Monday, March 25, 2013


Last week in my backyard I found this daffodil growing up through a leaf. I loved the way the four leaf blades were twisted so I went and got my camera.
I think of spring as the season of emergence, and I love taking photos of flowers surfacing through the winter’s leaf litter. To me this symbolizes life conquering any and every obstacle.

For a long time I dreamed of having a life without obstacles. I thought I’d be happier. I think a lot of people feel this way; that’s why there’s such an obsession in our culture with celebrities and the rich, and why lotteries are so popular. Our fantasy is that if we get rich and/or famous then all our problems will disappear.A cursory glance at any magazine in the grocery store checkout lane will dispel the myth that the lives of the rich and famous are obstacle-free, but somehow we still go on believing it will be true in our life when that happy life-transforming day arrives.
Recently I watched a film I made with my husband Arthur just after we got our first video camera twenty years ago. We went to a number of different locations in the Atlanta area and asked people, “What, in your opinion, is the meaning of life?” We got a wide spectrum of answers, and the film is a fascinating look at the variety of personalities in any given population.
After watching it this time I thought about how I would answer if this question were asked of me. “To grow, to expand, to learn,” I thought, “If I ever stop growing it’s time to die.” Obstacles are crucial to growth. Without obstacles we would stay stagnant. We wouldn’t have any incentive to change. Obstacles make life interesting.
I could easily have torn the leaf off of the daffodil and let it unfurl like the other daffodils around it, but I found myself thinking, “is that in the daffodil’s best interest?” For all I know, overcoming the challenge of this leaf could lead to a stronger breed of daffodil that could help daffodils survive into the future.
As unlikely as that may be, the point is that obstacles and challenges aren’t things to be dreaded or avoided or hated; they are necessary ingredients of an interesting life.  
pink ladyslipper
In fact, I believe that the universe exists for the experience of overcoming obstacles. In The Game of God, co-written with Arthur, we proposed that the Unlimited (which most people call God), created the universe for the experience of limitation. The attributes usually ascribed to God—omnipotent, omniscient, immortal, omnipresent—can be summarized as “unlimited.” God has no limit in power, knowledge, time, or space. In other words, God has no obstacles.
 But, we observed, if God couldn’t have the experience of limitation then God was limited after all: the inability to experience limitation would be a limitation!
We concluded that the universe is God, experiencing life-and-death as if his-her-its life really depended on it. The universe is a game created for the fun of experiencing obstacles and overcoming them.
Many years ago I looked with wonder at some plants growing on a sheer cliff at Point Lobos, San Francisco, right above the pounding Pacific Ocean. I had lived in San Francisco for a couple of years and knew the force of the winter storms that came in off that ocean. How could anything survive in such a brutal environment? Those plants convinced me that nature would overcome anything that humans could throw at it. No matter how many obstacles we create, like climate change, pollution, radiation, etc., nature will triumph over them. We might not; our civilization might crumble if we push too hard, but nature will be fine.
[Note: The Game of God was published in 1993. In the intervening years we have changed our thinking about one aspect of this theory:
We no longer hold God to be a willful or deliberate creator. One of the most basic aspects of the Supreme Being must be that it is free from desire. The unlimited, infinite, all-powerful, all-knowing source of everything would already have every thing. Where would desire come from? If you have everything what could you want? Where would the desire to create something come from? The logical conclusion is that the dualistic universe is an aspect of Supreme Being, not something “created” by She-He-It. This just deepens the connection between God and us: we’re not a game God is playing, we are God in the most meaningful sense.]

