On Being Wrong – The Essence of Democracy

I ran across this statement a few months ago in a Jesse Stone novel by Robert Parker:
“Often wrong, but never uncertain.”

I talk a lot in public – as a speaker, as a teacher, as an advocate. I often ask these questions:

  • Have you ever been wrong?
  • Will you be wrong again?
  • Is this one of those times?

I ask myself these same questions. We all know the answers.

As a population, and as a nation, we have become so certain that we know what is “right” that we have forgotten a basic principle: the essence of democracy is the right to be wrong.

It is this key understanding that allows us all to benefit from each others’ ideas, each others’ creativity, each others’ willingness to think (and to try) the unknown.

It is the basis of modern western science. It is the foundation of free market capitalism. It underlies art and fosters creativity.

And, coupled with the principle that you are responsible for the results of your actions, it is the core of freedom.

And yet, in the name of freedom and democracy we have become ever more intolerant of those who are “wrong.” Without a boring reiteration of the statistics (you can find them easily with a search of the Internet), the United States has become one of the principle suppressors of those who are “wrong” both domestically and abroad.

We have a larger percentage of our population incarcerated than almost any other country in the world. We have betrayed our basic Constitutional rights and principles by giving corporations the rights of persons without the responsibilities of persons, thereby ending any question of equal treatment under the law. We have removed the right to trial by a jury of our peers, the right to a speedy trial, the right to face our accusers, or even the right to a trial at all.

We have invaded foreign countries, and overthrown or assassinated their leaders, simply because we decided that we did not like their governments. We have killed uncounted numbers of innocent civilians, both at home and abroad, in the name of freedom and democracy.

Are we so certain, so secure in our righteousness, that we can ignore the voices asking, “Are we wrong in this?”

Often wrong, but never uncertain?

What do you think?

We are of the Earth

It is said that the fact that each of us is not now dirt is merely a matter of timing.

It is also said that we replace every cell in our bodies at least every three and a half years. We build those cells from what we breathe, what we drink, and what we eat – the air, water and soil of the Earth.

And the same is true of all animals and plants.

We, all living things, build ourselves from the substance of the others, in an endless cycle of sharing and interdependence essential to our very existences.

From the breeze that whispers, to the storm winds that blow, we are of the Earth.

From the rain that falls and moistens the soil, to the streams that flow to the sea, to the mist that rises in the cool of the day, we are of the Earth.

From the microbiology of the soil, to the plants of land and sea, to the animals that feed on the plants, to the animals that feed on other animals, we are of the Earth.

And we are blessed in all that.

What Are We To Do?

Political strategists agree that there are essentially three groups of people that determine who wins office. These groups are the right, the center and the left. (This “right, center, left” fragmentation is all relative. You can make a very good argument that there is no left, and hardly any center in politics in the United States, just degrees of the right.)

The following are some thoughts on moving the country toward the (relative) left, and recovering democratic values.

From the above view comes the political strategy that for a candidate to win election they need either the right and a majority of the center, or the left and a majority of the center, but you cannot win with only the support of the right or the left, as they are not in themselves big enough blocs to carry the vote.

Assuming support from the extreme and courting the middle has been the predominant strategy of both major political parties for some decades (Thanks, Ronnie!) As the Republicans moved farther and farther to the right, the Democratic party did the same, based on the ideas that the left had nowhere else to go, so would continue to vote Democratic, and more of the middle would vote Democratic as the party’s platform moved right.

It has worked, more or less, off and on, for the Democratic Party. It has been a disaster for the citizenry, for the economy, and for democracy.

What is rarely talked about is the following: Of the people eligible to vote, fewer than half register to vote. Of the people registered to vote, fewer than half vote regularly, and a large number of those who do vote, only vote for some offices. Since the majority of political offices are won by a small majority, this means that about an eigth of those eligible to vote regularly determine who will make policy and law.

