Equal pay for equal work is an issue discussed almost exclusively related to the pay for women vs. men in the same job. That makes sense given the long history of discrimination against women in compensation, employment and educational opportunities. Despite improvements in recent years the problems continue, to the detriment of women and our society.
However, there is another perhaps even more fundamental aspect of "equal pay." That is the relative compensation level of different jobs. Specifically, how they are valued and who establishes the relative pay levels.
Consider a small thought experiment. Assume you were looking for a job and the following positions were available. Assume you are well qualified for each of these jobs and they were offered to you. Which would you chose?
Refuse/Recyclable Collector $38,920
Airline Pilot $161,280
Farm worker $27,840
Wall Street worker $422,500
Child Care Worker $23,760
Fine Artist $57,520
* Salaries from US Dept. of Labor database
I am willing to wager that not many of you selected Refuse Collector or Farm Worker. I'll also bet that even those who thought that being a librarian would be a good job were put off by the low salary.
So do the experiment again but this time with a change in the salaries.
Refuse/Recyclable Collector $59,055
Airline Pilot $59,055
Farm worker $59,055
Wall Street worker $59,055
Child Care worker $59,055
Fine Artist $59,055
* Average US salary from US Dept. of Labor
Did your selection change when all the jobs pay the same? Did this new equality have a liberating effect? Did you decide to be an artist or to care for children once salary was not a factor?
All this is a way of asking, why do different jobs pay what they do and who decided those relative compensation levels? Capitalists, especially economists, would tell us that the "invisible hand" of the market determines prices for goods and wage levels. If that were true one would expect that the least desirable jobs would be the hardest to fill and therefore would pay the most. Therefore, working in a farm field in the burning sun would pay much more that sitting in a comfortable office on Wall Street. Perhaps the invisible hand is not so invisible and has strings attached to it.
Wages are not established by simple supply and demand but by power. It is not a coincidence that jobs that are most likely filled by the traditionally disenfranchised usually have low wages. Jobs historically seen as "women's" work or for minorities, such as child care or librarian or farm worker have the lowest wages. The fact is that low wage jobs correlate with disenfranchised groups, including women, Blacks, and immigrants. It’s about power.
Why do we accept as "normal" that the hardest jobs pay the least? There is a long cultural and political history that has acclimated us to this situation. For many centuries there was some elite and powerful group that ran things while most of the people were peasants or serfs or slaves, and there often was little to distinguish those categories. Most people were tied to the land and were completely under the control of a lord of one kind or another - political, religious or military. People were not free to move to the next fiefdom to get a better deal. They labored, were flogged and lived at the whim of the lord and master.
In Europe it was the rise of first the age of exploration and exploitation and later the industrial revolution that gave rise to a meaningful middle class of traders and merchants, creating a group with independence, increasing wealth and power. While many prospered, they continued the system within their new "capitalist" domain. They used the cheapest labor possible, including slavery whenever feasible, to maximize their profits. They normalized the exploitation of workers in the new commercial realm, continuing the tradition that the least desirable work received the least compensation.
The entire history of labor has been that the powerful pay as low wages as possible. The only break from this was the rise of unions, which were instrumental in creating blue collar jobs that paid middle class wages. Workers fought and died in strikes and were killed by owner wars in mines, railroads, mills and fields to gain living wages and safer working conditions. It was unions that got child labor outlawed, an eight-hour work day, and most other workplace improvements.
But union membership has plummeted in one of the most successful anti-worker campaigns imaginable. As a result, workers’ wages have been stagnant while incomes for the already wealthy have soared. As the Pew Research Center reported " today’s real average wage (that is, the wage after accounting for inflation) has about the same purchasing power it did 40 years ago. And what wage gains there have been have mostly flowed to the highest-paid tier of workers."