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

A Force That Gives Life Meaning

We’ve reached the tenth anniversary of the launching of the Iraq war. It’s easy to look back on that time and blame the Bush administration, various politicians, and media pundits for selling the war to a credulous population still reeling from the attacks on September 11, 2001.
But according to Chris Hedges this would be a mistake. Mr. Hedges was a war correspondent for 15 years, and in his 2002 book War is a Force that Gives Life Meaning he tells how war brings a sense of purpose and comradeship to people. He noticed that at the end of a war, people felt a sense of deflation. Even those who were the victims of the violence felt this emptiness. Yes, life is safer when the war is over, but it seems flat and stale. There is an intoxication to war, an addictive adrenaline rush of living life fully.
Mr. Hedges shows how leaders bring about war to solidify their position or prop up a failing regime, but he also shows that it is wrong to think that citizens are blameless in the calculus of war and peace.
For most of human history, the force that gave life meaning was survival. Since the very beginning of life on this planet the meaning of life was to survive and to reproduce.
At a certain point religion emerged as a force that gave life meaning. People believed that the gods had arranged the world and everyone had their place and purpose.
When nation-states emerged five centuries ago, kings learned that there was nothing like war to solidify a people’s identification with the concept of “country.”
We saw it in this country after 9/11. Anyone too young to remember Pearl Harbor finally got a lesson in how an enemy attack can bring a country to an almost complete unity of purpose. I can remember thinking, sometime right after the attack, that this was blowback for the things the U.S. had done in the Middle East over the previous decades. But this thought was unsayable at the time. Bill Maher was kicked off television for a couple of years for daring to say that flying into a skyscraper was not the act of a coward.
Mr. Hedges writes about living in Argentina before the Falklands War in the early 1980s. The ruling junta was faltering, and there was widespread and open discontent with the regime amongst the educated classes. But as soon as the army invaded the Falkland Islands and claimed them for Argentina, all dissent ceased and the entire populace united behind the government. No one spoke against the junta, even in private, and Mr. Hedges felt that, as a foreigner, if he had said anything negative he would have been physically attacked.
The sense of victimhood and unity brought by 9/11 was exploited by the Bush administration to sell the Iraq war. My husband can clearly remember how CNN had the sound of war drums accompanying their news stories during the “march to war” ten years ago.
Obviously leaders of governments use their power to manipulate people into war, but we the people are manipulatable. Why? Because so many of our lives are empty of meaning and purpose. This emptiness is reflected in the large number of people taking anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications in this country.
The human race desperately needs a new vision, a sense of purpose that is constructive, not destructive like war. How about working together to build a sustainable global society of opportunity and equality for all?
As a coda, in this time of budget deficit hysteria, let’s not forget how much the Iraq war has contributed to the federal debt. The Bush administration estimated the cost at $50 billion (do you remember officials saying, “it will pay for itself with oil revenues,” and the firing of the person who estimated the cost at $100-200 billion?). In 2008 economist Joseph Stiglitz estimated that the true cost of the war would be $3 trillion when long-term care for veterans and interest on the debt were factored in. In 2010 he wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post saying $3 trillion was looking optimistic.
Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies released a “Cost of War” study that raises the price tag to $6 trillion. Mother Jones has a graph that breaks down where the money goes.

The Bush administration and Republican-controlled Congress never included the costs of war in their budgets so all of this is going on the national credit card. Just remember this when you hear a Republican talk about fiscal responsibility.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The U.S. is Not a Center-Right Nation

In the last few weeks we’ve heard reports in the media about budget proposals emerging from Congress. There’s the House Republican plan and the Senate Democratic plan. You’d be forgiven for thinking that’s it, because for some reason almost no one discusses the third congressional budget, that of the House Progressive Caucus. I only know because I regularly read Paul Krugman, who wrote a column about it last week.
Business Insider, a business-oriented website, commissioned a poll in February asking people to compare three different approaches to averting the sequester. These were basically versions of the three congressional budgets. The winner was the Progressive Caucus’s budget:
Surveys have found that asking people about just titles of plans or telling people who proposed policy changes the results, so the point of this poll was to see what people thought of the plans when they were fully explained, but also stripped of partisan labels…Surprisingly, the plan that polled the strongest was the House Progressive Caucus plan. More than half of respondents supported it compared to sequestration and just a fifth of respondents were opposed… Shockingly, 47 percent of Republicans preferred the House Progressive plan to the sequester. This means that Republicans supported the House Progressive plan just as much as they supported their own party's plan.
A “truism” about America is that we’re a center-right nation. That might have been true in the past (although I doubt it), but I think it is definitely not accurate now. Polls regularly show that Americans support socialist government programs—as long as you don’t use the word “socialist.” (Notice the beginning of the Business Insider quote: telling people who sponsored a plan biases their opinion.)

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Debt: The First 5,000 Years

Debt: The First 5,000 Years, by David Graeber, is a very ambitious book, which attempts to tell the entire story of human economic systems from the very beginnings of human society until the present day. It is written by an anthropologist, not an economist, and he challenges many of the basic assumptions that the modern economics profession takes for granted. In addition, the author is extremely liberal. He participated in the social justice movement of the 1990s, which is more widely-known as the anti-globalization movement.
The main point that Graeber is trying to make, I think, is that the economics profession has built its entire theory on a simplistic model of humanity that is completely wrong. Mainstream economics posits that there was a time in our early history when people bartered with each other: “You have some eggs and I have a pair of moccasins, let’s trade.” Even in early hunter-gatherer societies, the economists say, everyone was looking out for their own self-interest.
Graeber says this image of human societies doesn’t match anything that anthropologists or historians have discovered. It’s a complete fantasy, and has led economists to propose some very strange theories.
Usually when I have read a history on a particular topic like this, the book has turned out to be very European-centric. This one is not that way at all. China and India are addressed as much as the West, and, in fact, he talks about how backwards Europe was in the Middle Ages compared to China and the Islamic world.
What becomes clear is that human beings have had a sophisticated grasp of money for many thousands of years. For example, people in ancient Sumer were creating debt instruments to finance trading expeditions, long before currencies were invented.
What also becomes clear is that there are alternatives to our modern form of market capitalism. In China during the Middle Ages they had markets but no capitalism—the Confucian ethos underlying Chinese society said that making money from money was wrong; the moral use of money is to produce something useful.
In the same era, the Islamic world created the “first free-market ideology.” But this system was based on the assumption that markets were a form of mutual aid—markets existed to benefit the entire society—rather than the capitalist assumption that markets are based on the self-interest and profit of the individual. Islamist theorists understood the need for competition, but stressed that the foundation for an economy was cooperation. Islamic laws strictly forbid usury, even with commercial loans, but this did not stop commerce from thriving, or stop the development of complicated credit instruments.
I was disappointed when I got to the modern era, however. In the first chapter Graeber had given a succinct critique of the Third-World debt crisis of the 1980s and 90s (the basis for the social justice movement), and I really expected that he would bring this same kind of analysis to the contemporary, post-2008 financial-collapse world economy (the book was published in 2011). But instead the book just peters out.
He merely says someone needs to come up with a new idea for how economies should work. His only specific suggestion is a biblical-style jubilee—a general global debt-cancellation.
If you are interested in economics, and would like an alternative to the capitalist dogma that currently serves as mainstream economic thought, this is definitely a book worth reading. [This is a short version of my review, to read the full one click more]