It is said that there are many reasons that people who do not register, or who register to vote but do not, fail to cast ballots: apathy, too busy, confused, etc. I contend that the majority of those who do not vote fail to do so because they feel it will make no difference. They feel that the candidates are too similar to each other, and too dissimilar to “regular people”. Or they feel that the choice is “between two evils” and when you chose the lesser of the evils you still have an evil. Or they feel that “the government” is too entrenched in the way things are, and will not change. Or they feel that corporations buy off whoever is elected, and so it does not matter. Or some combination of these reasons and more. The net result is the feeling, “Why bother to vote? It won’t make any difference.”

And experience shows them they are right. I believe that the legacy of Obama’s election, and his subsequent failure to make substantive change, will be deeper apathy toward democracy. And it is justified. However, I find this apathy unacceptable.

Obama’s astounding success was, I believe, because he gave people hope for real change – that he was a person who knew what daily life was like for most people and wanted to make the changes in government and the country most people believed needed to be changed. That is exactly what he said during the campaigns, and what he promised when he took office. He has failed on almost every promise.

He has accomplished a number of generally minor things, it is true. But look at his successes and failures: the best thing you can say about him is that he is not as bad as the Republicans, and if they had won, things would be worse. I agree, but this is the thinking that has taken us farther and farther down the path of less democracy, less prosperity, less security, less independence, less of virtually everything that makes democracy democracy and life worth living.

So, what do we do in this bleak situation? That is the point, after all: what do we do?

The two major parties were once challenged by third parties, but they have enacted laws and regulations that make it nearly impossible for a third party to win any significant number of elections. The solution, I believe, is to rebuild democracy from the ground up, from within the Democratic Party.

I believe that the way to win elections, which is what political parties are all about, and to move the country left, back to democracy, is to energize those who have not been interested in registering and voting. It worked for Obama, although he did it primarily by lying. Let’s do it for real, and let’s start locally. In every city, in every county, at the state level, and nationally, let’s get real progressives elected – by setting a real platform of real change, and holding our candidates to it – no excuses. If they vote against the platform, they lose the support of the party. If they do not actively advocate the platform, they lose the support of the party. Then we find another candidate who will advocate and support the platform

Our platform would be along these lines:

Let’s demand single-payer health care, not insurance; let’s return to the Constitution – no wars without specific congressional approval and a specific, formal declaration of war by the Congress; let’s end military spending for prosecution of war without specific congressional approval; let’s require full accountability by the military – no more “missing” money in the defense department; let’s demand withdrawal of all combat troops in foreign countries and limit military spending to the average percent of the GNP (or similar measure) that other countries spend; let’s retrain returning troops for the jobs needed to build and install renewable energy systems throughout the entire country in order to end our dependence on oil and coal (foreign or domestic), and then employ them to do it; let’s re-institute import tariffs to support domestic production; let’s index the cost of living for Social Security and similarly indexed programs to the real costs faced by seniors and indices appropriate to the other programs; let’s reform the tax code to simplify it and create equity between individuals and companies; let’s eliminate for-profit corporations by converting them to partnerships, and let’s eliminate the liability shield; let’s make it clear that only human beings have constitutional rights, not created legal entities like corporations; let’s prohibit all but registered voters from making political contributions, and make those contribution records public; let’s make sure that all who wish to register to vote, and who are eligible, can easily register; let’s make sure that all registered voters can easily vote and have their votes accurately counted.

Enough wishy-washy crap. Let’s make real change.

A Farmer’s Thoughts on Race

I have been growing at least some of my own food since I was a child. For some years my wife and I owned and operated a local organic farm, directly feeding up to 75 families from our labors.

In my half century of raising plants and animals I have learned a lot. One of the most important things I have learned is the value of diversity.

We face challenge all the time. In agriculture it comes in the form of changing weather, onslaught of pests (critters and diseases), fickle markets, bizarre government regulations, and on and on.

