Thursday, March 24, 2011

Why Do Workers, Children, and the Poor Get Stuck With the Bill?

Today’s New York Times carried an article indicating that many states were trying to partially solve their budget crises by cutting back on direct aid to major cities and local government.  This of course will result in one of several things … decreased local services to people who need services, increased layoffs/unemployment, or, less likely, increased property taxes.

So at the Federal level, Republicans want to cut the budget by slashing domestic programs which are supplying needed services to the American worker, the poor and their families.  The states are cutting their budgets by also cutting needed services, reducing salaries and benefits for public service workers, and cutting aid to local government, which will have the impact noted above.

The cumulative impact of this method of addressing admittedly serious budget problems at the federal, state, and local levels will be to exacerbate the effects of poverty, to harm children, and to increase unemployment, which will in turn hurt the economic recovery.  This is not a rational response by government.   But then, rarely have so many of the people with power in government (of course I’m referring to Republicans) been less rational and more ideological.

If anyone, including President Obama, had any guts and true leadership ability, the federal government would have followed some version of the recommendations made by the several nonpartisan/bipartisan commissions on reducing the deficit.  While they differed in details, they all had these points in common.  Given the size of the budget reduction needed, cuts need to be made in all areas of government, including defense, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid and appropriate taxes needed to be raised. 

Only through this combination of austerity measures will the pain be shared by all.   This approach would also allow the application of a “needs” test, resulting in those who can afford more contributing more to the budget reduction.  The weakest members of our society should not have to bear the brunt of the load.

Under the American social contract, all citizens are in this boat together, and each is responsible for contributing to the cause according to his ability … with rights and riches comes a concomitant responsibility.  That is why the income tax is a progressive tax, with higher incomes paying a higher percentage. 

That basic tenet, which was developed under both Republican and Democratic progressive administrations in the early years of the 20th century, seems to have been relegated to the dustbin of history by the current Republican anti-government credo and by the new power elite who seem to have no sense of social obligation towards their fellow citizens.

William Jennings Bryan once famously said, “You shall not crucify labor upon a cross of gold.”  I would paraphrase that and say, “You shall not crucify the poor, children, and workers upon a cross of subsidies for business and tax breaks for the rich.”

Monday, March 21, 2011

Crimes Against Nature … Specifically Monkeys

I’m referring to a recent report about the Oregon National Primate Research Center’s experiments with obese monkeys.  Basically, they have created couch-potato obese monkeys on which to test various products and procedures designed to fight obesity in humans.

Now, I am not categorically against using animals for research purposes.   There are instances where the issue is important enough and there is no other possible research tool.  While the rising rate of obesity in our culture is certainly an important issue, there is no excuse for subjecting these monkeys to the horrible life that they lead.  These monkeys are kept in individual cages for “months or years,” compared with other monkeys at the facility that have more zoo-like living conditions.

Before continuing, however, let me first address a basic issue concerning animal rights.  As has been proven in study after study, and as should be quite apparent to anyone who observes animals closely … be they dogs, monkeys, chickens, or whatever … animals are feeling, sentient beings. 

The typical rationale for using monkeys and other animals for research is that while sharing many physiological and psychological traits with humans, thus making them ideal for research purposes, they are of a “lower order” and thus can be used for research.   They are animals, after all, not humans.

The arrogance of such a view while not surprising for a people who until recently viewed people of color or “primitives” as lower orders of humans is nevertheless abominable. In this view of the universe, man … as the premiere thinking being … has both the power and the right to subject all other creatures and forms of nature to his will.  But human beings are also animals, and in a far more basic sense than most humans would care to acknowledge.

But back to the case in point … research concerning obesity.  There is no mystery as to why the obesity rate is so much higher now than it has been in the past.   How much any particular activity … be it eating fatty or sugary junk food or sitting for hours before the television and computer … impacts obesity may not be known, but the constellation of factors certainly is. 

Likewise, the answer to the obesity problem is just as clear.  People in our culture need to change their diet and their habits.  They need to eat healthy and exercise more.   It’s as simple as that.   Granted it may not be simple to get people to do those things, but that’s because of the messages constantly being sent by our culture and its marketing apparatus. I’m sure that if there were a profit motive, the marketing gurus could certainly come up with an effective ad campaign that would turn these bad habits around.