Economists profess to be perplexed that despite low unemployment wage growth has continued to be negligible. They obviously have not been paying attention to the successful campaign to eliminate most worker bargaining power. Today only about 10% of private sector workers are unionized. This has been coupled with actions including right to work laws (also known as a right to poverty), no poaching agreements, elimination of class action lawsuits through forced arbitration and legislation, removal of the check off provision to fund unions, and the use of temps, contractors and undocumented workers to assure employees have no clout and work in fear of losing their jobs. In most industries workers have little say or leverage over their wages. Executives remind us that they have a fiduciary responsibility to maximize returns for stockholders. Having no moral or societal responsibility means that they can pay workers as little as possible. In face of this onslaught it is no surprise that wages are stagnant.
Perhaps we should use the free market that economists and capitalists are so fond of lecturing us about to address this situation. Wages for jobs should be determined by a reverse auction, meaning that the low bid is the "winner." For many low paying jobs that is in effect what is happening already but let’s do it for all jobs, starting with CEO's and bankers.
The CEO of Wal-Mart was paid more than $28 million in 2018. I would bid to do that job for $10 million as long as I get to keep the corporate jet. Would you do it for $6 million? Maybe someone else would do it for $250,000. Remember those Wall Street workers noted above making a half million a year? I bet someone would do that job for $100,000, maybe less.
Now I know some will immediately say what about the qualifications needed for these elite positions? Research has consistently shown unmanaged index funds outperform virtually every stock market trader and fund over five or more years. And CEO's? Studies indicate that in ninety percent of the cases CEO's have virtually no impact on company profits or stock performance. The general economy drives most business success or failure. Truth is that pretty much anyone is "qualified" to do these jobs. Let the bidding begin.
What about those less desirable jobs like farm worker or garbage collector. With many more desirable jobs available for everyone to bid on these jobs will see fewer applications/bidders and they can bid higher pay rates.
Utilizing these market forces will foster much greater income equality. Those once elite positions reserved for Harvard and MIT grads will now be available to a much larger pool of candidates, driving pay down, while formally low wage jobs will have substantially higher pay resulting in much greater income equality. Income equality fosters political equality and political equality is the basis for viable democracies. What am I bid for real democracy?
Inequality - god, money and power
In the beginning humans were hunter gatherers characterized by a high degree of gender, structural and economic equality. Scientists tell us that there were no designated leaders, genders operated on an equal footing and there were no rich or poor - everyone shared the available food and resources. Then came, with what we term with a surprising lack of irony, civilization.
So called civilization developed from an agrarian base i.e. the cultivation of food crops which supported settled communities of hundreds and then thousands of people living in close proximity. Large numbers of people required some kind of organizing structure resulting in a hierarchy and inherent in a hierarchy is inequality and a differential in power. Those at the top of the hierarchy have more power than those below. Early community hierarchies were dominated by individuals in two primary roles - warriors or priests. Because of the physical differences between males and females men dominated the warrior or soldier class. This probably began the unequal status of women that persists to this day. It is less clear why men came to dominate the religious role although it may have resulted from collusion with the warriors but the result seems to have been similar.
The common characteristic of these two groups was that they required support from the rest of society since they had neither the time not inclination to grow their own food, hunt, etc. This need coupled with the position of power they occupied led to the first requirement of governance be it religious or civil - taxes. Called by many names tribute, plunder, tithes or the current favorite user fees the general population had to fund the livelihood of individuals in positions of authority. Thus began the intersection of god (religion), economics (wealth) and government (political power).
Over time people have been told or coerced to believe in the divine right of kings, in politics that requires leaders and followers, in dictators of the proletariat, in "representative" democracies and the mechanisms of governance. As Voltaire put it "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities." Now we mostly believe in the economy, not the real economy where people grow or build things, just the money part, we believe in greed. Increasingly people don't go to school to be educated, they go to school so they can make money. They don't work to accomplish something, to create something, they work simply to get money and so they can spend it and spend ever more of it. Today's economy is predicated on the requirement that it always expand, that we always need more. As a result we increasingly use up the world that we live in, we dig it up, pump it up, plow it up. To get more, we poison the land, the water and the air until it no longer sustains us, all to get something that we don't really need that we don't really like and that we don't care about. But it's a marker, a symbol that we exist. I consume therefore I am.
