Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Darkness Before Light

We learn that life is a struggle between the forces of light and darkness.  Buddhism sees the conflict as between your heart and your ego-mind.  In Christianity, it’s between God and the Devil.  

Many holy men have taught that there can be no light without darkness, without first suffering you cannot learn how to free yourself from suffering.  In this line of thinking, we drift from the true Buddha nature or God-essence we were born with because without suffering first, we cannot live a truly spiritual life.  To be spiritual without having ever suffered is almost an oxymoron.  Our suffering grounds our spirituality.

I have certainly experienced personally, and I have observed it in many others, that until one reaches rock bottom in one’s suffering, an all-enveloping darkness, we do not have the motivation to change our habit-energy.  We cannot fully release ourselves from the emotions, judgments, cravings, or attachments that cause our suffering.  

No matter how strongly people may feel and honestly mean that, for example, they want an end to their addiction, until they hit rock bottom they will not be able to emerge and remain sober.  That is why, regardless the nature of the addiction, the typical scenario is that people return to their addiction over and over again.

During a recent meditation, I became aware that this personal lesson applies equally well to societies and nations.  Take for example anti-semitism.  It has existed for most of the Christian era and despite the fact that in the U.S. and other countries it is no longer politically correct to voice such feelings, they are still there not that far beneath the surface.

Only one society hit rock bottom with regard to this darkness … Germany.  Because of Hitler and the holocaust, the German people have taken it upon themselves, especially the post-WWII generations, to free themselves from this blight.  And they have been very thorough and disciplined about it.  They have gone far beyond passing laws making racial hate speech and action against the law.  Even today, 70 years after the end of the war, children are taught in the schools about the holocaust in a very unvarnished way so that they understand and will never countenance any form of anti-semitism.

The United States, unfortunately, has never dealt with its history of slavery and racial discrimination with anything close to the same determined thoroughness.   After the cataclysmic Civil War, nothing was done in the north or the south to rid the nation of this cancer on its soul.  Yes, the 14th amendment was passed guaranteeing the government’s equal treatment of all, but there was no accompanying national effort to root out racism and free ourselves of it once and for all.  And so it just festered.  

Almost a century later came the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and other laws which brought more legal equality to African-Americans, outlawing discrimination not just by the state but by corporations and individuals in many settings.  And while these laws brought about meaningful changes in the their lives, it did nothing to change the underlying racism and discrimination present throughout much of our society.

Why have we come such a little distance in this matter which is of such great importance to the soul and welfare of our country?  Part of the reason is that during the short period when the defenders of slavery were weak, immediately after the Civil War, the government did nothing to change the underlying pattern and reeducate people; the tactics of the Reconstruction Era were a farce and did more harm than good.  

After that short period, the defenders of racism became strong again; the white forces that opposed racism, relatively weak.  They had been, after all, primarily against slavery, not endemic racism, and slavery was no more.  Yes, a century later they managed to pass some needed laws, but doing what would have been necessary to cleanse the country was not even under discussion.  Partly because it would have meant cleansing the north of racism as well, and there would have been little support for that.  Partly because it was just taken as a given that racism would exist; it was not extinguishable.

Now the dark head of racism and bigotry has raised itself once again.  During the recent presidential election, the level of vilification leveled at various classes of Americans, and immigrants, by a major party candidate was unheard of in modern times.  And it has empowered a small core of Trump supporters to unleash its racial venom in the form of acts of violence and vandalism.

After the election, I urged the people to rise up in the spirit of Gandhi and MLK and demonstrate en masse in solidarity with all those being attacked as well as the long-suffering American worker through a new organization, American Solidarity, but to no avail.  See my posts, “How to Respond to the Election?” and “The Case for Civil Disobedience,” and www.americansolidarity.org.

But after the President’s recent executive order barring entry to all people from seven Muslim-majority countries as well as all refugees from Syria, there has been a groundswell of protest across the country against what is seen as an assault on human rights and the historic openness of America.  