But instead of upsetting the course of our culture … a kudo by the way to Michelle Obama for taking on this cultural phenomenon in the right way … Americans as usual are looking for the “easy” way … a pill they can take, or a procedure they can have done.  Federal funding for this research should stop.

Human beings need to understand that while they may be at the top of the animal food chain … that is as long as they aren’t put in a cage with a lion or similar animal … that we all … humans, animals, plants, and minerals … share this planet and have an appropriate place in its ecosystem. 

Man, with his intelligence and power, is the only actor that has the ability to destroy the planet’s ecosystem and thus ultimately himself.  It is thus critically important, not just because of the climate change issue but for a host of reasons, for man to learn his place in the larger scheme of things and act accordingly.

Friday, March 11, 2011

American Exceptionalism, Bullying and Mean Girls – An Excess of Self-Esteem Or Just the Opposite

As much as I respect and admire David Brooks, he got it wrong this time.  In his March 10 op-ed piece, “The Modesty Manifesto,” he notes how we have turned into a culture of self-aggrandizement.  How we have become a society of individuals who think they are special and that they are entitled to things, rather than having to earn it.

While I would agree with Brooks’ observation, he is mistaken when he equates this common bravado for an increase in Americans’ self-esteem.  On the contrary, it is yet further evidence of how insecure and hollow Americans’ lives have become.

It is a well-known psychological fact that having a huge ego is typically a façade, a coping mechanism for deep feelings of insecurity and anxiety.  And the size of the ego and extent of aggression is directly related to the amount of insecurity.

Brooks sites several writers who point out that the generation of people now in their 20s grew up bathed in praise and messages that they are special.  While it may well be that such action on the part of parents was meant to increase self-esteem, in fact it increases insecurity.  When a child is told he is special, but knows deep down that he is not and that the praise is not grounded on anything specific, he feels he is being told that he is expected to be special and thus feels under pressure to indeed be special, creating huge insecurities.

If we were to search for a poster child for this American feeling of exceptionalism, we would have to look no further than George W. Bush.  While I have no idea how he was raised, he certainly would have had the burden of feeling that he was supposed to be special because of his family’s history. 

Instead, he knew he was a nothing and failed at one thing after another.   But he did find the gift of gab; of giving the impression that he was very sure of himself.  As President, he certainly displayed great bravado and certainty … he was “the Decider” … but it was such a pathetic façade.  One just had to look into his eyes, and watch his facial expressions to know that here was a man who felt totally insecure and out of his element.

Brooks is correct when he wonders whether this phenomenon is connected to the “social and political problems we have observed over the past few years.”   But the cause is our increased insecurity, not an increase in our self-esteem.

Which brings me to an article that I had just completed yesterday before I read David Brooks’ piece:

"The Societal Cost of Low Self-Esteem"

If you look at all the suffering in the world, at the people who do bad things to their fellow man and environment as well as to themselves, you will find a person who has low self-esteem. 

Whether it’s the bully on the school playground, the mean girls in the classroom, the drug addict, the father who verbally abuses or just isn’t there for his children, the business manager who is a tyrant in the office, the politician or commentator who is a demagogue, spewing hatred against those who do not think as he does and not believing in the American social contract, or even the terrorist … all of these people suffer from low self-esteem.

“Now wait a minute,” you might be thinking, “these are people who often exhibit huge egos.  Where does he get off saying that these people have low self-esteem?” 

Having a huge ego is typically a façade, a coping mechanism for deep feelings of insecurity and anxiety.  This is a well-known psychological fact, with the size of the ego and extent of aggression being directly related to the amount of insecurity.

I make this point because we live in a world with so much suffering at so many levels … not just now but throughout history.  These problems seem overwhelming and not susceptible to easy or even hard and costly solutions.  Certainly force, whether military or societal, is not an answer.

Is there a way to apply our knowledge regarding the effect of low self-esteem to address this large societal issue?  As a Buddhist, I believe that there is.

First let me state, briefly, the Buddhist perspective on suffering.   We are all born essentially perfect with the true Buddha nature inside us.  What happens after birth is that we are exposed to numerous environmental factors, first from our immediate family and then our peers and the broader society, that cause us to put labels on both ourselves and everything in our lives. 

