People are Inherently Good…and Bad Stuff Happens

Living in the suburbs of NYC and traveling into and around the city frequently, this is a challenging premise.

So, let me start with an example: waving someone into a line of traffic – doesn’t it make you feel good? Pleasant conversations with strangers (aka turning the default scowl into a smile); offering to help someone with a heavy bag.These things resonate with our core sense of what is right. Few are immune. Why?

I admit this is a “re-post” to some extent of a book – Made for Goodness – by Desmond Tutu and his daughter, Mpho.  Why, they ask, does much of news reporting focus on bad news? Because bad is an aberration, they suggest, from the way things should be.

The problem of evil. Usually, this goes with “how could a loving God allow evil?” Because, says Tutu, he gave us free will and is consistent.

Where do people go wrong? I am shocked to hear reports of ISIS sympathizers celebrating the beheading of James Foley; shocked to hear of people changing their cover photos to that of a decapitated head resting on a body; shocked to hear that such barbaric acts are held up as examples of an emerging power – brand building.

How can inherently good people do such things? Because the wrong path is just as easy to take as the right one.  All it requires is a decision, followed by another decision and another. Thoughtful training and conditioning by others who have taken the same path.

There has been a lot of media discussion of why and how Americans and Europeans have become drawn to a radicalized version of Islam – the West controls everything; the West is decadent; disenfranchised individuals are drawn to an organization offering a clear sense of community; some people like the idea of getting trained using guns and bombs.

http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2014/08/28/how-to-stop-radicalization-in-the-west?smid=nytcore-ipad-share&smprod=nytcore-ipad

Another theme has been that we are failing to advance a compelling alternative narrative. Established religions in the West are not obviously signing up new adherents. Those elements of traditional religions that are growing – let’s say, broadly, the more fundamentalist end of the spectrum – are espousing values that mainstream society has a hard time accepting – creationism being, perhaps, one example.

A more nuanced set of moral and ethical values may not be as easy to articulate as a simple black and white narrative that advocates some clear mandates to action. “I am the way the truth and the light” sounds more compelling than “I am one of several ways that might work to get you to the destination you need to reach – I encourage you to choose.”

Personally, I believe the former but I don’t confuse faith with omniscience and acknowledge there may be other ways. I admit also that Christianity does not allow this relativistic view: either Christ is lying, crazy or He is who He says He is.

So, if Christianity advocates a one path worldview and other religions do also, where do we go from here and how does this relate to the subject of this post?

Beheading those who disagree with us – ISIS today; Christianity at various dark points in its history – is unambiguously NOT the way. As a reasoning person of faith, I am always left feeling uncomfortable with the vehement “one path” assertion, not so much because of the message itself but more because of the manner in which, so often, it is “enforced”: by guilt, compulsion, deception or denigration of the views of those who dissent.

If I believe in “original sin”, how can I say that people are inherently good?  The  (Christian) doctrinal answer would be that we were created to be good and we made a huge mistake. Our road, since then, has been to get back to where we were intended to be: Christ is the way etc.

The less doctrinal answer would be to reflect on some of the scenarios at the beginning of this post. We resonate with doing good; we connect and flourish with positive energy; we recoil at awfulness in our lives and the lives of others; revenge is a bittersweet emotion that that mixes satisfaction with a residue of disconnectedness and doesn’t heal like forgiveness.

We have to trust these experiences in our lives and conclude that, err though we do and often on large scale, that is not our destiny. In advocating a set of values consistent with good outcomes that endure, we should discuss and advocate,  maybe even proselytize, but always remember that people should not be compelled in the ‘right’ direction.

Holman Hunt’s famous painting, “The Light of the World” shows Christ knocking on a long unopened, overgrown with weeds door. The handle to the door is pointedly on the inside, allegorically representing that the closed mind can only be opened from the inside.

It is ironic how often our discourse denies to others the freewill given to us all.

44 on the Back Nine

I admit I am not a big fan of our current President, but I don’t like piling on.

I voted for him once, against him once. I am not a fan of Obamacare; I think inaction in Syria was a mistake; I don’t think he deals well with Putin; places too much faith in government…but he does love golf.

