people when I say that culture or community or civilization or religion or art are responses to neurosis, but that is not a judgmental comment on my part. It just seems to me that our fears, insecurities and need for stability drive much of our individual and cultural activities. Even much of what I do each day is driven by the unseen hand of my own neurotic humanity. I am not a misanthropist, but I do not find humans to be anything close to ideal either. We tend to be short sighted, greedy consumers, which obviously influences how I define the purpose of life in the above paragraphs. I also believe that we lose touch with our place in the universe and instead of worrying about where we came from or why we exist, we should consider worrying a bit more about the wonderful balance that exists in our bodies and in our surroundings. I strongly feel that understanding our place and seeking this balance can help us become better individuals. I am not sure that seeking this balance would make us any better collectively, but I doubt that it would hurt to try.

Beyond just the nature of humanity, is the realm of the practical, day to day existence in our “modern” world. Life is difficult, scary and unpredictable. I believe that Genetics and Environment both play a HUGE role in how an individual will likely “end up”. I am not an apologist, nor do I believe in a caste system however, the fact is that kids of smart parents tend to be smarter on average, just like kids with tall parents, tend to be taller on average. Kids that are born in to poverty tend to remain in poverty and wealthy kids are more likely to achieve higher education levels and be wealthier themselves. This is true for individuals, nations, continents and subcultures within nations and continents. I wish to stress that this does mean that a single individual can not be born to poor dumb parents and end up smart and wealthy or vise versa. What it means is that on average, the time, place and genetic make up at birth matter more than most of us like to think about.

This brings me to another quirky bit of human nature that drives me mad. Most people (especially in our Western culture) love to point to exceptions. These, often highly educated folks, ignore the data, the statistics, the numbers and point to examples of “Johnny can do it, so anyone can do it”. They worry about terrorism, but not about driving while texting or not wearing seat belts. Death by car will cause far more deaths in the US this year than all of the terrorist acts, domestic and foreign will in all time. This is maddening to me, this flat out REJECTION and REFUSAL to acknowledge the data.

Which country have the most people incarcerated per capita?

Which “modern” nation has a lower quartile literacy rate, lower than Mexico or Vietnam?

Which nation spends the highest percentage of its GDP on health care?

Which country uses more energy per capita than any other?

Which country has the 3rd highest tax rate overall (of western countries), including real estate, income, state, local, federal and VAT and excise taxes combined?

Answer: the USA of course

Do you “believe in” global warming? Be it naturally caused or man-made or a natural cycle that has been influenced or sped up by man, the data shows that the globe is warming. There is no “belief” or faith required. The data exists.

God, Religion, Science and All of That Stuff

Those of you that know me know that I am a very curious person and that I love the natural sciences. This passion has been with me all of my life. I also do not believe that a love of science excludes an interest or involvement in the metaphysical. I believe that it would be not only arrogant, but simply inaccurate to say that in this modern world, we know enough about the universe to rule out a Creator or even out of body energy and things like that. We simply don’t and probably can’t ever know all that there is to know. Therefore I have no problem with religion, spirituality or anyone’s beliefs in that regard. I believe that there can not be ONE true God or religion, because that would mean that an awful lot of folks have it wrong and the implications for getting it wrong sound horrific. I also believe that if there is a God or Creator, they have other stuff to worry about than answering someone’s prayers for a better husband or a new car. This does not mean that prayer or meditation is not helpful. From the standpoint of clarity of thought, stress relief and focus, prayer and meditation come highly recommended. Since I also believe that purely due to the immense size of the Universe, it is quite likely that there are other highly evolved life forms and those may also have spirituality, so again the concept of one right approach seems very tribal. “My dad is better than your dad”… see fear and neurosis comments above. I do find it quite sad that humans will kill other humans in the name or for the sake of their religion. I am not just talking about a Muslim thing here, the first white Americans killed (both on purpose and inadvertently) the Native Americans in the name of “Manifest Destiny”. What a load of crap!

Democracy, Socialism, Communism, Exploitation and Corruption

Even Plato would admit that an all knowing, purely moral and very wealthy benevolent dictator is not a bad form of government. Just ask the people in Dubai.

I believe that governments are necessary for humans to function in large groups. It is sadly unfortunate that we have to abdicate our own self interest and influence to a central governing body, but there seems to be no easy way around this. I guess in the near future, if we outfitted everyone with an IPAD, we could have a true democracy where we vote on every spending bill and every resolution to go to war, but there would still need to be a “filtering” process for getting items on the collective agenda. It is popular to “rail against big government”. Well, given that fact that BP is dumping millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf each day and that the “housing crisis” was completely caused by unethical, stupid and in some cases immoral business persons, it would appear that some form of control makes sense. So how much is too much? Consider which of the following you would want a non-governmental agency to manage.