These labels create conflict and stress, they are the causes of our neuroses.  Over the years, these layers of learned experience form an almost impenetrable barrier between us and our true Buddha nature … and between us and the world around us.  They are the clouds that keep us from seeing the blue sky that is always there.  We come to think of ourselves as being our ego.

The Buddha taught that the way to end suffering is to first be aware that we suffer, then understand the causes of suffering, realize that there is a path to stop our suffering, and finally follow that path.  Central to this process is understanding the impermanence of all things and the illusory nature of all perceptions, because they are all dependent on our learned experience. 

When we experience something, we see and feel it as filtered through our mind.  A key part of Buddhist training is to become able to experience things directly as they really are without the intervention of thought.

I need to note here that while Buddhist philosophy is not inconsistent with Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism, it is at odds with the concept of original sin in Christianity, under which man is seen as being born into a general condition of sinfulness.

But regardless of that doctrinal difference, all would agree that no child anywhere in the world, no matter what culture they are born into, are born with low self-esteem.  For that curse we have to thank the impact of their families, their peers, and their culture on their development.

Now don’t misunderstand me.  I am fully aware that people are born subject to all sorts of things … their socio-economic status, IQ, physical or mental condition, etc.   But none of these is inherently a source of low self-esteem.   It is how either the family, peers, or culture react to those conditions and what the child learns from that experience that cause low self-esteem.

So if our families, peers, and culture cause low self-esteem, then those same forces have the ability to not cause low self-esteem.   The question, however, is, since one is not starting with a clean slate where to begin to break the vicious cycle that we are in?

Because the older we are, the more invested our psyches are in our ego-driven low self-esteem, creating more of a challenge both to be aware of our suffering and to free ourselves of it, it makes sense starting to break the cycle with the newly born and young children.

The key to self-esteem for the newly- born and toddlers lies with parents.  Unfortunately, parents receive no training in being a parent, other than their own experience as a child, which rarely provides a good role model. And they are usually not well equipped to deal with the stresses of child rearing because of their own self-esteem and psychological stresses.  This is true even for those parents who read child-rearing books assiduously, because the implementation of any recommendations depends on their own mental state.

So the first step is to educate parents, both regarding the importance of childhood self-esteem, but also to boost their own self-esteem.  This can happen at various junctures.  One is when they apply for a marriage license.  All prospective parents should be required to undergo a course in parenting skills.  Another juncture is secondary education.  All seniors should take a course regarding functioning in an adult world, part of which would include lessons on parenting skills.  In both these instances, the process should include building up the individual’s own self-esteem.

Regarding young children, the forum for improving self-esteem needs to shift primarily to the school system because that is where the greatest chance for affecting change lies.  There is no shortage of stories about teachers who expect nothing of their students, berate them, and treat them like they were stupid.  But, there are also models of schools that have no tolerance for that type of teacher behavior and that foster positive self-esteem among their pupils.  To date, this has primarily been looked at from the perspective of how to improve student performance.  Equally important is how good self-esteem will impact their interaction within their future families, with colleagues, and with the world at large.

To the extent possible, parents of these children need to be brought into the self-esteem program through parent-teacher conferences and other mechanisms. This will increase the likelihood that the children will benefit meaningfully from the program.

Some conservative critics may say that this is an example of government stepping in where it has no business.   I would strongly disagree and say that government has few tasks more urgent than ensuring that children grow up to become good productive citizens.  And increasing self-esteem is an essential part of that process.

It will take generations to affect such a change in our psychological health across all age groups.  But if we want to achieve anything even approximating peace in the family, peace in schools, peace in the workplace, peace among citizens, and peace in the world, then we have no choice.  If we continue as we have for generations, nothing will change.  The path is clear.  We have but to embrace it whole-heartedly and with dedication.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Make Proposed Budget Cuts Transparent for the American People

Believe it or not, but the American people have not been told the impact of the proposed $61 billion budget cuts recently passed by the House of Representatives.  Yes, they’ve been told that health, education, and safety will be impacted, and that some jobs will be lost, but they’ve been given very few specifics to react to.

So today I tried to find out what that impact would be.  To my shock and dismay, I found that there was no … I repeat … no source that answered that question.   No newspaper, no magazine, no government report, no Democratic Party position paper … nothing.   I searched the Internet in vain.  All I could find were the same vague statements being repeated over and over again.