The money is the power and the power is the money. It is the power that arises from the money after all that makes us feel good that gives us that rush. The intersection of economic and political power was recently evidenced by the Supreme Court decision that money is speech. Those with the money are the ones who can be heard in politics as they are in the economy. With that power comes the tyranny of the belief that rich people deserve their wealth and are ordained to wield great power. They have in effect been divinely bequeathed wealth and power and through that wealth and power can function as a god on earth. This is the divine right of capitalists.
Economic inequality begets political inequality and political inequality is the very antithesis of democracy. As Gandhi said about democracy it is "clearly an impossibility so long as the wide gulf between the rich and the hungry masses persists," As we despair of the great political divide in our country it might serve us well to address our growing economic inequality for unless we do a viable democracy and a commonality of purpose are impossible.
The government shutdown has brought new meaning to President Kennedy's words "Ask not what your government can do for you, ask what you can do for your government." This is a time when we are all called upon to put that admonishment into practice. While many people are picking up trash and helping at National Parks there is much more we can and should do. Here are some options that you might consider.
The IRS was already short staffed and now is completely unable to conduct audits. Here is a place where the market economy can come to the rescue. Sign on the Audit a Billionaire program. You can select a billionaire of your choosing and conduct your own audit of their tax filings. Full subpoena powers will be provided. And to provide the appropriate market incentives auditors will get a finder’s fee of 20% of taxes and fees that are found to be owed. Hurry; this program is filling up fast.
Volunteer to be a TSA screener at your local airport. Give those unpaid workers a break and speed travelers through the security checkpoints. Notice: anyone who has been the target of a "Me Too Moment" will not be allowed to conduct pat downs or full body searches. Volunteer just 5 days and get first pick at the confiscated items storage bins.
We all know that the government shutdown is about the border wall, so step up and Buy a Brick for the Border Wall. Each brick can be individually inscribed with a name or phrase of your choosing and will be placed in the sector of the wall that you designate. Please note that certain words and phrases are not acceptable, including climate change, happy holidays, crybaby, liar and others too numerous to mention here. The cost of a brick varies. Bricks higher on the wall will cost more. However, those at the top with the razor wire on them are available at discounted rates. Lobbyists can buy bricks to show their support for the President starting at $5 million.
Speaking of lobbyists, they too are having a hard time during the shutdown. With so few people in Washington these days some have been forced to buy their own lunch since there is no one to take out and schmooze on a business expense account. So, join our Take a Lobbyist to Lunch initiative. Pick your industry - oil and gas, mining, big pharma, tech giants or that all-time favorite the NRA, which is running a special guns and buns lunch buffet.
This is a time to step up and help your fellow man. FDA food inspectors have been furloughed and this poses a serious health risk, especially to our most vulnerable citizens. I refer of course to the residents of the White House. Volunteer food tasters are urgently needed to taste all the food that is to be served to the 2-year-old who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The food is very good, but remember 2 years olds are subject to erratic behavior and temper tantrums. No spanking is allowed.
Government workers can go dumpster diving or haunt food pantries so they have no excuse for being hungry but the animals confined to the National Zoo and other federal facilities are not so fortune. We therefore urge you to support the GoFundMe initiative to feed animals at the National Zoo. Be generous; elephants eat a lot.
For the more adventurous now is your opportunity to take over Coast Guard's search and rescue duties. Here is your chance to jump out of a helicopter or be on board a boat speeding through 30 foot waves. Normally you would have to pay tens of thousands of dollars for extreme sport experiences of this caliber. Just bring your own wetsuit and get started today. The drowning victims you save will thank you. For the truly brave ask about the availability of a special assignment to search for an adult in Washington
Those with experience organizing protest rallies and strikes can help by making "Will Work for Pay" signs for government workers experiencing forced labor without compensation. We value diversity so multicolored signs are preferred.
Let me thank you in advance for all you do to support efforts to keep basic government services available to the public (that would be you). While we do appreciate your efforts maybe next time you should vote
I blame air conditioning.