Apparently (according to Reuters), he is a respectable 17 handicap – it may have come down over his years in office – but has been known to play slowly on occasion.

Maureen Dowd eviscerated his golfing yesterday in the NYT (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/24/opinion/sunday/maureen-dowd-the-golf-address.html?_r=0 ) and he has, of course, been criticized heavily by right wing talk shows and blogs for insensitivity for among other things moving straight from a conference on James Foley to a round of golf.

Is this all fair? I have a problem with the slow play – he should get round quickly with no-one to hold him up – and I wonder why Michelle and the girls are not a little miffed at all the time spent on the course on a family vacation, but why is this such a big deal?

I get the criticism of Obama as detached, but that is not new. He is a cerebral kind of guy and heartfelt emotion always seems a little staged from him. If the media cared about appearances and hurt feelings, maybe they should have gone quiet on the golf coverage for a while. Can we spell compartmentalize? Has form overtaken substance? Is the President ever on vacation?

Check out this story from HuffPost yesterday that lines up key events in the Reagan presidency with his vacation.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bob-cesca/if-youre-upset-about-obam_b_5712511.html

My point is that there is a strong tradition of criticizing sitting presidents and then falling in love with them after the fact. Clinton might be a good example of that.  I don’t like or dislike Obama any more or less because of his golfing behavior (except the slow play, which is unforgivable). I don’t think it is substantive.

On matters of substance: he did not want to continue the war on terror, but is now back in Iraq and on the verge in Syria. ISIS is the new Al Qaeda. He is concerned about American interests abroad and how terror abroad might come closer to home. These were precisely the concerns underlying 43’s War on Terror and Axis of Evil.

Presidents are, to some degree, held hostage by events they do not control. They make some mistakes and they get some things right. They should be judged on their reaction to these events and their policy – on matters of substance.

As for his handicap, I can’t find it on GHIN – I wonder if he posts his scores?

Two for Dinner

Having dropped two  freshmen at their respective colleges this week, we are nursing the exit wounds!

Of course we are delighted. This is how it is supposed to be. They are excited. They were happy when we left them. Thrilled to be in their new home. They are in great places with so much opportunity. The next four years promises so much. They will grow in ways we can try to imagine based on what we know of them but they will likely surprise us.

It was time for them to go. In fact they left a while ago. The curfew dissolved. As long as they were safe and – most importantly – they didn’t wake us on their return …..Still accountable but less and less in control. It was time.

But then the conversations….much more interesting: a glimpse of what is to come. Core issues, addressed as between adults – an honest exchange of experience and insights, with perhaps a residue of parental concern about too much frankness.

Of course we will miss them, but only as we mourn the passing of the caterpillar. We await the butterfly.

And now we must fill the void – constructively as they told us in the parents’ orientation. After 17 years, the house is empty, and tidy and quiet. We don’t worry if they are coming home at night. Two for dinner. Every night. Exciting. Not the same as pre-kids. Exciting – really.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Makers and Takers

My good friend, Mark Hansen,  pointed out an article from the WSJ by Paul Ryan. Its primary message was that government programs can have a tendency to “oversee” people rather than “empower” them and that such oversight does not offer the best way out of poverty. I am paraphrasing, of course, but I think that was the basic message.

What intrigued me about this article was Ryan’s lead-in: an anecdote where he was reproached at the Rock County 4-H fair by a Democrat about his use of the phase “makers and takers”. Ryan said:

“I’d started using the phrase “makers and takers” after the Tax Foundation issued a study comparing how much families receive in government spending with how much they pay in taxes. If a family’s share of government spending exceeded the amount it paid in taxes, the study deemed them “receivers.” If it was less, they were described as “givers.” The Tax Foundation’s analysis found that 60% of American families were net “receivers,” and under President Obama’s policies, that number would grow to 70%.”

He commented that we could reach a tipping point where the amount produced by the “givers” is insufficient to pay all the “receivers”.

It’s a fair point and one that requires us to contemplate a central issue of the debate between the “left” and the “right”, that is, how large should the safety net be and how do we fund it?