Everyone supports vetting travelers and refugees for possible terrorist leanings.  We need to protect the country from a very real danger.  But Trump’s action was over-broad, smacked of Islamophobia, and because of its incendiary nature was felt by many to actually increase the threat of terrorism not decrease it.

Will this outpouring of support for respect and against bigotry towards Muslims, caused by our current darkness, build into a movement that attacks the more deeply rooted racism and bigotry that America continues to labor under?  Or will we need to descend further into this pit so that the American people and government finally cannot escape what it needs to do in this matter?  

I certainly hope that we don’t need to descend so far.  On the other hand, I fear that if we don’t, the whole episode will be papered over and nothing fundamental will change.  The lives of Muslims, women, and LGBT people, even Latinos, will probably get back on track.  But for Blacks, their lives will remain basically the same as they have since the end of slavery.  Yes, they can stay in hotels, and eat in restaurants, and many blacks have risen out of poverty and have good jobs, but in more fundamental ways nothing has really changed.

Monday, January 16, 2017

More Proof That the Problems of Inner Cities Are Not Caused by Black Culture

In an earlier post of mine, “The Cause of Urban Ghetto Violence Cannot Be Placed on a Failure of the Black Community,” I argued that while many, especially Republicans, criticize Blacks for the violence in the urban ghetto community, that causal connection is false.  It is not a function of Black culture.  It is instead the product of poverty and the soul-crushing experience of life in the modern urban ghetto.  This is what has caused the supposed “failure” of Black culture and families.  An argument supported by the existence of violence and gangs in every urban ghetto around the world.

Here's more proof.  Recently a friend shared with me something startling from a book he was reading, There Are No Children Here, about the devastating life in a broken Chicago housing project - the Henry Horner Homes - in the 1980s.  This project was completed and first occupied in 1957.  Describing her experience as an early resident in the 1960s, the children’s grandmother, Lelia Mae, “told the children, to their disbelief, that families used to keep their doors unlocked at night.  During the summers, she told them, they might even spend the nights outside, sleeping on the lawn.  The old days she spoke of seemed bright and cheery.”

And Lelia Mae’s experience was not an anomaly, as shown by a New York Times article in 2009 about lives in the early years of the city’s housing projects.  Here two quotes:  “In the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, a sense of pride and community permeated. Far from dangerous, the projects were viewed as nurturing.”  “Doors were kept unlocked as kids bounced from one apartment to the next on rainy Saturdays to watch Laurel and Hardy and Hopalong Cassidy on television. People did the right thing, or they could force you to leave.”

What a difference from life in the projects in the mid-80s when the book was written.  What a difference from life in the projects, or generally in the inner city ghetto, today.

What has caused this extreme deterioration in the quality of life for everyone living in the inner city ghetto?  (I know that’s probably not a politically correct phrase, but that is in fact what it is.) 

Once again, it is not a function of Black culture or a failure of Black one-parent households.  Or even just of poverty.  All of that was present in the 1950s.  The experience of Lelia Mae when she first lived in the Henry Horner Homes, together with other stories such as those noted in The New York Times article, is proof positive that the cause of the problem does not have the word “Black” attached to it.

Actually, just the opposite.  It was the strength, faith, values, and resilience of Black culture that enabled generations to endure poverty and discrimination in the aftermath of slavery and still retain a remarkable life-affirming attitude and quality of life.

So what happened?  The deterioration was caused instead in large part by the morphing of black social gangs with their limited turf violence into criminal drug syndicates.  This had two consequences.  It brought the violence that marks the battle for money and turf in any criminal environment, whether it’s within the Italian-American mafia or between Black gangs.  And it made drugs readily available to vulnerable ghetto residents.  When gangs such as El Rukn, the most notorious and violent of the Black Chicago gangs of the period, brought heroin into the ghetto in the mid80s, followed by other highly-addictive drugs, things got even worse … the violence more pervasive, the addiction darker.