When considering the technological innovations that have significantly impacted on our national and our personal way of life we usually mention the telephone, radio, TV and the internet or perhaps the automobile and the airplane. But in many essential ways air conditioning transformed the nation in profound ways facilitating dramatic demographic shifts, contributing to widespread environmental damage and fostering fundamental social and political changes.
How did air conditioning affect these changes? It was air conditioning that made much of the southern United States truly habitable for the first time. From the oppressive heat and humidity of the southeast along the Atlantic and Gulf Coast to the burning deserts of the Southwest air conditioning made work and daily living not just tolerable but increasingly desirable.
From the 1920's and into the 1970's African Americans fled North in large numbers to escape Jim Crow oppression and the lack of educational and job opportunities. This was the famous Great Migration where an estimated 6 million people left the South. Less attention has been paid to migration of even larger numbers of mostly whites to the South that has occurred more recently. Prior to the availability of air conditioning the population of Florida was less than one million (1920). By 1950 it had barely exceeded 2.5 million but by 1990 it was 13 million. Today it is 21 million. Such growth would have been impossible without air conditioning. Arizona and Texas experienced similar explosive growth. Despite oil money it is unlikely that hot, humid Huston would be on the verge of becoming the nation's third largest city without ubiquitous "refrigerated air".
Retirees and others went south for the milder winter weather but air conditioning also allowed businesses to operate in the South spurring job growth in banking, auto production and many other Industries. This version of white flight made the South richer and whiter. This and the Civil Rights Movement drove a complete political realignment. Richard Nixon's southern strategy, continued by Reagan, converted the south from solidly Democratic in the New Deal era to solidly Republican for the last 50 years. The large growth in population fueled rising political power since the south experienced a commensurate increase in Congressional representation. The effective use of this political power at the state and national level coupled with gerrymandering and voter suppression has created a political landscape that is disproportionately dominated by white conservatives.
This was perhaps the largest and most rapid demographic and political change in US history. The explosive population growth in places like Texas, Arizona and Southern California also fueled immigration. Labor especially, cheap labor, was needed in the fields to feed the growing population and to build houses, care for yards and kids and numerous other jobs.
Air conditionings impact was not limited to the South. It was air conditioning along with the elevator that made possible glass and steel skyscrapers with windows that never open and high-rise apartments and condos where people live in comfort regardless of the weather and the surroundings.
And the environmental devastation? Most directly air conditioning requires a lot of power which translates to burning fossil fuels, diverting rivers, building dams and power plants to generate electricity. In addition, all that cooling generates a lot of heat. Stand outside in the exhaust of a window air conditioner and feel the heat. Multiply that times all the air conditioners large and small and you can understand how they contribute to the warming micro-climates in cities. Secondarily, all those people need places to live and work and shop so, for example, Florida is mostly bulldozed and paved. Water is diverted from the Everglades and cars and roads sprawl. In the West water drives everything. Rivers are bottled up and water piped to homes, businesses and the mega-industrial farms. The landscape is fundamentally altered and the climate changed. Aquifers are pumped dry, rivers are merely irrigation ditches and drought and wildfires spread uncontrollably.
All this is a self reinforcing cycle. The continuing population growth in the warmer parts of the country results in more building, more businesses, more transportation - cars, trucks, trains and planes - more air conditioning and more heat which in turns needs more air conditioning, more power, more everything. And as the climate warms more of the country needs air conditioning. Today nearly 90 per cent of US households rely on air conditioning.
Most of the country has experienced a long hot summer. Our air conditioners have been working overtime to make it all tolerable and at the same time adding to the heat. The cure is also the disease.
Recently I saw a car with large professional lettering on the back that said, "The biggest lie is that vaccinations are safe and effective." My initial though was that if this person had their way tens of millions of people, particularly children, would die needlessly. Later it got me to thinking about my most memorable vaccination.
With the post World War II baby boomer generation everything changed. I know, every generation thinks that, but the baby boom coincided with science that fundamentally altered human expectations.