National Defense – do you want private companies to have access to nukes and stealth fighters?

Highways – do you want to pay as you go on EVERY roadway, bridge and tunnel that you use?

Sewage – do you want a poop fee? Should that be per flush or per pound of waste?

Criminal and Civil Courts – do you want to pay directly for this service? What if the other party pays a premium for “better” service?

Education – do you really think that you should have access to better facilities and teachers if you are wealthy? Is that what America means to you? How many of you reading this attended public schools?

Health care – how is health care THAT much different than these other services listed above? What is it that makes everyone think that “national health care” is bad? All of our NATO allies have national health care. (They also let gays serve openly in their military)

So, I don’t know that answer of how much is too much when it comes to government, however I do know that OUR government is not a democracy. How much real choice do we have in our elected officials? How is it that the cost of getting elected to the Senate is now over $5MILLION? Do you have 1, 2, 3 or 20 choices on each ballot for each position? Think for a second about how limited our choices here really are. There are only two major parties and less than 1% of our elected officials are “Independents”.

Now consider how much money is spent on these campaigns and how much influence cable TV has on public opinion and how much money is spent by lobbyists. These lobbyists spend $3.5 BILLION a year to “influence” legislation. How much have you personally spent this year on either getting your senator elected or “influencing” his votes on legislation? Do you still believe that we live in a democracy? I think that we live in a make believe world where the middle class is sold a fantasy. Let me explain further.

America has the HIGHEST income inequity as a percentage of income distribution per person of any “modern” country and this inequity has grown at the fastest rate of any country over the most recent 25 years. What this means is that more than half of the wealth in this country is owned by 3% of the people. Of the remaining 48% of the wealth, it is divided up by 87% of the middle class (those earning from $15,000 a year to $250,000 a year – which in itself is a dramatically uneven distribution), with about 10% having no measurable wealth or significant income.

If America was the idealistic country that some people think it is, wouldn’t EVERYONE have a standard of living as good as or better than the average European or Asian?

Now, let’s look at the world. America’s poorest have a relatively better standard of living than most of the “poor” countries, but is that really a high enough bar? In a perfect case scenario, wouldn’t the rest of the world enjoy some form of minimum living standard and there would still be plenty of wealth to go around for Americans – on average – to still have the highest standard of living?

THIS then is the rub. We all know that this task is impossible. Humans are too greedy, too fearful and too controlling of their own short term future to be THAT generous. Sure we will donate old items and give money at Christmas time, but we are not truly generous. True generosity would be to give until the next guy is on par with you. “But I work hard for my stuff” you say. I believe that we all work hard to survive, don’t we? Aren’t we in this struggle together? Can’t we show compassion, because we can see ourselves in the other person’s place?

Free Markets, Taxation, Greed and other mechanisms for Managing Behavior

People often confuse the theoretical with the practical. Economics is no different. While I completely understand and subscribe to the open market theory of economics, I also have 46 years of life and 30 years of business experience that tells me that people will take any advantage they can to gain the upper hand. Not everyone is evil, but everyone is looking for an edge. There is NO level playing field. With unequal access to education, information and resources (capital, technology, people), there is no open, free and fair market. Additionally, the concept of a “rational” market is ludicrous. How many people do you know that behave rationally ALL of the time? Lastly, the concept of “market voting” is a pipe dream. People can boycott for a period of time, but they need to eat and fuel their cars and sooner or later that dairy farmer or large oil company is going to get its share of the revenue, simply due to unequal access, opportunity and the fact that Melanie runs out of fuel in front of a BP and the next station is 5 miles away.

Not only are boycotts and such normally ineffective (they can help at certain times and we saw that in South Africa and hope to see it with BP), we don’t have any method for knowing what dirty dealings a person or company are involved in. So if you “vote” with your money, you are once again voting in a rigged election. These modern economic theories work well mathematically, but they break down in the daily world.

So, I believe that there are no free markets and that greed does overwhelm good intentions and hard work.

What about taxes? Well if William Henry Harrison’s words that “taxation without representation is tyranny” are true, then we live in a tyranny. We are being taxed by people that are not representing us. They are representing the lobbyist, political bosses and marketing/media interests, who in turn exploit us. YES the middle class is highly exploited in this. We are exploited by our sense of national pride, that keeps the machine oiled and functioning, by our fears so that we don’t ask the tough questions, by our delusions of grandeur that we can “be somebody”, while all along we use our talents and energy to transfer more and more wealth to the wealthier, while our future (see below) continues to be jeopardized, by ruining the planet.