The reader may ask, “Why haven’t Italian-American neighborhoods been devastated by mafia-related violence and drugs like inner city neighborhoods?  Isn’t the difference due to the nature of Black culture?”

No, the reason is that the mafia kept their drugs and violence mostly away from where they lived, seeking out instead vulnerable communities.  But the zone of activity of El Rukn and other Black gangs was limited to the inner city ghetto because that was the only community available to them, as Blacks, to infiltrate.  Also, the poverty and joblessness in the ghetto created a vulnerable group susceptible to the addictive quality of drugs, despite the strength of Black culture.

The other prominent cause were changes in the way the housing projects and welfare were administered.  Incomes were capped in 1971, forcing less poor tenants to move out.  Funds were cut in many housing agencies creating serious, ongoing, maintenance problems which degraded the buildings and apartments.  In Chicago, because of funding cuts, tenants were no longer carefully screened resulting in people with criminal records moving in.  In general, the projects stopped being tightly administered.

Also, until the early 1960s, the black family had been stable for decades, with roughly 80% being headed by two parents.  That changed dramatically in the 1960s due to a combination of the disappearance of jobs traditionally held by many low-skilled Black men and the new welfare rule which prohibited aid to families if there was an able-bodied man in the house.  This rule forced many unemployed men to move out so their families could receive aid.  

Although the rule was declared unconstitutional by the U. S. Supreme Court in 1968, it continued to be used in many localities for years.  For example, I know for a fact that it was used in Chicago, where I was a Legal Aid lawyer in the early 70s, even if a man visited occasionally.

All of this combined to greatly change the nature of the housing project community and the environment they lived in.  It changed it from safe and nurturing to dangerous and demeaning, open to infiltration by the gangs and drugs.

Previous eras of inner-city ghetto poverty were hard, and certainly many black men found it impossible to have a semblance of self-esteem in that environment.  Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun is eloquent testimony to that struggle.  

But this was something new. This violence turned the ghetto into a war zone, both in the sense of people fearing for their lives and in the sense that the worst-hit neighborhoods looked like war zones.  That and the epidemic of drug addiction the gangs fostered turned the ghetto into a truly degrading place for humans to live and it has spawned generations of damaged, highly dysfunctional children who grow up to be lost adults.  

How could anyone grow up in that environment and not be so impacted?  Yes, of course there are those who manage to rise above it and escape, whether it’s because of an exceptional parent or the good fortune of having had a mentor in school who believed in them.  But no part of society should be so structured that it is the exceptions who grow to become healthy, reasonably fulfilled, responsible adults and citizens.  

It should be everyone’s birthright in our democracy to have an equal opportunity to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.  And as the Declaration of Independence states, it is the role of government to secure that opportunity.  It is society’s responsibility … for government is just an expression of the society from which it springs.

But as I said in the previous referred-to post, society prefers the ease of finger-pointing at Black culture to place blame.  “If it wasn’t the fault of the poor, if the problem wasn’t self-inflicted, then the larger society would have both a social and a moral obligation to correct the situation, to remove or at least ameliorate the causal factors.  

But we do not want to drastically change the way our societies are structured, the way resources are distributed by government, the deeply embedded racism against the ethnic poor, and the pervasive discrimination directed towards all poor.  And so life for the poor continues more or less as it always has, even while receiving meager assistance in the U.S. and other countries from the government.

This is just one more example of the impact of the lack of humanity in our society  (see my post, “Healing Our Nation, Healing Ourselves”).  And our nation, as well as the rest of the world, will not move forward unless the essence of humanity is rediscovered by us humans, individually and collectively.”

We have so far to go.  And after the recent election, we have just taken many steps backward.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Case for Compulsory Language Education for Immigrants

The functioning of a healthy democracy and society requires that all members of that society feel a part of it.  They can have complaints, arguments, but they need to still feel part of it.