Our first thought might be of nuclear power: the bomb, the cold war, electricity too cheap to meter. I remember some of that, including mutual assured destruction, duck and cover drills, rampant paranoia. But it never seemed real. It was too abstract, too removed from anything in my day-to-day life. It wasn't scary in part because it had no connection to anyone or anything I knew.
Now polio, that was scary and real. I don't remember adults talking about nuclear war or the Soviet Union and certainly we kids did not. But adults talked about polio in grave voices with worried faces. The kids talked about it too, especially after a kid in our area contracted it and was confined to an iron lung. That sounded like the most terrifying thing we could imagine. So, we wondered, how might we catch polio, how could we avoid it? Stay away from sick people, don't touch anything, be extra good, pray. Were Catholics protected? Lutherans, Methodists, maybe Jews?
We in our childish way were doing what humans had done for their entire existence. When something is inexplicable you attribute it to the gods or luck or some superstition. So we washed our hands like we never had before. We worried about every cough, whether ours or anyone else's. If anyone acted "funny," whatever that was, we avoided them. We wondered if it was safer inside or outdoors. We made up causes and hoped for cures. Everyone thought about it but seldom talked about it.
While humans, for good or ill, had control over nuclear weapons, doctors, scientists and politicians could do nothing to stop the spread of polio. And polio was just one disease. During the first half of the twentieth century tuberculosis, smallpox, malaria, measles, mumps, scarlet fever and a host of other diseases mostly defied real medical treatment. While public health measures for improved sanitation and clean drinking water significantly reduced the incidence of a variety of diseases, infections in this pre-antibiotic era continued to be a problem. Remember that antibiotics only became widely available after WWII.
So we lived with this dark shadow. Then one day a miracle occurred. At school each class in turn was marched out of their classroom through the hallways and into the door at the end of the gymnasium. We lined up single file along the back wall in alphabetical order. The line went down the length of the gym, made a left turn along the far wall and then went through the door at the far end. This was a clever design because we could not see what was happening until we took our turn and stepped through that doorway.
By that time you just had a couple of kids ahead of you and only had a few seconds to take in the scene - a long table, a doctor standing beside it, two nurses, and one clerk. The clerk was marking off your name on the list. One nurse was filling syringes and laying them in a neat row on the table, the second swabbed alcohol on your arm. The doctor held the syringe up to check the level of the vaccine. The needle, at least a foot long, glistened in the light. Without a word the doctor stuck you with the needle, pushed in the plunger, and then placed the used needle in a box. The nurse put a band aid on your arm and then a teacher whisked you away. Some kids cried, some screamed, but for most of us it was so fast, so surreal that we didn't react at all. We just marched ahead as directed not really comprehending what was happening.
This all happened without consent forms, opt out provisions, public discussion or parental involvement. There were no consultants, no information meeting and no pretense of democracy. It just happened and the reaction was universal - everyone was grateful and amazed. The dark cloud was lifted and we got back to being kids again. Adults talked of baseball and the year's hay crop.
A miracle had taken place, the miracle of normalcy.
March for Life
When I looked at pictures from the March for Life events I saw black and white and brown and every skin tone imaginable. I saw dreadlocks and crew cuts, braids and bangs, tattoos and tans. I saw people who might trace their heritage to any and every part of the globe. I saw people of different religions and cultural traditions united by a common purpose, a higher purpose than themselves. I saw youth and energy and promise. I saw love and empathy and a desire to make the world better. I saw the future. I saw America.
The contrast is stark. When I look at pictures from the White House, from this administration I see old men, white men, angry men. I see hate and greed and a disdain for others. I see ignorance exceeded only by arrogance. I see fear and rot. I see the past.
The current generation of engaged young people is a sign of hope, but beware, we have been here before. Remember peace and love? In the 1960's and 70's millions of baby boomers rallied to stop the war, to support civil rights and women's' rights. They marched in the streets and worked in the political system. They registered people to vote who couldn't, they worked to end segregation, they demanded justice and equality. They were black and white together.
