Talking to Trees
In 1997 the scientist Suzanne Simard published her breakthrough study about how trees communicate with each other. Her findings were met with near universal skepticism and sometimes derision in the scientific community. This was partly because the idea seemed preposterous and maybe a bit new agey, but mostly because she was a woman. Since then Simard has expanded on her findings and they have been replicated and confirmed by other scientists. Today the idea that trees communicate and even help one another is not absurd, but accepted fact.
All this made me wonder if different tress speak different languages just as humans in China and France and the US do. Are the differences based on species; i.e. do oaks have one language, maples another and maybe pines another? Or is it geographic? Perhaps all the trees in one area have a common language but those in a different region or continent use another. As my wife likes to say there's a dissertation in that.
For more than 35 years I have lived in a grove of trees but had never thought of talking to them. I have tried to communicate with what I presumed to be more intelligent forms of life, with decidedly mixed results. Our dog on occasion tries urgently to communicate with me, but honestly, after 5 years of trying I still don't understand a word she says. She, on the other hand, definitely understands human words, so I must face the fact that she is smarter than me. Of course, just because she understands my words does not mean that she does what I ask. There are significant parallels to my spousal communication here.
My attempts to communicate with other creatures have been even less successful. Deer that I politely ask to stop eating our flowers ignore me. Chipmunks and squirrels make what I take to be disparaging comments but at least our resident owl often answers me with a wise sounding hoot or two.
So it was with this checkered history in mind that I approached the idea of trying to talk to the trees that share our space. Many of the trees were here before we came and they may feel slighted that I have not spoken to them in 35 years of near co-habitation. I am also aware that the world has changed when it comes to communicating with those who are different from ourselves. Communicating across differences in race, gender, sexual identity, and religion requires heightened sensitivity even without the challenges of communicating across species.
While keeping all this in mind I decided to give it a try. I decided to approach the largest oak tree which stands quite near our house. As I did I wondered how close should I get? What are the personal space requirements for a tree? I don't want to be uncomfortably close, but I need to be close enough to hear and be heard. I decided to go with the current social distancing recommendations, just in case, so I got about 6 feet from the thick trunk. I began with a form of the Indigenous lands acknowledgement. "I acknowledge that I live on the traditional land of Indigenous people, plants and animals and especially trees and I thank you for sharing this space with me." I waited. No response.
"Hello Oak Tree. Do you have a preferred form of address and have you chosen pronouns that you would like me to use?" Still nothing. "It has been a pleasure living with you all these years and hope that you have found it equally congenial." All quiet.
After thinking about it for a few minutes I decided just to go back to my beginning interaction with trees as when I was a kid, without concern for social distancing or political correctness. I sat down and leaned my back against the trunk of the oak. I paused for a while enjoying the solitude and companionship. "When I was a kid I use to love to climb trees. I guess most kids do, given the opportunity. My favorites were the apple trees because they were easy to climb and I got to eat the apples, sometimes when they were still green." I smiled to myself at the memory.
I leaned my head back. "You know, Oak Tree, your leaves look especially green with the sun shining on them. They sort of sparkle. And what a beautiful day. It’s great to share it with you; to just hang out. Thanks." I leaned more into the trunk.
"How old are you? When I came here more than 35 years ago you were already good size; more than 15 feet I'm sure, but less than 25, I'd guess. Now you are at least 60 feet tall. I understand that age is best estimated by the diameter of your trunk, which I'd guess to be 30 inches or more. According to Google, the standard growth factor is between 4 and 5 so that would make you 120 to 150 years old! Wow, the things you have seen! The first car to drive by, the first plane in the sky here and the houses built along this old farm road. All those changes and yet you have endured straight and true. We humans could learn from that."
"Well, this has been a pleasure. I appreciate your time and hope it’s ok if I drop by again. Oh, and thanks for supporting the other trees and plants here in the yard. You've help raise a fine-looking group."
The leaves stirred. I looked up. No wind. But the leaves rustled like a whisper. I strained to hear. I could not make out a word but I felt a greeting, like they were enveloping me, welcoming me to the community for the first time.
The year 2020 is one we would like to forget but never will. Like some ultra slow-motion, never-ending train wreck it is something we didn't want to see but we could not look away. We all will be glad to have it behind us but we can't help looking back and marveling how we made it through.
2020 caught us like a deer in the headlights: incredulous, that we who thought we were so smart, who thought we were in control, who thought we had brought the world to heel and bent it to our whim, suddenly found ourselves, not only on the defensive, but defenseless. It is not a pretty sight when the self-anointed masters are vanquished and brought low, and all by something we couldn't even see. We who, a year ago, were likely to swagger about, shopping, eating in restaurants, traveling, or just shaking hands and exchanging hugs, soon were cowering in our rooms, afraid of our friends and neighbors, coworkers and even family members. 2020 was a year that was like living on a desert island limited to the things we had with us to sustain and distract, if not exactly amuse, ourselves.
My parents’ generation were the "make do" generation, having lived through the depression, World War II rationing and post war shortages. By necessity they were self reliant; growing food, making their clothes, entertaining themselves with only a radio, a book and a front porch. We should have paid more attention to how they did it because they not only survived it all but came through it mostly unscarred. 2020 was a test of our perseverance and resolve, of our ability to survive and get along on our own, at the same time making us acutely aware of our dependence others. We found that food does not magically appear in the supermarket, let alone in our kitchen, or toilet paper in our bathroom. It takes a whole community of people to supply our basic needs - food, power, health care, to say nothing of emotional and spiritual support. No one survives alone for long. We are all interdependent. We are all socialists in the real non-political meaning of that term. We are all social animals surviving only in concert with others.