I don’t have an answer for that, but Nicholas Kristof proposed an interesting starting point for that debate in an article arguing the value of studying the Humanities.

He references a thought experiment suggested by the philosopher, John Rawls.

“Rawls suggests imagining that we all gather to agree on a social contract, but from an “original position” so that we don’t know if we will be rich or poor, smart or dumb, diligent or lazy, American or Bangladeshi. If we don’t know whether we’ll be born in a wealthy suburban family or to a single mom in an inner city, we’ll be more inclined to favor measures that protect those at the bottom.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/14/opinion/nicholas-kristof-dont-dismiss-the-humanities.html?smid=nytcore-ipad-share&smprod=nytcore-ipad

In another of my posts – “Corporate Inversions, Inequality, Race Riots” – I talk about the kind of substantive information that allows us to have informed discussions uncluttered by the rhetoric of the OpEd or the fixed position. Without substantive information about the US budget and the cost of each benefit that forms part of the safety net we consider, the debate tends to comprise statements such as: “…a civilized country must…”; “… .how can we not?”; or “…we simply can’t afford…”.

I am going to pause and go look here:

http://www.usgovernmentspending.com/budget_gs.php

I will return when I have something substantive to say. It may be a while…

Corporate Inversions, Inequality, Race Riots

They all form part of the narrative we expect our President to address on a daily basis.

Increasingly, I am beginning to see the world of current affairs as operating on at least two levels. The first level is that on which our daily media focus: the public policy speeches a president or politician makes that are targeted at the so-called “base” and designed to placate those whose influence is necessary to make the political process work. The second level is what is actually happening: the returns in the stock market; growth in GDP; jobs; unemployment; the cost of healthcare; the number of insured; life expectancy; overall levels of educational attainment.

The first level arguably doesn’t matter. It is at most a stylized dance in the same way that “Hello, how are you?” implicitly expects the answer “Fine, thank you.” This is the level where most heat and least light are generated. Talk shows, editorials, OpEds.

The second level matters a great deal to our quality of life and to societal issues of a long-term nature. We would be better served if the discussions on the first level were more substantively linked to the matters of concern on the second level.

In a loose way they are, or purport to be. In general, however, the soundbite quality of discussion on this level does not lend itself to the mature or considered reflection that a proper consideration of the deeper conversation requires.

The Economist last week reported an interview with Barack Obama aboard Air Force One. It was wide ranging and spoke about foreign policy matters as well as domestic and economic issues. It was linked, in the same issue, with a long-term review of the comparative performance of the democratic and republican parties in delivering job growth. Of 66 million jobs produced in 52 years, the Republicans have produced 24 million; the Democrats 42 million (Obama has increased the Democrats’ lead by 5 million). The difference, reports The Economist, according to two Princeton economists, Alan Blinder and Mark Watson, is mostly luck, “..with perhaps a touch of good policy.”

I like interviews such as this because they are more substantive and less focused on the daily news cycle and less part of an overall spin campaign. Obama’s typical tone when he speaks of corporate inversions, private equity, inequality tends to be accusatory, inflammatory on occasion. Not so much here. I recommend the interview (I don’t believe you need to subscribe to see it) – it can be found at:

www.economist.com/news/united-states/21611140-president-wants-ceos-play-ball-he-might-have-change-his-own-language-stop

On race riots, I am glad the President did not, on this occasion, remind us that, if he had a son, he would look like Michael Brown. Instead, he spoke sensibly and for the whole nation – as he should.

How to avoid moving back in with your parents when you have already left….

Becoming independent is something you have been doing for a while now. It’s not a corner that you turn. It approaches quietly. Like wake-surfing: either you throw back the rope or someone suggests you should. Eventually, you need to surf without the rope.

Think of it this way: freedom and accountability as a two circle venn diagram. The overlap is greater as you grow older. Eventually, you own your own mess and author your own success.

Entering the world of work means you are free to seek work or not. However, you are accountable for the cost of the resources you consume. No safety net.