There are several things that indicate I believe that we don’t have a healthy democracy at this point in our history.  The one is the percentage of people who don’t vote.  Typically 40-45% of the eligible voters don’t vote, even in a presidential election which gets the highest voter turnout.  Why?  People often say they don’t feel their vote makes a difference; in various ways they indicate they are politically estranged.

But when you look at who doesn’t vote … 20-somethings, Hispanics, and those making less than $30,000/yr are much less likely to register and vote than others … the more fundamental reason is likely that they don’t feel part of the system, part of society.  Why?  Because they don’t see themselves as benefiting from it.  That has to change.  But that’s a topic for another post.

Another, which has reached I believe a true danger point in the 2016 election, is that half of the population feels that it has no commonality with the other half.  I do not believe this is an overstatement.  I do not know if there has been any point in time, with the exception of the Civil War era, when the country has been so deeply divided.  It’s not that we haven’t often been divided 50/50, but the division has never been so sharp, the passions so visceral.

But in this post, I want to address another problem area … the percentage of Americans who can barely speak English, if at all.  America has always been a nation of immigrants.  In all the waves of immigration in the 19th and first half of the 20th century, immigrants settled in areas of a city or the country where other immigrants from their country lived and their native language was freely spoken.

But whether it was because they wanted to be proud Americans or whether they felt it was necessary if they were to get ahead in life, they made it their business to learn English.  The older generation might only learn to speak English haltingly and with a heavy accent, but the younger people always became fluent English speakers.

For most immigrants, this pattern of assimilation still holds true.  But it is not true for many Hispanics.  Why?  The main reason I believe is that there is so many of them that they comprise a culture unto themselves.  To the point that if they don’t get more than a high school education and work in the jobs available to that cohort, they don’t need English, or barely, to meet the requirements of their jobs.

According to the 2011 Census, sixty-two percent of Hispanics (not just recent immigrants; they have no published data on recent immigrants) spoke Spanish at home; the next highest were Chinese at 5%.  The other percentages are miniscule.  While a large percentage (25%) of those Hispanics did not speak English well or not at all, the data make clear that the vast majority of Hispanics in this country, even those who speak Spanish at home, are fluent in English.

But the actual number of Limited English Proficiency Hispanics is large enough that this weakens the health of our democracy because if you don’t speak the common, native language, then you do not feel part of the larger society.  You only feel part of a separate society.  

For that reason, while I am as liberal and progressive as one can be, I have always supported the proposition that immigrants must learn English to become citizens and that English should be the only language officially used … for example, on signage of all types, instruction on ATMs, elections materials, etc.  Obviously one can’t implement this “English only” standard at the current time because we have not had this education requirement.

One of the things I’ve done as a volunteer is tutor adult immigrants in English.  I’ve seen how hard it is for them to learn English.  First, it’s not an easy language.  But more importantly, they typically live in a household where English is not spoken and they associate with friends who don’t speak English, at least amongst themselves.  Many have not worked or were in menial jobs with other same-language immigrants.  

So they have lessons for an hour or two a week, but then they are immersed not in an English-speaking environment but in their native language environment, and so they make very slow progress.  (Interestingly, I haven't personally seen Hispanics in the programs I’ve been part of.)

To break this pattern, I suggest the United States needs to introduce compulsory language education for all new or recent immigrants under the age of, say, 60 who have not yet obtained U.S. citizenship.  And it needs to be sufficiently robust that it works.  It needs to be for several hours, several days a week, so that the new language can begin to take hold.  And it needs to be available at enough times so that it does not interfere with an immigrant’s attempts to find employment.

Luckily, we have an infrastructure of schools in every neighborhood in every city.  These public buildings typically go unused after the regular school day is over.  They can and should be put to use in the new compulsory language education program.

Yes, this will mean an added expense for government budgets, but it is I feel a critically important expense if we are to maintain both the health of our democracy and the character of this country.  We are not, like Canada, an historically bi-lingual country.  However, we have in many respects already become a bi-lingual country, not by virtue of the number of Hispanics who have immigrated here, but because we have not had in place systems and requirements regarding their learning English.