Looking back on this year made me think of the annual holiday letter that some folks write. It is a bit of an art form. It's no easy task to find the right balance; to give the highlights for the year without seeming boastful. You don't want a letter that mentions that you had fillings put in two teeth and had the transmission rebuilt in the old Ford, but you also don't want to go overboard about how brilliant and successful the children and grandchildren are. However, a letter this year might say something like:
April - didn't go anywhere, didn't do anything
May - didn't go anywhere, didn't do anything
June, July, August etc. - more of the same.
Highlights would be more muted and mundane, like the last meal in a real restaurant that for us took place on March 14th in Tucson Arizona; the last live music festival we attended in New Orleans in January; a dinner with friends at our house in February. Or maybe more to the point the first curbside pickup; our new routine of takeout Thursdays; biking while masked. And, of course, the Zooming with friends, lectures, concerts and such. A pale substitute but grateful for it none the less. Can we even imaging what the pandemic isolation would have been like without the technology - no email, no text, no zooming. Or without nature - walking around the neighborhood, feeding the birds, hiking in parks and nature preserves - just being outside brought solace and renewal. And it was a good reminder that my significant other is truly significant.
As we face the bleakness of the winter, we hope for spring and long for the renewal it may bring. The sun of another summer beckons; may we all be here to see it.
The New Civil War
In Charleston, South Carolina on April 30,1860, William Lowndes Yancey and the Alabama delegation walked out of the Democratic National Convention, followed by the delegates from Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, Florida and Texas. Yancey and his followers were jubilant, confident that they had destroyed the Democratic Party. The Party, now split in two, would run two different candidates for president, thus paving the way for the election of the Republican Abraham Lincoln. On the surface it might seem strange that Yancey, an ardent advocate of slavery and the plantation economy, would want to see Lincoln elected, but he did. This was part of a well-orchestrated plan to push leaders of southern states down the road to treason, i.e. succession, and it succeeded perfectly. Like many political decisions this one was driven by money and power as well as an abiding belief in white supremacy and racial inferiority.
While the traitors lost the war they largely won the peace. In less than 20 years from the end of the Civil War they were able to completely dismantle reconstruction and re-impose the plantation economy. Better yet, they were able to go from being the traitors who seceded from the Union and fired the first shots of the Civil War to portraying themselves as the victims of a noble Lost Cause. It would be as if the 9/11 terrorists today somehow convinced America that they were the victims, and that not only did the USA deserved to be attacked but that the terrorist cause was just.
Systematically, the white supremacists built their political and economic power through black codes, Jim Crow laws, campaigns of violence, and a renewed feudalism of subservient captive labor. From this base they built a political powerhouse that largely ran the country. The southern Dixiecrats, thanks in part to the "freed" blacks who were counted for representation but not allowed to vote, held most positions of power in Congress and either had presidents who supported them or who they could intimidate. For example, FDR, as a Democrat, needed support for the New Deal from southern Democrats. He got it, but the cost was that farm and domestic workers (mostly Black) were excluded from most provisions, including minimum wage and labor standards such as the 40 hour work week and overtime. This continues to the present day with those same farm and domestic workers.
Similarly the GI Bill and federal housing programs were structured so that Blacks were largely excluded, turning these programs into de-facto affirmative action programs for whites. Banks joined in by redlining areas where they did not give mortgages, mostly impacting communities of color.
This continued until the 1960's when the Civil Rights, the anti-Vietnam war and the women's rights movements radicalized much of the country. The cracks in the white supremacist wall appeared in the Kennedy administration. JFK was elected by the narrowest of margins when the southern Democrats delivered their states to him in the election. Without them and Chicago Mayor Daly, JFK would not be president, so it is no surprise that Kennedy opposed the passage of a Civil Rights bill, yielding only when out-flanked by Republicans in Congress who had introduced sweeping civil rights legislation. Southern Democrats felt betrayed but that was nothing compared to their outrage when LBJ actually passed a strong Civil Rights bill (the Kennedy bill never passed) and on top of that a Voting Rights bill.
It appeared that the southern white supremacist power was broken, but Richard Nixon to the rescue. Taking a lesson from his defeat at Kennedy's hands in 1968 Nixon deployed his southern strategy and moved the white south from the Democrats to the Republicans, where they once again began to assert their power. They needed friends and they found them in wealthy elites who had come to see the money to be made in a new kind of economic feudalism: one that blocked minimum wage growth, crushed unions and set up wealth transfer from the poor and middle class to the wealthy - a new plantation economy.
The problem the elites have is that, well, they are the elite, the one percent or within a stone's throw of it, so there are not very many of them, but money can make up for a lot. Still, by themselves they can't win most elections so they needed to convince lesser mortals to support their agenda. This is not easy when that agenda is to take money from the workers and give it to the boss, to take taxes from the poor and middle classes, and give the rich tax cuts or, better yet, outright subsidies. A strategic alliance and the distraction of trumped up culture wars worked wonders.