Fifty years later we look back and see endless war; an education system more segregated than ever and that is under-funded and under attack; a relentless campaign to disenfranchise voters; women harassed, assaulted, underpaid and denied control of their own bodies; Blacks shot in the street and locked in prisons. We see that greed and hate and fear and willful ignorance has often replaced peace and love, equality and justice. Will this new generation get us back on track? History teaches that a better future is not assured.
I had not intended to write about guns anymore. The killings go on endlessly. Every day 93 people on average die from guns in the US. Most go un-noticed and are accepted as normal in this country. Oh, we express outrage and grief over the mass killings that garner national media attention but within a few days it all returns to normal. Just a ritual that we play out. Sort of like going to church – well, that is taken care of and we return to our regular lives. Nothing changes.
But after the Florida killings a group of kids stood up. They demanded to be heard, not as victims but as advocates. They refuse to be pandered to and then dismissed. They are doing something we are not used to. They are acting like responsible adults, in sharp contrast to our so-called leaders. I do not know if they will succeed in any meaningful way. The $30 million a year that the NRA spends to buy politicians is a huge obstacle and they and their co-conspirators are masterful at turning what should be a rational discussion about how to make us all safer into a culture war.
Wayne LaPierre, head of the National Rifle Association, said that those calling for gun control after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., “hate individual freedom" and were involved in a socialist plot "to eradicate all individual freedoms.” Just the kind of considered, thoughtful discussion that we need when confronting the scourge of 30,000 deaths a year.
Is it hating freedom to want to save all those lives? Is it hating freedom to want children to be safe? Is it hating freedom to not want to see another grieving father or distraught mother?
What does it say about us if we need to have a gun to feel free? What does it mean to be free? More than 20 years ago after a mass shooting, Australia banned most guns and instituted a mandatory buyback program. Since then there have been no mass shootings in Australia. I have been to Australia, walked its streets, hiked its country side, talked to its citizens. I did not discern a lack of freedom. If freedom means being able to travel where you want, vote in elections, read what you please and speak your mind freely than these people are free. And there is no greater freedom than feeling safe while living your life. If you need a gun to make you feel free maybe you need a different kind of help.
Will the kids from Florida and their supporters effect meaningful change? It is unlikely. At best they will get some window dressing measures - raising the age to purchase to 21, prohibiting bump stocks, etc - that are unlikely to reduce the violence significantly. There are already over 300 million guns in the country so it is not like there will be a supply shortage.
There are two models to look to that might hold some promise. Things that have actually made a difference in other areas that might be applicable to gun violence. One is to make gun violence (not guns) a public health issue. It is not about the second amendment or freedom or rural vs urban or red vs blue. It is about saving people's lives, children's lives. The model here is smoking. If 25 years ago you had told most people that smoking would be banned in virtually every public building, restaurant, office, bar and park in the country they would have thought you delusional. Yet in spite of the nearly unlimited resources of big tobacco companies it has happened; smoking has declined dramatically and millions of lives have been saved. The same needs to be done for the violence caused by guns. Like the gun issue, smoking advocates tried to characterize it as about individual rights and personal freedom. That didn't fly then, and the same approach needs to be applied to gun violence.
A second model is automobiles and driving. Just like cars and drivers, guns and their owners should be registered, tested, licensed, inspected regularly and most importantly insured. The insured part is critical. Insurance companies for all their greed, bureaucracy, and bad service have driven life saving measures such as seatbelts, air bags, child safety seats and ABS brakes. If liability insurance was required for gun owners as coverage for any death or injury resulting from the weapons they own, you can bet that trigger locks would be mandatory, smart gun technology common and fewer deaths would occur. Traffic fatalities have declined for many years on American roads. It is time to do the same for America's schools and streets.
You don't have to hate freedom to want to save lives.
Things I Miss
Tom Paxton is fond of saying that it's OK to look back as long as you don't stare. I'm trying not to stare and actually am not much into nostalgia but there are a few things I miss.
I miss having a full head of dark wavy hair.
I miss lying in the hay up under the eaves of our barn listening to the rain on the metal roof.