I believe that taxes are necessary to transfer wealth to manage the government, but that these taxes should be small and limited, as should the government’s spending. Neither surpluses nor deficits should exist in any governmental budget. If a surplus occurs then the rebate should be proportional to the actual contribution. If a deficit occurs then the required payment should be similarly proportional. Just like a club membership, we should “true up” the finances at the end of each year. This concept COULD work if we had a slightly smaller and extremely more efficient governmental structure.

A Brief History of America

America was first discovered by nomadic peoples that came across a land bridge and on boats hop-scotching islands around 6,000 years ago. Those people migrated up and down the American continents until they separated, merged and separated again into what we later recognized as tribes and civilizations. About 900 years ago some Europeans wandered into the extreme North Eastern parts of America, but their migration never took hold. For one reason or another, they died off and/or moved back to Scandinavia, never to attempt another foothold, until years later. There are some tiny bits of evidence that these first Europeans interacted with some native peoples, but it is unclear how this interaction happened and what may have resulted. What we do know is that if any interactions did occur, they were mostly peaceful and without consequence. About 600 years ago, an Italian accidently discovered the Caribbean and all of its glories. Soon after, a flood of Europeans and eventually Asians and Africans began migrating here, some by their own accord and others as criminal, slaves or indentured servants. Within 200 years, these non-native peoples established themselves in just about every corner of the American Continents. This land was not very densely populated and it was full of precious metals, wood, farmland and various plants that had serious trade value across the globe. With money came greed, war and all sorts of nasty stuff. Prior to this governments sent armies to “stake their claim” to the most bountiful parts of the New World. These armies had little regard for the indigenous peoples or their culture. With technology and more advanced immune systems, these invaders literally overran and almost forced extinction upon the native people. As usual, the conquering parties had children with the natives, so some “mixing” occurred, but the products of these unions normally became European and the tribes and native cultures dwindled. There was a very large need for labor and this need was far greater than what could be supplied by those in Europe and Asia, through voluntary means. So slave labor seemed to be the answer, but the native peoples were “weak” (they were dying from European diseases that their immune systems were not able to cope with), so Africans (slaves) and destitute Asians (indentured servants/slaves) were forced to come here to do the hard labor. Every thing after that is pretty basic. Governments were established, corporations were established, wars were fought and eventually the 20th century came, with a relatively stable structure in place in the New World. After two world wars that were mostly fought with cheap materials from the New World, the US came out of it all as the major world power. As is the case with most #1’s, their time at the top of the heap is short lived, due to short sighted arrogance. It is debatable as to whether or not we are still #1, but what is not in question is the fact that we are declining in influence, stature and economic power. This is what I believe to be true about America. It is not a story of amazing feats of patriotism and intellectual awaking regarding freedom. It is a story of conquest, exploitation (of people and other natural resources) and profiting from wars in other lands. A story as old as the first empire, which has been repeated over and over during the course of human history. We are not special. To those that say that this sounds like I “hate” America, I say that you are being dogmatic. I love America. I love the freedom and the bountiful wealth that I have been born to and raised in and currently live in. Being born here, white, male and in the 20th century is like winning the human species lottery. How can I not love it? I believe that my life is easy by comparison to the lives of most people on this planet.

The US Constitution, Bill of Rights and what it means to me

All governments need a structure upon which to function. Our constitution was an attempt to establish a structure that was as fair and equitable as possible for a loose confederacy of states. As insightful as the founders were, things have changed quite a bit in 223 years. So this brings me to what I like and dislike about our constitution. First of all the preamble is a very interesting prose when taken in both a historical and literal context. My favorite part is “… in order to form a more perfect union…”. That clearly shows that the writers did not believe that we were forming a perfect union of these widely varied “states”, but that we were attempting to form a “more” perfect union. In other words - just trying to do our best. I love that idea, it strongly appeals to the pragmatist and realist in me. That phrase alone should be enough to convince people that like the bible or any other written word, strict literal interpretation, may cause problems.

In addition to not having much praise for those that wish to literally interpret the constitution, I am not very fond of those that wish to make constitutional amendments for things that are clearly legislative initiatives. Even the amendments about voting age and such, could be done by the legislative branch. The constitution is for framing and structure, for the fundamental rights and the basic rules, not for dictating the will of the people at a given moment in time. There is, however, one amendment that I would add and I would add it to the bill of rights. The framers had no idea that our medical technology and wealth would ever place us in this position, so I certainly don’t blame them for the oversight. They even hint at such a thought in the preamble when they say, “…promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty ...” I would propose an addition to the bill of rights that establishes that “equitable access to healthcare is a fundamental right of all citizens”. I believe that the framers would love this addition.