The economic elites and the white supremacists, often one and the same, found a common path to power. The racists brought their experience in defining scapegoats and convincing non-wealthy whites that their struggles were the fault of non-whites - Blacks, Latinx and immigrants. The elites brought their understanding of the need to frame the discussion and make the incongruous seem reasonable.
With a strategy and working alliance they began to execute the key elements. For many years they funded a broadly conservative set of think tanks, media outlets and political organizations and built an angry populist coalition through the fostering of culture wars and hate.
Importantly, they were willing and committed to the long game; not giving up after a set-back or three. Establishing and lavishly funding a series of interconnected think tanks, including the Charles Koch Institute, Americans for Prosperity Foundation, American Legislative Exchange Council, Federalist Society, FreedomWorks, Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute and the Reason Foundation, they created and promoted a radical anti-democratic ideology. They targeted this at policy makers and politicians at all levels - federal, state and local - with significant but limited success. However, they were ready when opportunity knocked. The election of Barack Obama may have seemed like a set-back, but when given lemons they made lemonade, and in quantity. The rise of the Tea Party movement in response to Obama's election showed the power and depth of racism in the country and the power of disinformation. A large percentage of the population believed blatant lies - birthism, the president was a Muslim, coming for your guns - that could be built on.
The next major opportunity was using Donald Trump, a made-by-TV demagogue, to promote the racism, populism, and disinformation with large amounts of money and unlimited media exposure to deliver the White House.
This is all part of a new Civil War. It has been going on for some time. You may have missed it because there were no shots fired on Ft Sumner. This time the take-over is from the inside. It looks disturbingly similar to the first Civil War - white supremacist and economic leaders of a new "plantation" capitalism purposely dividing the country for their own benefit.
They have carefully learned from their predecessors’ mistakes. They have secured the presidency, the Senate and much of the judiciary to their cause. They have secured the power of the government, intimidated much of the opposition, and largely control the media, either because they are complicit or because of skillful manipulation (the power of unending tweets).
The traitors of 1860 had three objectives for the original Civil War. First, de-facto and de-jure white supremacy that would be systemic and institutionalized in law and practice. Second, economic supremacy, giving economic control to the plantation class and assuring access to cheap expendable labor. And third, political supremacy regardless of who was theoretically eligible to vote or hold office.
The new Civil War going on today retains these same objectives and has been stunningly successful. De-facto and de-jure white supremacy has been widely achieved through the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, the removal of campaign contribution controls, the appointment of young, radically conservative judges to more than 30% of federal judiciary positions under Trump and the take-over of many states’ legislative bodies.
Economic supremacy has achieved unprecedented levels of both income and wealth inequality. Tax rates of businesses and wealthy individuals are near historic lows, and the inheritance tax is practically non-existent. Cheap labor has been secured through the destruction of unions, use of foreign workers and suppliers, outsourcing, and gig workers.
Political supremacy has been even more successful through voter suppression techniques reminiscent of the Jim Crow era. Poll taxes have been replaced with the removal of polling sites, the purging of voter rolls, gerrymandering, and the on-going and highly successful disinformation campaigns, both domestic and foreign. It is currently estimated that Joe Biden will need to receive at least 5 million more votes than Trump to have a chance at victory. So much for one person one vote.
Many seem to believe that if Donald Trump is defeated for re-election that everything will "get back to normal." That is at best wishful thinking and at worst delusional. The leaders of the new "plantation" economy understand that despite all their success this Civil War will not have a final victory for either side. Rather, economic and political systems need to be continually managed and controlled, new scapegoats need to be targeted or resurrected, and new demagogues cultivated and financed. Like America's other wars - on drugs, terrorists etc. - this one will be endless and the payoff for those who benefit similarly unbounded
Race: What Corporate America Can Do
The statements keep coming filling up my inbox, showing up on the internet, appearing in the major papers like the NYTimes, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. Company after company expressing their commitment to stand with Black Americans, their heartfelt sympathy for the victims of violence and oppression, their dedication to diversity and their steadfast stand against racism. The statements have a familiar ring to them. I think we've all heard this before. No its different this time they all declare.
The words are so similar that they may have been written by the same high priced consulting firm. One of those firms that specializes in polishing the corporate image enhancing the "brand". Or maybe it has become so routine that they just download the form from Legalzoom and fill in the blanks. Very cost effective. It sounds suspiciously like another corporate Kumbaya moment.
The sentiments may be appreciated but what are corporations going to DO? And not incidentally what have they done up to now that has either contributed to the current state of affairs or served to mitigate it? By the current state of affairs I mean not only the racism but the sexism and the inequality and divisions in this country. If companies are serious I suggest they take the following actions to affect real change.
Change must start at the top. We hear corporate executives talk endlessly about leadership often giving lectures and writing articles and books on the topic. What does leadership look like regarding race and inequality? To demonstrate a true commitment to diversity all white male board members should immediately resign to be replaced by individuals of color, women and LQBTQ and other underrepresented persons.
Similarly, replace fifty percent of white male executive staff with members of these groups within 90 days. Impossible I hear you say. Corporations must be led by people with impressive skill sets, with experience and most importantly with connections i.e. networks. As the saying goes how is that working? If these current leaders were so good why do we have the highest rate of inequality in history, why is structural racism rampant, why is democracy failing, why do you hide behind your walled estates, your corporate jets, your private cars? Lets give some other people a chance to run things. You might be surprised at how talented they can be.
