Too Much of a Bad Thing May Be Good

The now infamous Citizen United case, when the Supreme Court opened the flood gates of money into our political process, might just as well have put up a sign saying “GOVERNMENT FOR SALE.”

So far the public does not seem to have fully grasped what is happening. “Independent” committees have been raising and spending large sums in the run up to the 2012 Presidential election. There are a few familiar names coming to light as heavy hitters in that process, including such operatives such as Karl Rove setting up “independent” campaign committees, and the Koch brothers (with their large and severely conservative wallets) picking up the tab. Public understanding and outrage at this excessive misuse of both money and access to influence things for the benefit of already privileged people is rising, but so far does not appear to have engendered the outrage that this scheme deserves.

Now, however, we may be on the cusp of watching something that is so outrageous it actually may help wake the world up to what is happening. A man named Sheldon Adelson, a longtime friend of former Speaker Newt Gingrich who made billions largely in the casino-gambling hotel world, has already contributed $10,000,000 through independent committees to help get Gingrich nominated. It is now rumored that Adelson is about to add another $10,000,000 before the Super Tuesday primaries on March 6. It is highly doubtful that any one person has ever before poured that kind of money into any political process — and it’s certainly never been done legally.

It is also highly doubtful that many people in America would approve of someone who becomes president being so deeply indebted to anyone, particularly a gambling mogul.

That is why we may be lucky enough to see the collapse of the doctrine of unlimited money in politics. Such egregious abuses could well fan the flames of public discontent with a political process fabulously rich in cash but sorely lacking in principles, courage or candor. It is rare indeed when too much of a bad thing becomes a good thing. Let’s hope!

Why would either Adelson or Gingrich risk the kind of negative fallout their arrangement rightly arouses? Gingrich, for his part, has little to lose, lagging well behind Romney and Santorum for the Republican nomination and desperate for anything that might resurrect his fading prospects. Adelson, too, has little to lose. His wealth affords him the luxury of not particularly caring about the opinions of others, and anyone who made billions in the rough and tumble world of gambling undoubtedly has skin thick enough to suffer the slings of good government types, the press, or a disgruntled public. Besides, who knows? If Gingrich were to be reborn and even elected, Adelson would still be a billionaire, but he’d be a unique billionaire with deep ties to the leader of the free world.

The mash of greed and ambition that brings people like Adelson into the political arena, and that makes people like Gingrich clamor for their favor (and funds), leaves little room for the public interest.

We really ought to take down the “For Sale” sign and find a better way to finance our political process. Nothing less than the future of democracy depends on it.


The Sinews of Society Are Changing

The convergence of a birthday with Valentine’s Day (which has been happening to me now for 81 years in a row!) is both a reminder and indicator of changes in how modern society works.

When you think about the world in 1931, the year I was born, well over 40 percent of Americans lived in small towns in rural America. People knew their neighbors, helped each other regularly and cooperated as best they could to make their towns and lives work. And they sent Valentine and birthday cards.

Today about 82 percent of Americans live in cities (only about two percent are as rural as in 1931) and hardly anyone knows most of their neighbors. People ignore street screams of people being murdered because it is none of their business. And birthday and Valentine cards are giving way to Facebook and other Internet connections, often with so many “friends” that the meaning of friendship is undergoing revision.

The really important sinews of society are the connections and shared concerns among citizens that produce focused and effective forces that make society work. A few years back, Robert Putnam, a Harvard professor who had done research in Italy, discovered pretty much by accident that communities that had choral societies had far and away the most effective local governments. He dug deep to find out why. The reason turned out to be surprisingly simple and obvious: The people who participated in the choral societies came from all parts of their communities — bankers, bakers, bottle makers and busboys, of all ages, both sexes, sizes, rank, wealth and education. So when a community issue needed community involvement they talked about everything over their wine glasses after their choral society sessions. Simple and obvious yes, but choral societies and their ilk are no longer ubiquitous.

Some people argue today that “social media” has picked up the slack. It certainly is true that modern communications, starting with the simple cell phone, have enabled things like the Arab Spring, including Tahrir Square and Libya recently. But the ability of social media to create the myriad of linkages necessary at the local level to compensate for the loss of connectedness that existed in rural America is still very unclear.

Happily, there is another relatively new development emerging to help society work, which is called, for want of a sexier name, collaborative governance. Where communities have real problems that are NOT being solved by either the public sector or the private sectors, those two basic instruments of social order are experimenting with teaming up to work together. They have begun to find solutions to those problems that neither sector alone had been able to achieve.

One great example is the parks in New York City. A few years ago the parks had become a living hell. Then private parks conservancies started up and teamed up with city parks departments. The combination of private energy, initiative, money and energy with public bureaucracy, caution, responsibility, etc. evidently produced something new and effective and very important to helping to revitalize the parks for the benefit of the citizens of New York City.