Diversity is the best response: a multitude of different crops, different growing schedules, crop rotations, multiple types of markets, responding thoughtfully, and keeping under the radar, generally.

So, from life experience, my inclination is to value diversity as a very good thing. It is diversity that increases the number of responses to challenge, and maximizes the chance that we will be able to respond in a positive way.

Our shorthand for this is “Diversity is not an option – it is essential.”

In my experience it is just as true of groups of people as it is for farms.

There is a lot of emotional energy involved in discussions of “race.” It tends to cloud thinking, obstruct communication, and generally lead to bad outcomes. I would like to suggest an idea that came to me as I was thinking about the concept of race as it applies to human beings.

In agriculture there are the terms “species”, “race” and “variety”. While it is somewhat more complicated than this, here is the difference: if two bisexual organisms can produce fertile offspring, they are in the same species. If they cannot, they are in different species.

Race is used when a number of similar but distinct plants are found mixed together which appear to be members of the same species, but with a lot of variation. Until further study determines more details, they are called a “race” or a “land race” as a convenient away to say, “Here are a bunch of examples of what appear to be members of a single species that we don’t know much about.”

Variety is the term we use to describe the array of natural variation in appearance or other characteristics we find in any genetically diverse group of individual members of one species. For example, we grow many different tomato varieties, each selected for a particular set of characteristics of size, shape, flavor, meatiness, keeping ability, etc.

The way we commonly express this natural, desirable variation is the “binomial nomenclature” we use to describe plants and animals: Genus, species, and then, if applicable, variety. For example, a Ropreco tomato would be Lycopersicon esculentum var. Ropreco. Race does not appear in the mix, because race is not a defining factor.

I suggest that the various subsets of Homo sapiens that we currently refer to as “races” be referred to as varieties. Perhaps that would allow us to dial down the emotion and begin to recognize and celebrate the diversity in our species that makes us so resilient, so creative, and so fundamentally better than our societies would seem to demonstrate.

What do you think?

Peace Officers or Killers?

I want to clearly state that I understand the police have a very tough job. Let me also clearly state that most police, most of the time, do that job without significant problems, and without too much hassle on anybody’s part. In the process, they help keep order and provide actual security for most of us, most of the time.

But, at an increasingly frightening frequency, some Portland police officers have gone beyond simply carrying guns to killing people with them.

It is these officers who are destroying the police department and civil life in Portland.

Too strong a statement?

Think about this: each individual officer competed for the job. Each officer went through a battery of physical and psychological tests to get hired. After being hired, each officer received the training the Police Department determined is necessary to do the job. One might reasonably conclude that each officer is a professional, with training and experience sufficient to do the job.

Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that any action by a police officer that is unacceptable would be cause for discipline or termination, depending on the severity of the seriousness of the action.

And yet, people are being killed by police officers. Unarmed people. Citizens who are already in custody. Folks who have simply been stopped by officers without being suspected of breaking the law. And the officers involved face no serious discipline. The “justification” is often that the officer was “in fear for his life”. The problem with that is of course that it is an extremely subjective evaluation, and absent any meaningful review, is tacit permission to kill people who have done no wrong.

The citizens of Portland have tried, for at least 30 years that I know of, to get some kind of effective citizen review of police activity. It has not happened.

And citizens continue to die at the hands of Portland police.

Increasingly, the police are seen as the enemy. Unfortunately, if this trend is not addressed effectively, at some point the relationship between police and citizenry will go beyond a feeling of fear to one of occupation.

Perhaps it is time that the Portland Police were really held responsible for their actions.

And corporations too, while we’re at it.

What do you think?

The Party of Death

In my youth, when I was first paying attention to politics, it was simple: there were the “print and spend” conservatives (represented by the Republican Party), and the “tax and spend liberals” (represented by the Democratic Party).