Next conduct an analysis of pay equity in your organization for at least the last 10 years. All individuals who were not equally compensated for equal work should be paid the entire amount of the underpayment for up to 10 years plus interest.
Immediately pay all workers a living wage and don't cheat. By that I mean don't "outsource", use legions of part time workers, so called contract employees and gig workers. A simple way to do this is to index executive compensation to worker pay. I doubt we would need to worry about a minimum wage law if executive pay was capped at 25 times the average workers pay and 30 times the lowest wage workers. I'm confident that wages would quickly rise.
Do your civil duty like they taught us in school. First stop all political donations - they only create division. Then stop development, promotion and lobbying for laws and regulations that cut your taxes (corporate and personal), allow you to pollute and permit you to escape accountability (financial, environmental and legal).
Support democracy and begin by giving your employees paid time to go vote - in fact insist on it. Then in your state and community support people voting - removing restrictions, increasing early voting, mail in ballots, more polling places especially in underserved neighborhoods and moving election day to a weekend.
Go further and demand a fair and honest tax system where the rich pay their share and more and eliminate tax loopholes, subsidies and other preferential treatment for wealthy individuals and for corporations. Actively support a progressive and substantial inheritance tax to allow each generation to start on a more equal footing. Insist on universal health care not tied to a person's job, paid sick and family leave for all.
Take all that money you are spending to convince us you care, to lobby politicians and regulatory bodies and DO something that directly helps people - hire, promote, educate, mentor - or just get out of the way. Unless you are doing these things YOU are the problem.
Two men without masks scream into the face of a person wearing a mask; a man without a mask comes up behind a masked man in line for coffee and standing inches away breaths loudly on him; a man without a mask punches a grocery store worker who asks him to please put on a mask. You have heard of these and many similar incidents. What is this all about? It’s about freedom of course.
There have been more opportunities than usual to contemplate the meaning of freedom in these not-so-United States in the last year, and people calling their refusal to wear masks during the pandemic exercising their right to be free is just the latest manifestation.
It was not always like this. Freedom, the word and the concept, have changed. They have been co-opted and purposely redefined and politicized. When I grew up, sometime between the invention of fire and the creation of the internet, we didn't talk about freedom much, and when we did it meant something quite different.
Freedom meant freedom for community and for country. Freedom was why we fought WWII; freedom meant never again to the holocaust; and freedom meant helping other people to be free, to be safe. Now people make it individual - freedom for them but not necessarily for you. Freedom is a right at least for them. They demand their freedom even if it is at your expense. How else can you view freedom to make other people sick, to put health care workers, grocery clerks and care givers at risk, to seemingly not care if your actions result in other people dying.
In the Declaration of Independence it says "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness." Notice that life comes before liberty. The pursuit of happiness for most people does not include being seriously ill or dying. Without life neither liberty nor happiness have much meaning.
I think it started with the guns. Guns used to be something that lots of people I knew used to go hunting. They were mostly for procuring food to eat and for some sport. They were not political weapons. No one ever mentioned anything about their right to have a gun and if it symbolized anything it was self sufficiency.
As late as 1968 the NRA supported a federal Gun Control Act which created a system to federally license gun dealers and established restrictions on particular categories and classes of firearms. But in concert with the political move to "law and order" by Richard Nixon and then Ronald Reagan and finally Bill Clinton, the NRA found it much more profitable to make guns not just a political issue but a cultural one. Guns joined the cultural parade along with abortion, welfare, immigration, gays and religion. The drive to make guns a personal right culminated in a group of "conservative" judges overturning 200 years of judicial precedent so that guns were not a right limited to "a well regulated militia" but an expression of personal freedom. When coupled with stand
your ground and similar state laws, guns brought the "freedom" to kill people you didn't like.
Freedom of religion has been similarly perverted. It was once assurance that no one, especially the government, would prohibit you from the exercise of your religion. Now it has become the freedom to discriminate against those who do not believe as you do, or who you just don't like, and increasingly, again thanks to more "conservative" judges, enforced by the government. Freedom to not bake a wedding cake for a gay couple turns into the freedom and the power to deny health care and employment to people who offend your beliefs and your religiosity, even if flying in the face of the real teachings of most religions. If this trend continues the Christian right would have the US governed by a religious leader in much the same way that Iran is.
It goes beyond simple hypocrisy that some people, who proclaim themselves as pro-life and will lecture you on the sanctity of all life even the unborn, claim the freedom to endanger the health and very lives of other people. The state motto of New Hampshire proclaims "Live Free or Die". Now some seem to be saying live free and die at least if it impinges on their rights as they define them.
In 1941, when FDR gave his famous four freedoms speech, one of those freedoms was the freedom from fear. Today we have to fear people exercising their freedom to make you sick, to threaten or kill you, to decide if you can receive health care, with no sense of community, no commitment to anything beyond themselves. This is a definition of freedom that would make George Orwell wince.
This is not community. This not freedom.
When I posted my last blog I said I was not going to write about the coronavirus pandemic but due to popular demand I have relented. Actually only one person asked me to write about the pandemic but it was someone from the select group of folks who have acquired great wisdom and is counted among those "who must be obeyed". So credit or blame for this goes to Gini.
Many of us who are sequestered at home (shut ins as my friend Gary Paul calls us) are experiencing a mixture of anxiety, boredom, and cabin fever so this is a time of coping. Coping can take many forms. In the face of uncertainty here are some I'm using.