The ancient wisdom of “do unto others as you would have others do unto you” is the basic linkage among people who know each other that keeps society in balance. Where those linkages have become attenuated due to the growth and anonymity of modern society, new methods have yet to be discovered and used.

This new tool, or recipe, is not political collaboration (which we could use more of as well) but it looks to be a new method which we could all learn more about on that day of love AND my birthday!

Four Elements of Human Process, Often Overlooked

Long observation and personal experience have taught me several lessons that apparently remain opaque to many people. Accordingly, perhaps there is benefit in spelling them out to bring the essentials to the attention of folks who might be interested.

Growth: We grow in many ways: physically, mentally and emotionally, for starters. Most growth occurs either on its own, organically, or through education. But the greatest agent of growth in life is change. Humans do indeed respond to change through adaptation. When things remain the same too long, many people grow complacent. A great piece of old wisdom is that good judgment is based on experience, because experience is based on bad judgment. (Or, in simpler terms, we learn by our mistakes.) One can draw many different conclusions from this idea, but the most important one to me is that if and when we want to grow (at any age), we must plan and organize change in our lives. I have observed among my oldest and best friends that the happiest and most interesting people are those who have had diversified and changing lives.

Understanding: Almost everyone has, at one time or another, had trouble understanding some subject. Typically, people who are motivated to conquer the subject read more and ask experts. If the subject is within one’s normal range of comprehension (in my case, not astrophysics) and the expert seeking to explain has trouble helping, there is a tendency among most people to blame themselves for the failure. But, most people would be wrong. I have learned that under those circumstances, at least, the failure is more likely the result of one’s choice of experts. Experts require two key skills to be effective: a solid understanding of the subject and an ability to explain it to audiences that lack expertise. Too often, the “experts” lack one or the other, sometimes both. The solution isn’t to beat oneself up, but to find another expert.

What Others Think of You: Some people do not give a rat’s petunia what other people think of them. Many, though, spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about how others see them. Ages ago a friend offered a great piece of advice to deal with this conundrum. He said, “If you only realized how much more time people spend thinking about themselves, you would rarely have to worry about what they are probably not thinking about you!”

Personal Accountability: Perhaps the stoutest support for keeping people in line and doing the right thing is personal accountability. Conversely, when people think they are invisible or unaccountable, they often stray from the right path. The consequences frequently begin with simple rudeness, for example, “Oh I didn’t know that so-and-so was my best friend’s friend. If I had, I wouldn’t have done that!” But it can go as far as thinking that one can get lost in a crowd and slip away unnoticed from committing a crime. The lesson from this observation is that we must work hard on increasing personal accountability, even at the cost of some loss of privacy. This is a tricky juggling act but is at the root of much in our modern world.

Enough for today. I would be pleased to learn more on these and other related subjects from readers.

Time Is Nothing?

Time is a construct of man to organize life on earth into a manageable process that can be utilized by virtually all of mankind, regardless of language, location or origin. And indeed, that process takes into account the daily rotation of earth and its yearly rotation of its star, the sun.

But what is the meaning and relevance of man’s measures and concepts of time in the context of universal time and space?

This question takes on new significance today as genius scientists probe deeper into the questions of the limitations on the speed of light and our distance from other stars and planets which may also harbor some forms of intelligent life.

Without the benefit of mathematical skills and without the beliefs of far-seeing astronomers, who postulate that the universe began with a big bang some 13 billion years ago (measured apparently as we measure man’s time), I incline to the view that there must be some other sort of time to measure the age of the universe and our distance from other earth-like planets.

I have a hard time with a concept like the big bang. The notion that there was nothing and then suddenly everything, runs counter to every bit of experiential logic available to man. Yes, some of us believe in magic, but we are not talking about magic here. Nature and life teach us that things evolve.

Another issue raises different fundamental questions. If the earth is some four billion years old, in man time, and man has been evolving only over some thousands of years, that suggests to me that other than the fact that man time may not be a proper measure of universal time, man has been continuously expanding his horizons and will surely want and need to see where “man” on other planets lives. But if we apply man time to travel time to far distant stars and planets, the present life cycle of man measured in man time simply does not work. We already have an anomaly that we do not worry about. Given the differences of time around the globe, there are moments when one is travelling when one literally is going back or forward in time but so far no one has reported that things turned out differently or unexpectedly.

Thus, the question of what kind of time and distance really might apply to far distant places, not limited by today’s established facts of the speed of light, becomes central to man’s ambitions to explore space. Without any scientific knowledge, it seems to me that there might be some other concepts and measures of time, yet to be discovered, that when unlocked, would theoretically enable man to modify his measures of time and get there and back to tell us all, if only in virtual terms.

For understandable reasons we have been living since Einstein with a meek acceptance of the limitations implicit in his theories. Perhaps we should reopen our minds to new possibilities. No doubt some people have, but their thoughts have not trickled into my consciousness. Given that we are told our sun only has about another billion years to go (after which we are either toast or ice), perhaps it is not too soon to begin to conceive of our next destinations?