Conservatives were in favor of rugged individualism, pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, and the constitution – particularly the right to own guns. Conservatives were against big government, government deficits, the intrusion of government into the private lives of citizens, foreign adventurism, international obligations such as the United Nations, and crime in general.

All easily, coherently, reasonably defensible positions.

Over the years, the conservatives (or at least the Republican Party) got more and more conservative, until they are now full-goose bozo. They are now rabidly in favor of the extremely wealthy in opposition to everyone else, increasing the concentration of wealth into fewer and fewer hands (primarily those of corporations in contrast to people), the elimination of Constitutional rights for US citizens in the name of security, foreign adventurism on a scale previously undreamed of in human history, paid for by cutting programs supporting working people and with loans from foreign governments, international treaties that undermine the sovereignty of the nation, and the divine right to own any weapons you can get your hands on.

Harder positions to support, for most people.

On a national level, the legislators from the Republican Party have adopted a strategy of blocking any and all measures to provide support for the working people of the United States. They vote no for any program of social uplift, and no to holding multi-national corporations responsible for their actions. In fact, they vote no for almost everything.

That is not actually correct. What the Republican legislators do, in a block and almost without exception, is prevent any vote on measures which would provide any relief or benefit to the vast majority of the people living in the United States, refusing to feed or shelter or provide access to basic health care because “we can’t afford it”, inevitably leading to the unnecessary deaths of thousands of us every year.

They have been called “The Party of No.”

That is also not actually correct. They vote yes on a number of things, and the pattern is clear.

They vote yes on war, borrowing money to send troops halfway around the world to kill people, including innocent civilians, and to destroy hospitals, water systems, sewage treatment plants, electric generation facilities, roads, and everything else that makes civil life possible (“collateral damage”). They vote yes on increasing militarization of domestic law enforcement agencies. They vote yes on increased intrusion and surveillance by the government into the private lives of residents of the United States – including those who are not accused of any crime. They vote yes on arresting and detaining residents of the United States without due process of law.

At the same time, Republican legislators block any participation in international courts of law (except to assert rights of corporations), the investigation of high-ranking Republican officials (although Democratic officials are fair game), and any attempt at holding those guilty of leading the United States into policies and practices that are in direct violation of international law and treaty.

In short, the Republican Party is not “The Party of No.” It is “The Party of Death.”

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party (increasingly less representative of “liberals”) has adopted a political strategy of “so long as the Republicans are moving to the right, we’ll keep moving to the right, staying just to the left of the Republicans. We’ll get all the votes we have been (after all, who else will they be able to vote for?), plus we’ll pick up more and more conservatives who think the Republicans are too conservative.” The underlying slogan being, “Vote for us, we’re not as bad as the other guy!”

Also hard positions to support, for most people.

So, a growing percentage of people who are eligible to vote don’t even register, and many who do register, don’t vote.

And all in all, it has worked fairly well. For the politicians

For most Americans, it has sucked.

But now we are at that terminal stage, where we have a party of the extreme right, and a party of the right, a few folks in the historical middle, (with no national party, and labeled by both the Republican and Democratic Parties as “leftists and radicals”) and no actual left.

And corporations now, more than ever, control political speech in America, since the US Supreme Court has given them unfettered access to political campaigns (and therefore, legislators), and courts have even made it clear that news organizations can knowingly lie.

Isn’t it time to vote for those few remaining candidates who remember what a democracy ought to be like? (That would be the “progressives” and “the radical left.”)

After all, they’re not as bad as the other guys, are they?

Or, you might even run for office yourself, if you are willing to stand up against corporate politics, thereby demonstrating there are still vertebrates among us.

What do you think?

Government Regulation

Let’s look at government regulation as it relates to people’s actions.

The Reasoning Presented: individual people have a tendency to act in their own interests, often to the detriment of others. If left unchecked, at least some people will prey on others – the young, the small, the weak, the elderly, the ill, the poor. This is a bad thing, and should be prevented, or if it cannot be prevented, at least punished.