Have ice cream for breakfast, why not? Drink the good bottle of wine first, just in case - hey even atheists sometimes say a little prayer. Be comfortable - I tend to wear old ratty T shirts so I decided I would wear my favorite T shirt. Turns out its the same shirt.
The sequestering is making me more creative. Now that I have time for those projects I've been putting off I realize why I was putting them off. The creative part is finding completely new reasons to put them off again.
When I thank people in grocery stores and pharmacies now I REALLY mean it.
Doing lots of cleaning, sorting and organizing - is this what they mean when they tell you to get your affairs in order? Feels slightly ominous.
Unexpectedly I miss the gym. I never was a big fan of going to the gym but have gone 3 days a week (back issues) for many years. Hard to replicate the exercises at home.
Art matters. Favorite paintings from Julio Grande, Lynn Horton and Carol Turner still delight and the many sculptures around our home are bright spots.
There is a tendency to want what we can't have. Never big on eating out, the food is better at home, but now I have a desire to eat at a restaurant. In the meantime in an effort to keep local restaurants in business we are ordering take out from places we seldom bothered to eat at before.
Don't check the news before noon that way you will at least have a shot at a good morning. If anything good happened it wouldn't be on the news anyway.
Getting together via Zoom is a lot like gathering in person, people all talk at once and there are more talkers than listeners but everyone feels better by the end.
Irony - production of Corona beer suspended because of the corona-virus.
It is great to see so many people walking, running, biking. Dogs are getting lots of exercise and kids are actually outside many learning about unstructured play for the first time.
Some people who thought they were pretty important found out they are nonessential.
If they are heroes (e.g. grocery clerks, field hands, truckers, food processors) why don't we pay them like they matter?
Why are some pro-life people ok with people dying so they can get back to "normal"?
The American health care system is the most expensive least effective in the developed world mostly attributable to the greed that we have embraced as capitalism.
Communicable = community. When we live together in society, we depend on each other, therefore we have obligations to each other. We are all "socialists" now.
It makes me profoundly sad to think that not only is our current president incapable of offering words that will bring us together, that will unite us and provide some solace but he does not understand the need to do that. He is devoid of empathy. It is not necessary to agree with a leader's policies to be comforted and inspired by their words. I can imagine Ronald Reagan or Barark Obama speaking to the nation in a way that would help allay the fear and anxiety and let us believe that we will make it through this time of danger.
It is good to reflect that if we are well, have not had friends or neighbors or family fall victim to the health or economic impact of the pandemic that we are very lucky. We, whose worst problem is that we are stuck at home bored and anxious, are the fortunate ones. The New York Times recently printed excerpts from diaries of people under Nazi occupation during WW II. Anne Frank is the most famous of these but thousands of Jews and others went into hiding living often for years in attics, barns, closets, cellars. They often had to remain silent for longs periods to escape detection. Our confinement pales in comparison to the isolation they experienced and they did it without cell phones, internet, TV or Netflix. That does not mean that our situation doesn't pose its challenges or that we should feel guilty about it but ordinary humans like us have come through much worse.
What will we learn from this? If history is any gauge probably not much but that is probably good since we tend to take the wrong lessons from most events. But one thing is clear, leadership matters and when it is lacking people die.
The angel Gabrielle appeared at a press conference today. After blowing his horn he announced that Heaven would be unable to make the payment on its debt due at the end of the month. Heaven would in effect default on its bonds. Gabrielle disappeared without taking questions.
The default came as a major surprise to most casual observers, although experts in the field said they had been concerned about Heaven’s fiscal position for years. The default sent shock waves through world markets as investors scrambled to understand the extent of the problem and, most importantly, who the bond holders are. While virtually everyone around the world had claimed to hold a piece of Heaven it turns out that China and the Cayman Islands hold most of the bonds. Of course, the Cayman Islands declined to divulge where the bondholders actually lived or the origin of the funds.
Evangelical Republicans in the US were particularly upset, both because they abhor debt and because most of them believed that they were headed to Heaven after their time on earth. The pastor of the We Know God Church said “Honestly we don’t have a back-up plan if Heaven closes down. We are hoping that the debt can be restructured so Heaven can continue to operate.”
The director of the Debt Watch Institute, a non-partisan think tank, noted that Heaven may have fallen victim to recent demographic trends. “The world population has risen dramatically since WW II and now all those extra people are starting to show up in Heaven. This puts a lot of pressure on operating costs. If you couple that with the anti-tax movement it doesn’t leave much room to cover escalating expenses.
Gordon Norwich, of the United Taxpayers Union, stated, “I don’t care what their financial problems are you can’t have taxes in Heaven. I mean, its Heaven; need I say more?”
Several commentators suggested funding Heaven through user fees, noting that people not going to Heaven were unlikely to want to pay to support Heaven if they aren’t likely to get in. A spokesperson for Warren Buffet said the problem was brought on by the fact that most rich people, such as investment bankers, hedge fund managers and CEO’s of large corporations, are now going to Hell and no longer provide financial support to Heaven. Buffet did not rule out investing in Heaven if he could get the right deal.
Standard & Poor’s admitted that they were caught off guard by the default. Heaven had always carried a triple A credit rating. A spokesperson said that Heaven was not subject to any regulation or disclosure requirements since it was not part of this world, so obtaining financial data was difficult. “We just knew that there were undoubtedly many financial wizards in Heaven, so we assumed that its fiscal house would be in order.”