And so I went digging for specifics.  Here’s what I could find:

            $75 million      Would deprive 11,000 homeless veterans of vouchers for housing
            In total, programs benefiting children are cut 21%
            $330 million    Health
            $2.6  billion     Education … for example, significant cuts are made in Head Start
                                        and other early education efforts that would cause 368,000 children
                                        to lose early education slots.  These cuts will also cause many
                                        Head Start programs to close and many teachers to lose their jobs.
            $139 million    Youth Training
            $3.5  billion     Housing subsidies
            $30   million    Safety
            $782 million    Nutrition, mostly from the successful WIC (Women with Infant
                                        Children) program
Food and Health Safety:
            $1.3  billion     cuts from FDA, FSIS, and CDC budgets.  These cuts will iimpact
                                        everything from the number of federal meat inspectors ($53
                                        million) to dollars spent to control the spread of HIV.
Border and Immigration
            $600 million

The bill would also completely eliminate federal funding for a host of programs including Americorps, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting  (NPR and PBS), and Planned Parenthood. 

The number of jobs .. both government (federal, state, and local) and private … that would be lost as a result of the $61 billion in budget cuts has been estimated as high as 700,000.  Needless to say, any sizeable increase in unemployment will hurt the economy and hurt families.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg.  WHY hasn’t the Democratic Party or any news organization put together this vital information, preferably in a comprehensible form, so that the people can see what is happening and voice their opposition … if indeed they are opposed … to their representatives in Congress?

Remember that 2-years extension of the Bush tax cuts for those earning more than $250,000 that the Republicans insisted on and the Democrats opposed.  That tax cut added $100 billion to the deficit for just that 2-year period.  But the Republicans won’t consider the impact of tax cuts on the deficit.  This is a clear example how they give to the rich and take from the poor and workers.  For them, there is no shared sacrifice.

If ever there is a need for effective communication, that time is now!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Hate Speech Has No Redeeming Social Value and Should Be Prohibited

Chief Justice Roberts was right when he wrote in yesterday’s opinion protecting the speech of protestors at a military funeral that “debate on public issues should be robust, uninhibited and wide-open.”   However, the particular speech in this case that he and the seven concurring justices ruled was protected by the 1st Amendment consisted of, “God Hates Fags,”  “God Hates Your Tears,” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.”

As Justice Alito said in his lone dissent, these words are more like fighting words … a “vicious, verbal assault … brutalizing innocent victims.”  For once I agree with Justice Alito.

The United States has a long history of upholding the most heinous forms of speech, so long as that speech does not directly incite violence or otherwise endanger people.  Most of the countries of Europe and Canada, on the other hand, have laws that criminalize hate speech.

Why the difference?  Part of the difference stems from Europe’s experience with the Holocaust.   They understand more clearly the evil that hate speech can bring about.

But mostly the reason lies with the interpretation of our 1st Amendment, which prohibits any laws that infringe on the freedom of speech.  Absent a “clear and present danger,” the courts have generally held that even the most vile and hateful speech is protected.

So the result, for example, is that while it is illegal to discriminate against someone on the basis of race, religion, etc., it is not against the law to encourage hatred against African-Americans, Jews, or any other group.

The question that must be asked is, why is discrimination prohibited but hate speech allowed?  There is no rational answer.   The answer is historical … the right of free speech has long been a sacred cow of American constitutional jurisprudence. 

But hate speech does not foster reasoned debate on issues of national import.  Rather it fosters just the opposite.  It fosters at a minimum highly emotional positions that actually hinder reasoned debate, and at worst it fosters an atmosphere of fear that can lead to violence.  Additionally, it tears apart our social fabric.  Thus, even absent a “clear and present danger,” there is no reason to protect such speech.

The argument against prohibiting such speech is that it presents a “slippery slope.”  Once you allow for one type of speech to be prohibited, where do you draw the line? 

But the right already is deemed not to be absolute.  Thus the question becomes whether such speech has value … “redeeming social value” in the context of the obscenity cases … to America’s marketplace of ideas, to the furtherance of rational discourse.

The answer is, “no.”  We prohibit discrimination, we prohibit hate crimes, we should prohibit hate speech.