Abortion, Capital Punishment and Euthanasia

My favorite paradox is the person who claims to be “Right to Life” or more accurately anti-abortion, but believes in Capital Punishment. Call me anal retentive, but I like my beliefs to be internally consistent. I also don’t understand the fervor over euthanasia.

I believe that life IS precious and that abortion is not a wonderful, nice or even good thing. However, I believe that a fetus is neither a person, nor a citizen and that the rights of the mother over ride the rights of the fetus. I also believe that some children are born into situations whereby they suffer to the extent that living is not always better than enduring. Since we don’t know when life begins and living is hard I have to allow that some mothers would choose abortion. Since the procedure is risky and will be done anyway if made illegal, the option to do it legally must remain available.

I believe that managed, controlled euthanasia is a good option to afford people. A possible end to suffering, a way to deal with pain, high costs of extending life and the suffering, not only of the sick or impaired, but the suffering of that person’s loved ones. I believe that allowing individuals to make decisions to manage their suffering and end of life is a good thing.

The data shows that capital punishment is not a deterrent to crime. The data shows that innocent people have been put to death for crimes that they did not commit. Pure and simple, for these reasons, I believe that capital punishment is unacceptable.

Immigration, Education, Gay Rights and Healthcare

While this list looks like a hodgepodge of ideas, to me they are all interrelated. Basically, I believe that Immigration, Education, Gay Rights and Healthcare all fall under the fundamental rights of ALL human beings.

This country has been and continues to be built on the influx and work of immigrants and their descendents. While I do believe that “illegal immigrants” should be deported, the process of immigration is not set up to be simple, easy to understand or very cost effective. I believe that immigration (temporary) should be as simple as getting an ID/driver’s license. Add a quick Interpol background check and finger prints and the person is registered. After a 1 year wait and passing the citizenship test, they become citizens for a nominal fee, like $100 or 2% of their annual income, capped at $2,500. I believe anyone that is not a hardened felon or militant has the right to be an American.

Gay Rights – all citizens must be guaranteed full and equal rights, equal protections and equal access regardless of religion, disability, mental status, race, age, gender, sexual orientation or any other biological or sociological factors. Our NATO allies have allowed gays and lesbians to serve in their military for years and frankly, by default, so have we and there are NO indications of generalized issues (sexual, harassment) existing at levels beyond individual cases and at rates of occurrence much lower than in the non-military population. I believe that Americans need to grow up, regarding this issue.

I believe that the right to healthcare is a fundamental human right. I believe that through creativity and involvement we can find ways to pay for healthcare. I believe that our defense budget has plenty of slop in it that can go toward this plan. I believe that insurance companies, doctors, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and lawyers can poach a little less and make this effort work, under National Standards, operated by local, professional and government cooperatives. I believe that we can take the best practices from our NATO allies and develop an even better system. I believe that we can do so in a cost effective manner. I believe that we will generate healthier lifestyles AND more tax income (which mean lower cost and higher revenues), by implementing the education changes noted below.

I believe that public education is critical to the nation’s security, independence and future. National education standards should be straight forward and audited against routinely. Real estate and income taxes (corporate and private) should be allocated EVENLY among all school districts, based on population. Public Universities should allow any resident and citizen that meets minimum entrance requirements to attend FREE of charge – paid by our taxes. People underestimate the VALUE to our society as a whole of having a highly educated people in all corners and parts of our society and economy. Being dependent on foreign nationals for technology is not a good thing. A participatory government can not survive without a well informed and intelligent populace. Effective and Appropriate Education should be a right for all Americans. It costs more to incarcerate a person in prison for one year than it does to send them to a public University for 4 years. I believe that all children want to be educated.

International Interests, Mexico, Israel, Asia, Africa, South America and War

War is never a good thing and wars are to be fought defensively and only when a REAL threat to our people, culture or the world in general exists. Not a limited threat, not a perceived threat, not a single attack or harassment. Does this mean that I feel there should have been no response to the 911 attacks? No. I believe that our response should have been measured and well thought out. I believe that our response shouldn’t have put one more American or any innocent people in harm’s way than absolutely necessary. I believe that for a lot less cost (money, resources, pain and life) we could have imagined and implemented a plan to find the core of Al Qaeda and damaged them significantly. I believe that we could have hurt or even toppled the Taliban in punishment for allowing Al Qaeda to operate openly in Afghanistan, without excessive cost.