I miss all the dogs and cats that have shared my life. I even miss the goldfish I inherited from a broken home.
I miss when I believed the president and trusted the government (that ended for me in 1968).
I miss being young and stupid and believing I was immortal.
I miss driving country roads very late on moon lit nights with the headlights turned off.
I miss when there were not lights everywhere and it was really dark at night and you could see the Milky Way any clear night.
I miss working in the hay field on a hot summer day and then going swimming in the creek.
I miss wanting to run everywhere.
I miss sitting on the lawn on a warm summer night and being able to identify every car that went by just from its head and tail lights.
I miss being able to stay up late and sleep till noon the next day.
I miss when I went to the gym to play games rather than for "fitness".
I miss fast cars on slow roads.
I miss a lot of musicians but no politicians.
I miss the USSR because "Russia" sounds somehow vulgar.
I miss new love and old friends.
I miss kids being free-range like the chickens are now.
I miss cars that sound like cars, not sewing machines.
I miss pickups that were trucks, not luxury barges.
While I miss these things, mostly I say let the past lie. Many things are better today, I mean the beer and the ice cream are way better - enough to keep me looking forward. May you do the same.
Truth has been much in the spotlight the last year. There has been a lot of discussion about what is true and not true and according to whom. There are discussions of facts and alternate facts and lots of fact-checking by individuals and organizations from many different points of view. The news media and others who purport to bring us the truth have been maligned and scrutinized in a way that hasn't occurred in a long time. Despite all this attention I think the words of the American humorist Josh Billings (yes the namesake for the Great Josh Billings RunAground) still prevail “As scarce as truth is, the supply has always been in excess of the demand”
Truth is elusive. Webster defines truth as :”the property of being in accord with fact or reality” but facts and reality are often subjective and imprecise. Webster does not elaborate about the different kind of truths that exist. The two most common for most of us are empirical truth and philosophical truth.
Empirical truth relates to things that we can see, or hear or touch or measure. These are the truths, the facts that are often discussed. It is assumed that such truths are unequivocally discernable, that there is only one possible meaning and therefore everyone should be able to see them in the same way. Doesn't work. Consider the body of evidence regarding eyewitness identification by crime victims that demonstrate the utter unreliability of such identifications. If we think that what we see or what we remember are facts we are mistaken nearly as often as we are correct. So much for reality. And facts change. It was once a “fact” that stress caused ulcers, that removing tonsils would cure ear and throat infections in children and that Pluto was a planet. Some of today’s empirical facts will undoubtedly change over time.
Philosophical truths, which include religious truths, are things that can not be empirically proven or demonstrated in most cases. The truths that Thomas Jefferson held to be self evident were derived from the enlightenment philosophers. They were more aspirational than demonstrable. In an analogous manner Christians would see truth as emanating from God as when Jesus, said, "I am the Way and the Truth…”. In these cases truth is something to be taken on faith, it is a belief. Too often these two different kinds of truths are commingled and this is the source of some of the problems of discussing what is true.
I think there are a couple of different perspectives on truth that are worth considering that don't seem to be getting much attention.
The Nobel Laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman is quoted as saying “when someone says something don't ask yourself if it is true. Ask what it might be true of.”. What Kahneman is suggesting I think, is to look beyond the veracity of the initial statement for the deeper meaning behind the statement. Consider the case of President Clinton when he said that he did not have sex with Monica Lewinsky. The statement, as we soon learned, was not true. But what lies (pun intended) behind that statement? Is there a different truth that is revealed? We can not know for sure but we can speculate that the truth that Clinton feared was the consequences of publicly admitting his infidelity to his wife and to the country more than the possibility of being caught in a lie.. Another truth might be that Clinton’s position of power made him think the rules did not apply to him. This is all too typical of people of wealth, power and privilege from Wall Street traders to corporate executives to political leaders.