You were evaluated when you entered college: were you worth the spot you filled? As you think about employment – by yourself or by others – you need to grasp something basic. People buy your product or service (or labor) because they believe it will add value to their life, their business, meet a need or satisfy a want. They are not motivated by your need for employment, profit, success, self-improvement, career or personal development. They want to help you purely because they perceive you can help them.

There are some exceptions. Family or friends may employ you or assist your business. Be careful, though, not to mistake this as a validation of your business or worth. They are helping you for non-business reasons generally. Treat them on an arms-length basis. Repay them with the courtesy of making them look good for having made a connection. Assume you are paying back any money they invested with a decent return.

Your aim in all of this is that people see you as a resource they come to depend on. That is job security. Your goal is to trade your time, effort and resources for a profit. The profit is how you cover your cost of living and fund your recreation. And savings…

Savings are a tough thing to think about early in life but a great habit to have. We know bad things happen – unexpected things. Many of these end up in unplanned expenses. That is one use of savings. Another is to fund purchases or make investments you cannot afford from current income. It’s called deferral of gratification. You can’t have it now. You wait, you save. You buy it later after you have accumulated enough to make the purchase or to place a deposit sufficient to persuade someone to lend you the rest. Finances deserves another book. There are many and I am probably not going to write it. I will give you one upper case rant: have no more than two credit cards (American Express and one of Visa or MasterCard) and ALWAYS pay them off at the end of the month. Lease or buy cars – never borrow. It’s fine to borrow against your home. Otherwise, don’t borrow.

Shaping Your Future

Shaping your future is a lifelong project. College is a turning point.

One of the most important things you can learn is that everything that happens to you is your responsibility. It happens to you or you made it happen. In either case, it impacts you. What you do about it shapes your life.

Your goal is make sure that more of the things that shape your life are made to happen by you. Passivity is an invitation to be pushed around by others or by events beyond your control. Control can be illusory if defined as being master of all the outcomes in your life. Better to define it as a state of mind. Things will happen to you, but you can, by your actions and your attitude, widen the area within which you exercise control. You have freewill – you are supposed to use it. The choices you make will accumulate. They will influence the things that happen to you. Branch Rickey, a baseball executive best known for breaking the color barrier when he signed Jackie Robinson in 1945, said the following:

“Things worthwhile generally don’t just happen. Luck is a fact, but should not be a factor. Good luck is what is left over after intelligence and effort have combined at their best. Negligence or indifference are usually reviewed from an unlucky seat. The law of cause and effect and causality both work the same with inexorable exactitudes. Luck is the residue of design.”

Many have said (originally it is supposed to have been Seneca and more recently Oprah Winfrey) that luck is when preparation meets opportunity. You get the message: take charge of your own life or someone or something else may.

What is Core Metabolic?

I have spent 30 years exercising essentially the same way: high dosage of aerobic with varying levels of intensity. Running, biking, swimming. Very little flexibility; very little strength training. All of it took a lot of time and produced very little change.

We exercise to look good, feel good, stay alive as long as possible and maintain a healthy lifestyle. We may have some specific goals related to a sport we love to play. We have bought machines, gym memberships, hired trainers, watched videos. We have injured ourselves, rehabilitated our aging bodies and eventually come to wonder if we are on the right path.

Some have tried P90x, Cross Fit and Insanity. All favorites of orthopedic surgeons – they drive lots of business.

I tried something called Turbulence Training. The founder, Craig Ballantyne, promotes a lot of exercise programs that require high intensity (graduated depending on ability and fitness level), very little rest between exercises and work a lot of different muscle groups. You spend 30-40 minutes, 3 times per week and keep somewhat active on the other days (walking etc).  That is core metabolic.

You don’t need much equipment. He provides follow along videos. It builds overall core strength and, if you want to, muscle mass in targeted areas.

There are enough programs that you can switch it up every month or 3 months and the connection with the network of fitness trainers he connects with will give you lots of new programs if you want to buy them.

Programs tend to run about $30-40 for a decent selection of programs that can last you a long time. Cheap compared to one session with a live trainer.

It all works. I recommend it without reservation. Oh, and he has some great stuff for when you are traveling and need to work in something to avoid feeling dreadful.