Monday, March 11, 2013

Voting Rights For All

The Supreme Court has recently heard oral arguments in a challenge to Section Five of the Voting Rights Act. I think it should be declared unconstitutional, because it does discriminate against certain areas of the country. I think the law should be changed so that every county in this country has to defend any and every change in their voting laws to the U.S. Department of Justice.
The Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965, prohibits the “denial or abridgment of the right to vote.” According to the Department of Justice website, “Among its other provisions, the Act contained special enforcement provisions targeted at those areas of the country where Congress believed the potential for discrimination to be the greatest.” Section 5 mandates that the jurisdictions covered by these special provisions could not implement any change affecting voting until the Attorney General or the United States District Court for the District of Columbia determined that the change did not have a discriminatory purpose and would not have a discriminatory effect.”
Most of these covered jurisdictions are in the South, an obvious legacy of the era of Jim Crow segregation. The covered jurisdictions include the entirety of eight southern states, plus Alaska, and a few scattered counties in North Carolina, California, Michigan, New York, and South Dakota.
In the last few years the Republican Party has blatantly tried to change voter rules to favor their candidates in state after state, many of them not within a “covered jurisdiction.” The Brennan Center for Justice, part of the New York University School of Law, has a webpage dedicated to detailing the attempts to restrict voting rights around the country. Their map shows that forty-one states introduced voter-restricting legislation since 2011, including laws requiring photo ID, shortening early voting, and making it harder to restore voting rights after a criminal conviction.
Kansas and New Hampshire now require photo IDs to vote. Wisconsin and Illinois both put new restrictions on voter registration efforts.
Perhaps the most egregious example of this effort is Pennsylvania state House leader Mike Turzai declaring on the floor of the legislature that the state’s new voter laws would deliver Pennsylvania to Mitt Romney.
But Pennsylvania, Kansas, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, and Illinois are not included in the Voting Rights Act’s list of suspicious areas of the country.
Clearly it’s not just one part of the country that tries to prevent “certain people” from voting. So toss Section 5 out, Supreme Court, and let’s pass a new law that requires every jurisdiction to justify changes in their voting laws.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Money-Driven Medicine

Time magazine recently published a massive article on health care, “Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us,” by Steven Brill, that should be read by every citizen of this country. Prepare to be disgusted and outraged as you read it. The noble field of medicine has been turned into a machine to manufacture profits.

I have had a couple of personal experiences with this machine lately.
Last fall my husband had a respiratory infection he just couldn’t shake. When he went to his doctor he was given a chest X-ray and the technician who read the X-ray said there was a strange spot on his lungs. Later that day the doctor called Arthur and suggested he have an MRI the next day, as if this was a matter of life and death.
Arthur didn’t go for the MRI right away, but after a couple of weeks, when he still felt bad, he went. Maybe the doctor was right to be so emphatic about getting the test, we thought, maybe there really was something seriously wrong in his lungs and it would be crazy to ignore it.
Arthur’s doctor is associated with our local hospital system, which is connected with the huge diagnostic center where he had the MRI. The test was negative; there’s nothing wrong with his lungs.
Mr. Brill wrote about the part that diagnostic machines play in medicine’s manufacture of profit:
According to a McKinsey study of the medical marketplace, a typical piece of equipment will pay for itself in one year if it carries out just 10 to 15 procedures a day. That’s a terrific return on capital equipment that has an expected life span of seven to 10 years. And it means that after a year, every scan ordered by a doctor in the Stamford Hospital emergency room would mean pure profit, less maintenance costs, for the hospital. Plus an extra fee for the doctor.
Another McKinsey report found that health care providers in the U.S. conduct far more CT tests per capita than those in any other country — 71% more than in Germany, for example, where the government-run health care system offers none of those incentives for overtesting.
Before the MRI Arthur was injected with a chemical that caused a very uncomfortable feeling of heat in his entire body. He probably had pneumonia and was subjected to this MRI for very dubious reasons if you were just considering his health. But there was nothing dubious about the reasoning from the point of view of our local medical profit-factory: Arthur has insurance so he should be fed into the machine.