This must change.  And while I would not make it a requirement for those who have already become U.S. citizens, the government should make English courses readily available so that if a citizen wants to learn English, there are as few barriers as possible.

During this transition period, how should the existence of English/Spanish signage, etc., be handled?  I would suggest that after a one or two year “warning” period, all signage should revert to English only.  That is an important way of making this new requirement work.

It is important to note that this program would be targeted at and aid all immigrants in becoming productive members of our society, not just Hispanics.  I have tutored Asian and Arab immigrants.  They have been very motivated, but the obstacles to their learning English, as I indicated above, are substantial.

This proposal is not anti-immigrant and should not discourage immigrants.  It is also not against retaining immigrant culture (as a child of immigrants, I value that culture very much).  Instead, it shows immigrants clearly that we welcome you and want you to become a valued part of our country.  But that means learning the language so you can prosper and partake fully of what the country offers.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Capitalism Is Not the Answer; Capitalism Is the Problem - But What To Do?

A recent article in The New Yorker, “Rage Against the Machine,” commenting on several recent books about the future of robotic automation, shows clearly the disaster - massive unemployment - that will be created by this technology in the next 10-20 years due to the unending desire of corporations to increase profits by reducing labor costs through automation.  Capitalism is thus clearly not the answer to our economic future, as many hold.  Capitalism is the problem.*

To answer the question of how many jobs are at risk, the article cites a 2013 Oxford University study which concluded that “nearly half of all occupations in the United States are ‘potentially automatable,’ perhaps within ‘a decade or two.’”  Another said that if a job can be learned by repetition, then whether manual or cognitive the job can probably be done by a computer.  The various books cited arrive at more or less the same conclusion to the question, “How long before you, too, lose your job to a computer?”  The answer is, “Not long.”

The article makes clear that this process is already well underway.  Amazon uses 30,000 robots in its fulfillment centers.  A huge electronics factory in China succeeded in reducing its labor force from 110,000 to 50,000 using robots.  And textile plants which have been “re-shored” (bringing production back to the U.S.) have brought with them almost no employment.  A factory in South Carolina, for example, that produces 2.5 million pounds of cotton yarn a week employs only 150 workers.

This is certainly not a new force.  In small, localized ways, the impact of automation on jobs was already being felt 50 years ago.  But over the decades it has grown and has now reached the critical mass where its impact will be like an avalanche.

The future all these books foresee is a “brilliant,” “prosperous,” technological world, but one where a vast percentage of the working age population will be unemployed.  And so they dutifully come up with various schemes for government to provide the unemployed a minimum living income.  That doesn’t cut it as far as I’m concerned,

In the past it was argued that retraining technology-unemployed workers and providing youth superior school education was the key to ensuring high employment in the technological workplace.  In this future world, however, it seems not even education will guarantee a place in the work force.  The quantity of jobs just won’t be there relative to the size of the population because of the greatly reduced workforce needed to produce a given amount of product.  Nevertheless, equality of educational opportunity will be even more important.

The really scary thing is that none of these books, written by people from various fields - law, finance, and political theory, say we have to somehow stop this from happening.  Nor do the glowing reviews or the New Yorker article.  There is a forgone conclusion that it will happen, that it’s on balance good, and the only question is how to provide for the unemployed masses.  

Clearly, the angst felt by white middle class workers in 2016 will only get worse, and the affected group will broaden, regardless what the Trump administration does because it’s responding to the wrong threat - the past, not the future.  If this future does come to pass as described, the robotization of the workplace will be the death knell of the American worker.  Even white collar technology jobs such as software engineering will be impacted.  

In this envisaged future, income inequality in the U.S. will be far worse than it currently is.  The vaunted American standard of living will be no more.  It will destroy our democracy because it will create a society where half the population has nothing to do and lives on the dole, and the other half is well-employed.  It portends huge unrest which could bring about a police state, an age of fascism, because that is the only way the elite employed will be able to keep their status secure.  I know this sounds extreme, but the future depicted by these books is extreme.