Therefore, we must, as a society, through our elected and appointed representatives – our government – regulate the actions of people, in order to allow the majority of people to live their lives with some amount of peace and security.

Regulation of people, through laws and regulation, enforced by police and courts, is necessary to civil life.

Let’s look at government regulation as it relates to business’ actions.

The Reasoning Presented: individual businesses have a tendency to act in their own interests, often to the detriment of others. If left unchecked, at least some businesses will prey on others – people and businesses. This is a bad thing, and should be prevented, or if it cannot be prevented, at least punished.

Therefore, we must, as a society, through our elected and appointed representatives – our government – regulate the actions of businesses, in order to allow the majority of people to live their lives with some amount of peace and security.

Regulation of businesses, through laws and regulation, enforced by police and courts, is necessary to civil life.

Let’s look at the conservatives’ story of government regulation as it relates to business’ actions.

The Reasoning Presented: Businesses are different than people. Businesses thrive only when they serve their customers. It would be self-defeating for a business to act in a way that did not serve its customers. Regulation of business raises costs unnecessarily, increasing prices and hurting people. Regulating business only hurts the interests of the public.

Therefore, we must, as a society, through our elected and appointed representatives – our government – allow businesses to operate freely and without restrictions. This free market will regulate business actions, providing the best of products and services to the public, and the most responsible business “citizens” which will help the majority of people to live their lives in peace and security.

Regulation of businesses, through laws and regulation, enforced by police and the courts, is detrimental to civil life

Given the actions of business, as experienced in the United States’ reduced regulatory status during the last decade, this argument is a little silly, isn’t it?

What do you think?

Lessons in Perspective

You know how there are some crystal clear moments from your past that don’t seem to be particularly important, but nevertheless they come to mind at odd times and seemingly from nowhere?

I remember hearing that at some point in our lives each of us will breathe an atom of oxygen that was breathed by Leonardo da Vinci. It wasn’t that da Vinci breathed more oxygen than others, it was that there is a finite number of molecules of oxygen, we breathe in so many during our lifetimes, and air movements over time (as well as the life cycles of oxygen) that the odds are we have breathed at least one molecule of oxygen that was breathed by almost everyone before us.

Whoa! Pretty amazing. To think that each if us has shared atoms with virtually everone who has lived before us. And with the plants, too, because of course they are part of the cycles of life and death.

A simplification, of course, but later in my life it led me to think about the implications of finite amounts, and of limits, and it led me to a perspective I was never taught in school.

There are limits to the Earth’s resources. It does not take a great mind to understand that. And yet we act as if there were no limits.

We pollute the air. We poison the land. We contaminate the water. We destroy the forests. We have developed a species that lusts for more, more, more.

We have lost our understanding of enough.

A very smart sales manager once told me that in the course of my work in estate planning I would meet two kinds of people: those who worked for a living, and those who already had all the money they would ever spend. Most of us are in the first group. For the second group, money is not about paying the bills, or even about being extravagant – it is about power and control.

As I have written many times before in this space, money is not wealth. It is a tool to manipulate wealth. Wealth is access to clean air, pure water, and nutritious food. Wealth is having adequate clothing, safe shelter, reasonable health, satisfying companionship and meaningful occupation.

So long as money aids in the transfer of wealth between those who have access to wealth or who produce wealth, money is an effective tool, and worthwhile.

But when those who make bread no longer accept money for the bread, money becomes valueless in relationship to bread. Money only works as a tool to manipulate wealth when money can be traded for wealth.

And yet we live in a culture that worships money, and the possession of money.

And it is killing us.

Polluted air is killing us. Poisoned land is killing us. Contaminated water is killing us. Deforestation is killing us. Our lust for more, more, more is killing us.

The United States has the most overfed and undernourished population in the world, with the most expensive health care and the worst health of any “developed” nation.