There have been hundreds of reports from people of all religious denominations who claim that God has spoken to them about the fiscal crisis in Heaven. By most accounts God has emphasized that he is not directly affiliated with Heaven. They have a long and close working relationship, but God was very clear that he is not responsible for Heaven’s debts and will not be taking any steps to bail Heaven out. In fact, God expressed some frustration that in recent years many of the people admitted to Heaven seem to think that they have it made and no longer need to pray to God or attend any religious services. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that so few religious leaders actually end up in Heaven and there are relatively few churches.
The Wall Street Journal suggested that Heaven just needs to restructure its business model. It explained that Heaven doesn’t make anything. It is a service business and one of the most recognized brands on the planet. They need to stop giving their services away and capitalize on their near universal name recognition. Millions of people credit angels with helping them with health issues, family problems and money concerns yet they collect no fees for these services. That needs to change. Likewise, every day multitudes pray to heaven for guidance and help and that should not be a free ride either. Heaven needs to adopt a straight forward fee for service model and it will be on sound financial footing in no time.
Numerous sources have speculated about a possible merger of Heaven and Hell but this could not be confirmed. A Wall Street analyst speaking anonymously said such a merger would be bad for both brands. "If Heaven and Hell merge it would be just like living on earth, so what would be the value in that"?
* * * *
This morning the angel Gabriele announced that Heaven had agreed to be acquired by a private equity firm. "As a public entity Heaven has not been able to appropriately monetize one of the best known brands in the universe" he said. "By going private we can leverage our universal brand recognition and develop an unsurpassed revenue stream as the most desirable destination in the universe by catering to a select clientele. We believe this will put Heaven on a firm financial footing for eternity. We regret any inconvenience this may cause to those now unable to achieve Heaven status."
Your Work, Your Job
I do a weekly radio program on a community radio station - shameless plug. The program “Music They Don't Want You to Hear" is broadcast Sundays on KTAL-LP from 6 to 8 p.m. Mountain Time at 101.5 FM in Las Cruces and streamed worldwide at www.lccommunityradio.org.
More than 40 people are involved with the station, hosting programs on a wide variety of topics including culture, politics, education, science and community. Music programs cover a broad spectrum of genres, from jazz to folk to Americana to rock and beyond. This includes the people who do all the technical work: station management, hardware and software support, web streaming, transmitter broadcasting and much more. There are also a myriad of administrative tasks from fund raising to paying the rent and maintaining FCC compliance. There's a lot of work involved to keep a station on the air 24 hours a day 7 days a week, a large part of it with local programming hosted by members of the community.
The interesting, perhaps amazing, part of all this is that everyone involved is a volunteer. It is not anyone's job to do any of these things. No one is paid for all the time and effort that is put in to make this a success and keep the station on the air for two and a half years and counting.
Que Tal Community radio is just one of many not-for-profits in the Las Cruces community and one of millions across the country and around the world which depend upon volunteers giving their time and talents to keep the organization running.
Executives and leaders in the corporate for-profit world will tell you that in order to attract top talent and provide incentives for hard work people must be highly compensated. CEOs and other executives routinely earn millions of dollars per year. Wall Street traders, analysts and managers receive lucrative salaries augmented by bonuses that are often hundreds of thousands of dollars or more per year. We are repeatedly told that all this is required if you were going to get the best people and their best work. Yet the same individuals will do everything possible to ensure that the front-line employees are paid as little as possible.
So Jeff Bezos at Amazon might be worth a hundred-fifteen billion dollars but an Amazon worker in a distribution center might make $15 an hour - and that is considered high by industry standards. The fast food industry is famous for its low pay, in many cases providing only minimum wage, while executives earn millions. These highly compensated executives expect and demand that the lowest paid workers on the front lines of their organizations work hard and do a good job while being friendly and polite to customers. For some reason these workers are expected to give their best without the incentive of high compensation that executives find so necessary.
It's apparent that work and job are not synonymous. I think of the distinction between work and job this way. Work is something that you find meaningful and useful and get a sense of accomplishment from. A job is something to allow you to make a living, the compensation involved being a necessary and critical component. Work and a job, like a classic Venn diagram, often significantly overlap; sometimes not so much. Many people find their jobs provide them with the opportunity to do work that is meaningful and useful. In other cases, people perform the tasks involved in a job primarily to make money.
The amount of overlap between work and jobs varies considerably and is often unrelated to compensation levels. For example, a highly compensated Wall Street broker might not see much very meaningful or useful in buying and selling stocks every day. Corporate executives may find much of what they do tedious, stressful and rewarding only monetarily. On the other hand, someone can feel a sense of accomplishment by mopping a floor and seeing it clean, by creating a satisfying meal or repairing a car.
While some people like or even love their jobs and consider those jobs to be their life's work, for many people their true work is not connected to a paying job. Such work might be coaching a youth sports team, being a volunteer firefighter, being part of a community arts group or helping at a food kitchen. All those volunteers often do work that is the equal of anything that is compensated and sometimes more.
Which begs the question of how we value work. Is the value based on the level of compensation that someone else has established for that job or how useful the work is to society or how meaningful the work is to those who do it. This is a question without a single or simple answer.