It we want to be true in any sense to Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” America cannot allow this to happen.  The American people cannot allow this to happen.  The American government cannot allow this to happen.

So how do we avert this disaster?  This is so complex and important that there needs to be a public discussion within and between government, business, academia, and the people.  The issue can no longer be ignored.  We must together find a way to manage the future for the benefit of all.

I can see two possible avenues to explore.  They both have their challenges, to put it mildly.  But I think the first is more practical, easier to realize, and delivers more benefit than the other.

The first avenue is a new division of labor, so to speak.  The law concerning corporations would remain more or less unchanged.   They would compete globally and roboticize their operations as they felt warranted.  

At the same time, a reenergized government would take on or resume the task of making America’s infrastructure second to none through a new version of the WPA (Works Progress Administration) which would directly or through subcontracting employ the vast numbers of manual or low-technology workers left out of the new-technology job market.  Thus there would be no massive unemployment.  This would not be government as an employer of last resort, but an employer charged with keeping America strong and using the vast workforce needed in that effort.

The virtue of this approach is that we would be meeting two national security needs - one existing, the other new - with one stroke.  This would truly be making a virtue of necessity.

The other avenue is to put an end to the age of unchecked, government-supported capitalism.  In its place would be a system of socialized capitalism in which companies would be limited in the extent to which, in the name of increasing shareholder returns, they could reduce their workforce. 

Corporations are a creature of the law.  They were created, and shielded from many liabilities and taxes, because their growth was felt to ultimately benefit the welfare of the larger society, the common good.  But it’s getting to the point, or already is there, where this is often no longer the case; just the opposite.  And so one can argue that it’s time to change the rules.

There are several problems with this scenario.  Many will say that this approach would make products more expensive.  But to my mind this is not a problem.  We have too long wanted things to be as cheap as possible without thinking of the dear price we were paying.  Globalization with its job dislocations was the first price we paid; robotization with an even greater impact is the next.

One problem, possibly intractable, is how the economics of this would work out.  I know America does not exist in an economic bubble, that global competition exists.  Another is that it would certainly be strongly opposed by powerful forces.  In the end, I think the scenario suggested above goes a bit too far.  It is too much of a change and I would not advocate it given the alternative solution.

That said, I do think that social consciousness should be part of a corporation’s decision-making process because they exist only by the grace of the law to benefit the greater good.  Having lacked that perspective, corporations have done much harm to that greater good, whether it’s as polluters, manufacturing products that include dangerous chemicals, destroying the environment, etc.  The process therefore must be broadened beyond the question: what’s best for the shareholders?  And so I think it’s time to change the rules. 

Finally, although in one sense this has nothing to do with the issue of automation and the reduced workforce necessary for a technology-driven economy, the issue of population growth is relevant.  The reason why we need to produce so much and employ so many is our ever-expanding population. This also provides the economies of scale necessary for the investment in robotization.  As recently as 1960, the population of the world was only 3 billion, far more manageable.  Now it is 7 billion and expected to reach 9 billion by 2040.  So in addition to helping control climate change and the destruction of the environment, controlling the population would mostly obviate the need for the economy and firms to constantly grow.

We must all come together to talk about how to manage the future for the benefit of all Americans.  Regardless of the path taken, we cannot end up with a country, a society, as nightmarishly pictured by the books cited in the New Yorker article.**
* This does not contradict the post I wrote some time ago, “The Problem Isn’t Capitalism, It’s Our Society,” which addressed a different issue … people have railed against capitalism for causing the exploitation of people and the environment.  The reasoning there was that the same basic problems have existed in all modern societies regardless of the type of economic system.

** Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, Norton
Martin Ford, Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, Basic Books
Jerry Kaplan, Humans Need Not Apply: A Guide to Wealth and Work in the Age of Artificial IntelligenceI, Yale
Alec Ross, Industries of the Future, Simon & Schuster