So when the leader of North Korea says that he will destroy the United States consider not just whether North Korea has the capability and the reason to carry out such a threat but what might compel him to say such a thing. What is the truth behind that statement? It might be that Kim Jong Un is paranoid or that there is a reason for him to be afraid or that he is engaging in the time-honored practice of rallying domestic support by enlarging the threat of a foreign enemy. This latter possibility is something that authoritarian figures have done throughout time and continues today. It is one way of viewing many of the statements and making sense of the truth of the current occupant of the American White House. Many of the things that he says may have more to do with diverting attention from another vexing issue or retaining support from key constituents then the actual facts of the statement made.
You might ask, how leaders can get away with repeatedly stating obvious untruths? That leads to my second point. Facts do not exist in isolation but in context. As anyone who has worked in a large office can attest, everyone may agree with the empirical fact that the thermometer reads 69 but some people will say that it is too cold while others will maintain it is too warm. And for many their answer will be different in the summer than in the winter. So context is critical to what is perceived to be true and the most important, the most persuasive context are our beliefs. Yuval Noah Harari in his book “Homo Sapiens” notes that Spanish conquerors in the New World put it this way, “A single Priest does the work of a hundred soldiers” meaning that if you can get people to accept your beliefs they will be compliant and the need for coercion is diminished. This trait is not limited to religion, political and cultural values are just as effective.
The convergence of these three realms - religion, culture and politics - creates an environment where people not only create their own truth but often ignore their own self interest. I have heard people remark in bewildered frustration about how some people can support politicians who advocate taking away their health insurance or providing tax cuts to the wealthy that they themselves will never benefit from. Issues such as abortion and gun control are highly emotional issues that transcend facts, self interest or compromise. Cultural and religious beliefs and values become the prism through which we “see” reality. The aforementioned Daniel Kahneman and many other researchers may shown the power of things such as confirmation bias and priming on people’s ability to perceive facts and the behavior they exhibit.
It is useful to remember that we are all susceptible to the influence of our beliefs on what we perceive and how we act. It is not limited to “other people” i.e. those with whom we disagree on an issue. For example, I believe that economic inequality in the US is unfair and is harmful to the nation. Therefore, based on my beliefs, I support higher wages for workers and a more progressive (higher) tax rate even though such policies would likely cost me money due to higher prices and higher taxes. Yes, I am prepared to vote against my own self interest. So like abortion or guns I can be a values driven voter. But self interest does not drive all our actions. In fact most acts of charity, kindness and respect are not necessarily in our material self interest and yet they are often our most satisfying and rewarding experiences.
As we debate truth, facts, alternative facts and such, remember the words of that great American philosopher Tommy Smothers (he was the "dumb" one). "Truth is what you get other people to believe". And so it is in religion and politics.
Nothing Left to Say
Las Vegas.: another tragedy; more carnage; more bodies and destroyed lives. Another "law biding" citizen with military weapons. The endless media coverage would have you think this is an unusual event but it is only unusual in that all the deaths occurred in one place. On average every day 93 people die by the gun in this country. Yes every day and 7 of them are children. And we accept that as normal. Just another day in America.
I have nothing left to say. It has all been said and nothing changes. They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting different results. Every time it is more guns will make us safer and more people die. We seem to all be crazy.
I wrote the following poem after another mass killing but felt the need to share it now.
The Price to Be Free
This time twenty eight
This time Newtown
This time a tow headed boy, a curly headed little girl
This time a five year old, a child of six
This time a teacher, a mother, a lover
Every time they say it’s not the guns
Every time they say it’s not the bullets
Every time they say it’s not the hate
Every time they say it’s not the yelling and the lies
Every time they say it’s not the line in the sand
Every time they say it’s not the wars
Every time they tell us it is the price to be free
Last time it was Oak Creek
Last time it was only six
Last time it was Aurora
Last time it was a dozen
Last time it was a father, a mother, a daughter
Last time was supposed to be the last time
But every time there is a next time
Every time there are the screams
Every time there are the tears
Every time there are the hollow eyes and the fear
Every time there are the bodies
Every time there are the pious empty words
Every time there are the guns
Every time they tell us it is the price to be free
One Small Voice
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