We are a dying culture, and we are rushing into our death with open arms and cries of “More! More!” on our lips. Our vaunted knowledge and technology cannot “save” us. They not only do not offer us solutions, in pursuit of ever more stuff they are the core of the problem.

Isn’t it time to re-learn the lessons of history, and live within our means? Isn’t it time to learn to live in balance with the rest of the Earth: the air, the water, the land, the flora and fauna?

Isn’t it time we regained our perspective? Isn’t it time to look at the reality of our self-destruction and say, “Enough!”

What do you think?

A Jobless Recovery

Our economy is in tatters, in the United States in general, and in Oregon specificlly.

What is an economy? The word economy comes from the Greek oikos – house, and nemein – to manage. At its most basic, economy means managing the house. “Keeping your house in order”, if you will – making sure that the needs and obligations of you and your household are met: clean air, pure water, nutritious food, adequate clothing, reasonable health, safe shelter, rewarding companionship and meaningful occupation.

These are true wealth – not money. Money is only worthwhile to the extent that it can provide true wealth – a handy tool to make barter easier, but not wealth in and of itself.

But except for some aspects of food costs, home sales and unemployment numbers, “economic reports” rarely deal with these matters. Economic reports focus on “the financial markets” i.e. investments in stocks, bonds, derivatives, etc., import and export numbers, and foreign affairs to the extent that they impact investors.

Economists focus on investments, not people: on earning money without producing anything, without actually producing wealth. In fact, protecting or producing real wealth, in particular clean air, pure water, nutritious food, and reasonable health, are considered drags on the economy.

Rewarding companionship and meaningful occupation aren’t even on the radar.

Even a casual observer can see that “The Economy” as we measure it, discuss it, theorize about and manage it, has little relationship to most people’s households.

Hence, it is possible to have “a jobless recovery.” We have an economic “recovery” despite about a fifth of the population’s inability to earn a living. We have an economic “recovery” where we do not produce goods, but must continue to consume them, and our ability to do even that is shrinking.

Our economic gurus declare an economic recovery based not on how well we “keep our house in order”, but on how securities prices reflect the wealthy’s ability to run up the prices of investment instruments. The reality of most people’s lives is just clutter to the experts, and so it is left out of the equation.

These same experts are the ones who say we are experiencing a “jobless recovery.” An economic recovery without jobs is a concept only those so wealthy they do not produce any wealth could even imagine. This explains why the only people who think things are fine are the very wealthy, for whom things actually are fine, for the moment, because the citizenry has been stuck with the bill for the wealthy’s failed gamble on the imaginary.

How’s that jobless recovery working for you?

What do you think?

“Corporations are Selfish, Greedy Bastards”

A month or two ago I had a conversation with Susan W, Clark concerning the implications of the recent Supreme Court decision on corporate political speech. We were watching PBS Newshour at the time.

The two commentators (Mark Shields and David Brooks) were in disagreement about whether corporations would use their now legally clear ability to spend all the money they wanted to influence elections and legislative issues.

David Brooks said that corporations are interested in the welfare of people generally because, after all, they wanted to sell to them. Mark Shields mentioned that he did not see corporations pushing for the Equal Rights Act, or supporting the Voting Rights Act.

Sue’s response was, “Of course not. Corporations are selfish, greedy bastards!”

While her remarks can be taken as somewhat cynical, and may well be offensive to those who disagree, there is unquestionably some truth in her statement.

After all, law and precedent have repeatedly clarified that the primary responsibility of corporations in the United States is to maximize return on investment for their stockholders. This imperative is so overwhelming that it actually overrides the corporations’ responsibility to obey the law.

History holds many examples of corporations selling defective products that injure or kill people, even when the corporations had full knowledge that their products would do so. A review of the records shows that they often continued to manufacture and sell those products because it was more profitable than redesign, repair, or discontinuing them.

It is hard to disagree with the “selfish, greedy” part. The “bastard” part should probably be considered artistic license.

What do you think?