Are you Pro-Israel?

Living in Scarsdale and working in NYC, you can’t avoid this one.

The second part of  the question seems to be “…or are you Pro-Palestinian?”

The dynamic in the middle east on the current (recent) conflict is different in the way that traditional allies and enemies are lining up. The roles and strategic positions of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Turkey, Qatar and UAE have shifted since the last conflict.

The rise of ISIS, the evolution of power structures in Iraq and the nature of the conflict in Syria all add up to massive confusion among the partially informed such as myself. So, what do I have to say on this that could possibly be informative for my readers (who are you, actually, since this is a new blog)?

We are obliged to try and figure this out. Otherwise, how are we supposed to assess the kind of job our political representatives are doing in positioning our national resources in the middle east?

The best piece I have read on this so far is by David Brooks in the NY Times – this is the link:

Copy, paste, read and tell me what you think.

The other article that gave me pause was this one by Brett Stephens in the WSJ:

http://online.wsj.com/articles/bret-stephens-the-hillary-metamorphosis-1407799139

Also worth reading.

What bothers me most in the Stephens article is the lack of authenticity he suggests we are finding in our elected representatives. This is not new. We have seen the behavior through many election cycles. Politicians have a burning desire to get elected and, in pursuit of that goal, are adept in convincing themselves and us that the things they perceive they need to say get elected are what they actually stand for.

We need to form our views on the basis of careful filtering and judge our politicians by what they have done rather than what they say and claim to have done or plan to do.

Barack Obama is, for better and worse, someone who plays out his hand-wringing foreign policy thought process in the public domain. He wanted out of Iraq and Afghanistan. He was reluctant on Libya and, after committing, now regrets the lack of follow up. He felt he should engage on Syria but handcuffed himself to a Congress he knew would not back him.

As President, has has access to information of a kind and quantity we do not even approach in the public arena. This stuff is hard and it is easy to judge a President for expressing ambiguity. We feel ambiguity ourselves and it would be comforting to have our leaders, in possession of high level intelligence, articulate clear, unambiguous policy decisions.

It is easy for Hillary to say that “Don’t do stupid stuff” is not an organizing principle. Of course it isn’t. It is, however, quite possible to actually do “stupid stuff” pursuant to a clear organizing principle. Operation Iraqi Freedom might be an example of that.

My point, going back to the title of this post, is that the question is symptomatic of the overly simplistic narrative we are seduced to follow by much of the commentary we are exposed to in popular media.

Yes, I believe, as Hillary does, that Hamas started the recent conflict. Yes, I believe that the media has a tendency to weight its news coverage toward the suffering in Gaza – Jews inflicting casualties on Palestinians – while it lacks a similar focus, for example, on the vastness of the internecine slaughter in Syria.

On the other hand, periodically “mowing the lawn” in Gaza does not seem like a long-term solution.

Let us acknowledge what Israel has accomplished as a democracy. Let us also acknowledge that, if Israel is to have long-term security on its borders, it probably needs to find a way of accommodating a Palestinian state.

Answering the question “Yes” or “No” really isn’t enough and not something that readers of this blog will be satisfied with.

Moving Up

Every time you moved up a grade, there were adjustments. Every time you moved school, those adjustments were somehow larger. High School was the best. College is very different.

Boarding school (if that was your experience) may have been a preparation of sorts: school and home rolled into one – but still quite regimented, very supervised. College is a huge adventure. A new home; new friends; new freedoms; new social life; no regular parental supervision.

You have earned your way to great schools with which you are very happy. You had some help from your parents, but – hopefully – the GPA and everything else was yours. In this sense, college will not be a big shock. You are accustomed to working hard. You will probably need to step that up a few notches, but that will not be new.

The level of expectation intellectually might be a surprise. Not in all subjects but in some. Be prepared to accept that you don’t know a lot, but know that you will learn, from your professors and your peers. This is truly exciting.

The bar is raised for every generation and you do get to stand on the shoulders of those who went before you to some degree. Assume your are supposed to be brilliant, to excel. There is no lesser assumption that will do justice to your potential. Seek out others who share that goal.