I think it is interesting to consider how we as consumers view the compensation levels of the people and organizations that provide us goods and services. Do you believe that the quality of services you receive are related to the compensation of the person delivering them? For example, do you select a doctor because he or she makes the most money and therefore you assume must be the best or because you think them to be the most capable, regardless of compensation? Would you choose a stock broker because they make the largest bonus or because they charge the least for a trade? Do you want an auto mechanic who charges the highest hourly rate or who knows the most about your car? And do you think they are one and the same?
Consider the emergency medical technician. The EMT is the person who often shows up first in a medical emergency. If you think you're having a heart attack and call 911 it's likely an EMT will show up at your door and usually very quickly. A friend of mine recently completed EMT training and reported it is a rigorous course that requires study, dedication, and passing a test to receive certification. Despite the knowledge needed and the work put into the training he reported that the EMTs in his area typically are paid about $13 an hour. So when that EMT arrives at your door to save your life do you think that the service would be better if they were with paid $26 an hour? EMTs in many areas are volunteers and are not compensated at all. Do you think that the level of service you receive will be less because they're not being paid? Or might you think that because someone cares enough to do it just to help their neighbors that they might provide a higher level of care?
It all comes down to how we value work and the people who do it. Find work you love and that is useful and good. Make your own decision about what is of value both in terms of what you do and what you value about the work of others. Get a job if you must.
The old adage says "build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door." It is a bedrock myth of capitalism, but many superior products are not successful and an inordinate number of mediocre or even bad products are best sellers. And then there is the phenomenon of products that seem to explode on the market.
Consider the pomegranate. A decade ago pomegranates were an obscure fruit that you occasionally encountered in a little corner of the produce section. It wasn't clear what you should do with it and when you cut it open it had all those red pulpy seeds to deal with. So the poor pomegranate mostly languished in the US. Then suddenly came the great pomegranate explosion. Now, capitalism would have us believe that this occurred through the invisible hand of the market and the "law" of supply and demand. So apparently millions of us woke up one morning and had to have pomegranate juice for breakfast and pomegranate shampoo and pomegranate infused everything. That invisible hand has quite a sense of humor.
Kale, apparently taking a page from the pomegranate folks, has seen a similar trajectory. I don't recall suddenly having a hankering for kale but there it is in my salad. At more than one dinner gathering I see roasted kale regularly among the snacks and hors d'oeuvres. A restaurant is offering a kale Caesar salad. Romaine is dead apparently. Kale is a lovely dark green but when roasted it has the texture of crumpled up newspaper. Not the attribute that what you might expect in a trendy food.
An historical perspective might be instructive. My wife's book group recently read a book called "Jell-O Girls" and mounted an expedition to the Jell-O Museum (now you know where all those Thanksgiving Jell-O molds her grandmother used ended up). Pearle Bixby Wait trademarked Jell-O in 1897 but sales languished. The brand was sold to Orator Francis Woodward, who devised a marketing strategy that sent armies of salesmen (ah, the good old days when men were not afraid to be selling Jell-O) door to door giving out Jell-O and cookbooks. They then went to local grocery stores and told them to expect a lot of folks to be asking for Jell-O so they better order some. Woodward coupled this with ads in magazines like the "Ladies Home Journal" and the rest is history. Jell-O became a great success and made the Woodward family very rich.
So it seems the key to success is not a better mousetrap or dessert but a better marketing plan. For both the pomegranate and kale the sudden upsurge in these products was accompanied by numerous articles about their health benefits, calling them superfoods and touting their virtues. Interesting that despite this sudden increase in demand there was never a shortage of pomegranates or kale. Now kale I can understand - it grows quickly, like lettuce, so you plant more to meet demand, but pomegranates? It takes at least 2-3 years for a pomegranate tree to even begin to produce fruit, so it would seem that someone had planned ahead and was expecting the surge in demand. All part of a good marketing plan.
But marketing does not just bring to our attention little-known products, it goes further and creates markets for products that do not exist. Think of the waffle machine that graces the breakfast counter at nearly every mid-level hotel and motel. First, enterprising hotel chains decided the way to get more customers than their competitors down the road was to offer a "free" breakfast. I put that in quotes because of course the breakfast is not free, it is paid for in your room charge. In fact, the breakfast is not only not free but you may actually be subsidizing other guests. I realized this as I was sitting and eating yogurt and a banana while a group at the next table was making their third trip for bacon and eggs and waffles. It all has to be paid for, and so those who eat less help pay for those who eat more. I'd like it better if what I didn't eat went to hungry kids.
But I digress. In the beginning of the free breakfast competition the food was mostly cereal and stale pastries. Enter the marketing genius with the self-service waffle machine. With the addition of this simple, low-maintenance machine hotels could (and did) advertise HOT breakfast and the rest, as they say, is history.
Good marketing is much more important and powerful than a good product. Remember telephones? I mean real telephones connected to what are now disparagingly called land lines. You picked up the receiver and talked to someone and, get this, they could hear you clearly with no missing words or static. Enter the cell phone. For years the words most often spoken on a cell phone were "Can you hear me? Can you hear me now?" These were phones with incredibly bad service - you often could not hear the person you were calling, there were (and are) frequent dead spots and even today the normal quality pales in comparison to a phone on a land line. This either demonstrates the power of marketing or the stupidity of the consumer - you decide.