I believe that it is absolutely immoral to tolerate a corrupt, poor and desperate neighbor on our Southern border. I believe that the family oriented, hard working people of Mexico deserve MUCH more help and support from us. I believe that this help and support can come in the form of consultation, advice, money, education and trade agreements that promote a growth in technology and wages for BOTH countries.

I believe that we should do more in Africa to support racial tolerance among tribes, countries and factions. I am not sure what to do, but maybe if we solicit the help and opinions of Mr. Tutu and Mr. Mandela they could work to bring together a multicultural group of African leaders, clerics and others to make REAL change a reality. It won’t cost us much, maybe a few hundred million dollars to stop the spread of major diseases and clean up the water supply. How can we debate the role of pharmaceutical companies and the cost of care in the USA, but tolerate the fact that cholera and similar diseases have been eradicated here for a century, while we refuse to GIVE this relief to Africa? Are we really that selfish and uncaring?

I believe we should be very open and friendly with ALL nations in South America, whether or not they happen to have a “Socialist” or “Communist” government. Do Americans hate their next door neighbor who is of a different race or religion? That is not how America is supposed to be. I believe we should normalize relations with Cuba for those same reasons and also because they have great cigars and lovely beaches, that I would like to have the opportunity to enjoy.

I believe that our Israeli policy is too one sided and is rooted NOT in our best interest, but rather in our deep fundamental Christian beliefs and in our irrational political fears of a backlash from Jewish Americans. The Palestinians were there first. How would you feel is someone came and took your house and property and moved you to a slum? We should demand Palestinian sovereignty and firm set boarders for Israel to abide by and for reparations to be paid by Israel to all displaced persons. There should also be civil rights granted to all Arabs inside Israel and to Israelis inside Arab nations. I believe that we could accomplish this with lots of help and creativity from the local and international communities that share our cultural interest in the Middle East.

The Future a.k.a Energy (including food), Economic Stability and the Environment

Our future or more precisely the length of our future depends on decisions that have already been made and those that will be made within the next decade. While I believe that some way or another, the human species will adapt to survive most any outcomes, there are some outcomes that may overwhelm us or if not force us to extinction, could certainly reduce our numbers dramatically.

It is clear that since the most recent explosion of the human population, roughly 500 years ago, the consumption of wood, water, fossil fuels and other resources has outstripped the earth’s ability to replenish itself. As a species, we have become like locusts, rats or cockroaches. Constantly consuming and moving on, never considering how long it will be until we consume ourselves into extinction.

I believe that the way we use the earth must be reviewed, discussed and debated. I believe that REAL science must be done to clearly understand our situation. When I say real science, I mean science free of special interests and opinions, free of fear and political agenda. If we can no all agree that the future of our species deserves no less than complete focus and candor, then we SHOULD become extinct! I then believe that collectively we must change our behavior regarding how we use the world.

I believe that a comprehensive energy and environmental policy, includes how we grow, process and use food. I believe that incentives and disincentives MUST be used to manage behavior. I believe that this behavior management must extend to all peoples in all nations. I believe that a $5 per gallon excise tax on foreign oil products and a $1 per gallon excise tax for domestic oil products would be an incentive to walk more and use publish transportation more. I believe that it would also help us reduce our concerns about what happens in the Middle East and Asia. I believe it would fund a lot of wind, solar and nuclear research. I believe that we should outlaw the production and importation of the internal combustion engine by the year 2015 and outlaw its use by 2020. I believe that all commercial aircraft should be required to reduce their fuel usage per passenger by 50% within that same timeframe or lose their license to operate at US airports. I believe that research into CO2 absorbing algae and other plants and animals should be given government incentives HOWEVER any introduction of these species into the ecosystem at large should be closely monitored and tested, so that no unintended consequences occur. I believe that there should be an excise tax/disincentive on high fat foods and sugar laden beverages. I don’t believe in outlawing them, just making their use, less and less attractive. I believe that we must not promote the current beef, pork and chicken farming methods, but give incentives to fish farming and other more eco-friendly and healthy food sources.

I passionately believe that a Comprehensive Energy Policy synergistically feeds back into Excellent National Security, Quality Healthcare and Much Lower Taxes. I further believe that Broad Civil Rights and Quality Education fuel this synergy among the top issues of the day!!

Sadly, I believe that human beings are not programmed to embrace or implement these types of ideas and our species will suffer dearly for our lack of respect and cooperation with each other and our planet.