Speaking of the dubious intelligence of us consumers and the power of marketing, think about the rise of Starbucks. By creating a mythology around an existing common product, using exotic names for small, medium and large, and renaming counter staff baristas they were able to triple the price of coffee. Others jumped on the bandwagon in one form or another. For example, Keurig essentially reinvented instant coffee compliments of a hundred-dollar machine instead of a teaspoon stirring in a cup. Marketing genius indeed.
And I cannot close without noting that what marketing has done for so many products of dubious quality it has also done for politics. Every candidate must be the new and improved version, with a beguiling back story, product endorsements and placements, a book for sale and, if at all possible, be a TV star or other celebrity. And, as with the cell phone, we consumers seem more than willing to buy one.
So instead of building a better mousetrap build a better consumer trap. It could make you rich.
Freedom by Another Name
The Tasmanian novelist Richard Flanagan wrote " A happy man has no past, an unhappy one nothing else." A nice turn of a phrase; there is something to it, I'd allow. But I would suggest a different take. A poor man has no future while a rich one buys both the past and the future he wants. Money can do that. It can allow a person to reinvent their past, retrospectively making them popular in high school, turning them into war heroes, giving them previously missing friends and lovers, and converting mean-spirited greed into the braggadocio of business gurus. And, of course, it gives the person the means to buy the future they choose, or at least the material aspects of it.
A meaningful future means being able to chose a path that the person desires. This ability to chose is freedom. The poor have limited choices while people of economic, political and social means get to chose - the best school for their children, a place to live that has little crime or pollution, a prestigious college, a career with a future, not a dead-end job, and activities such as golf or tennis that provide social and political connections. As Seneca, the Roman Stoic philosopher, is reported to have said, "You are your choices." But you are just as surely the choices that are available to you. If you cannot avail yourself of them, they are not choices at all.
It has always been thus. Slaves had no choices; they did only what they were told; all choices were made for them. Since emancipation there has been a steady widening of choices for African Americans but it has happened painfully slowly, with institutional constraints at every turn, from Jim Crow to mass incarceration, from segregated schools to defacto, if not dejure, segregated neighborhoods.
The path for women was perhaps not as onerous but was still slow and laborious. Historically women were legally considered the chattel of their husbands; one of his possessions. Any property she might hold before her marriage became her husband's on her wedding day; she had no legal right to appear in court, to sign contracts or to do business. And, of course, she could not vote. After two centuries of incremental improvement women still have fewer choices than men - they are paid less for the same work, have less access to top level jobs, are underrepresented in political office and do not have complete legal control over their own bodies, usually as a result of decisions made by male-dominated organizations. Woman still have fewer choices. Freedom still alludes them.
The situation for gays and lesbians is particularly interesting. After being hidden and often reviled, with little or no discernable change for virtually forever, amazing progress has occurred in a very short period of time. The freedom to chose marriage seemed well out of reach just a decade ago and now it is happening everywhere. How did this happen so fast? Probably because activists in this community cleverly turned what had been seen as a social issue into a civil rights cause. Americans responded to the appeal to simple fairness and to the plight of the underdog. But just as important was the fact that many of the individuals in this group were not poor, were white, and had the means and connections that provided the power to effect change.
But it is not just groups of people who are seen as "different" or "outsiders" whose choices are limited, it is everyone without means. If you are poor, and increasingly even if middle class, you may not be legally prohibited from buying a house in a desirable neighborhood, but without money the effect is the same. So you are likely to be stuck in a neighborhood with higher crime, more pollution and poorer schools, regardless of what choice you would like to make. Fewer choices equals less freedom.
Money and power are inexorably entwined. Money buys power and power begets money. For many of those with power it is not sufficient that they have more choices and more freedom; they are intent on others having less. Much of that power is directed at limiting the choices of people of lesser means and power. This need manifests itself on many fronts. Take abortion as an example. One could perhaps understand a moral aversion to the practice. But if that was the case such people would be leading the efforts for sex education, family planning and the universal availability of every conceivable type of contraception. Instead, what we see is a concerted effort to prohibit access to women’s health care and to suppress their ability to make their own choices.
Choice is privilege. The more choices a person has available to them typically the more privileged they are, and the more freedom they not only have, but importantly, can exercise.
The country is in the midst of a great struggle, perhaps the greatest since the Civil War, and choice is fundamental to that struggle. It is between the privileged, predominately white males, and the "others" - people of color, people of lesser means, people who are different. Much as the Civil War was started by the southern elites - plantation slave owners - this struggle has been undertaken by the current elite of white people in positions of power in government, business, and the media.
This war is being waged on many fronts: On voters, using voter suppression, gerrymandering, reductions in polling places and times, to reduce participation among non-elites; on workers by destroying unions, driving pay to starvation levels (try living on a minimum wage job, or two or three), outsourcing to minimize those getting benefits, doing away with defined benefit pension plans and creative use of bankruptcy; on students, by privatizing schools, vilifying teachers and minimizing their pay, raising tuition and fees, charging exorbitant interest on student loans and the establishment of a network of private schools and tutoring; on values, by the substitution of money for virtue, integrity and morality by the religions of prosperity, the capitulation of campaign financing to the ultra-wealthy, the maximization of shareholder value at the expense of society, the environment and ultimately our democracy and our future. Each of these efforts limit choices for groups of people and thereby reduce their freedom.
Be not distracted by tweets and outrageous gibberish. It is on these battlefields that freedom, choice and equality will be determined. As Florence Reece famously asked in her song, "Which Side Are You On?'
One Small Voice
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