"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Donald Trump As One Of Us - How Class Is Always More Important Than Race, Gender, And Ethnicity

America is a classless society, or so the myth goes.  Democratic, populist, egalitarian, universalist we suspect those who fly first class – the One Percenters who acquire 90 percent of the nation’s wealth and spend it promiscuously. St. Bart's, Gstaad, summers on the Vineyard, skiing at Val d’Isere, dinners at Lutece and Noma for foraged urchins and sea kale.

In principle we ignore First Class as we make our way down to Economy – such a waste of resources which could be spent on supporting the Environmental Defense Fund. Thousands of dollars for a bit more recline.

Yet, if we were honest with ourselves, we would admit our wish to be in the front of the airplane where the stewardesses are trimmer, younger, and sexier; where the food is French, the wines Californian, and the entertainment package foreign and independent.

We may be headed for 45D but our hearts, aspirations, and American loyalties are to 3A.

The big difference between Europe and America is that there class is a fixed, stable, and predictable commodity.  Although modern EU configurations have facilitated  inter-class movement, a plumber is still a plumber and his son will join the trade, the union, and the working class with pride and reward.

In America, members of the upper middle class – professionals, senior managers, administrators – who aspire to but will never attain real American heights have made the One Percent their shibboleth, a totem to be discarded, a fortress to be stormed.  Safe in tenure they have made classlessness a cause and the redistribution of wealth their mission. Screeds against capitalism, the unequal distribution of income, the elite, the privileged, and the advantaged are their war cries. Short of social revolution, America must be reconfigured to reward the disabled, the disadvantaged, the poor, and the minorities.

The same liberal reformers, however, look with the same envy at those comfortable in First Class, those with homes in the Caribbean, Europe, and Park Avenue as the rest of us.

Now that Donald Trump is about to take residence in the White House – the  Donald Trump most at home in Hollywood, Las Vegas, and the glitz and tinsel of runways, casinos, mansions, and conspicuous wealth – progressives are at sixes and sevens.  They who have sniffed at  First Class privilege now have the essential bourgeois American as President.

How to deal with such a betrayal?  No more Camelot, Kennebunkport, or Hyde Park; no more Renaissance Weekends, summers on the Vineyard or even vacations in Maui; but a full-blown, tinsel-bedecked, Rockettes, over-the-top Hollywood extravaganza.  Impossible to have envisaged by the coastal elites, a true American has acceded to the White House.

Obama was a cultural interloper.  A black man, Harvard-trained professor of law, husband to a professional wife and father to two dutiful children, he was all that the liberal establishment could have ever wanted.  The loss of Hillary Clinton, his all-but-anointed successor, to Donald Trump the epitome of bourgeois excess and extravagance, was a visceral, existential blow.  It simply couldn’t be!

Yet, Trump is here with his model-gorgeous wife, his starlet daughter, and his coterie of white, happy, privileged, and ambitious family are here to stay, at least for four years.

Except for the disillusioned many who assumed, wrongly, that the time had come for a woman President who espoused progressive values, internationalism, civil rights, and environmentalism; most Americans are delighted with the surprising ascendancy of Donald Trump.

They embrace his braggadocio, his New York-Las Vegas-Hollywood tinsel and bauble glitz, his outspoken materialist patriotism, and his beautiful family.

He is unashamedly white, privileged, wealthy, successful, and wildly popular.  He has even eclipsed Ronald Reagan who only managed B-movie status.  Donald Trump who, in all his high-finance, showy middle-brow real estate, and low-brow television personality, is far more popular.  Ronald Reagan never made the cover of People Magazine or E!.

So, now that Trump is about to take over the White House, passengers headed down to Economy are a bit less envious of First Class.  One of their own – an ambitious, socially unpretentious, confidently middle class American has made it to the White House.  It makes no difference that they cannot sip Dom Perignon, or taste Beluga caviar.  It is enough that Donald, Melania, Ivanka, and Barron can.

No one who has paid any attention has ever dismissed the idea of class in America.  We are a class-bound, socially ambitious society which occludes class issues with race, gender, and ethnicity.  We are social strivers and climbers who stumble and bumble but who want to be like those who we are not.  We might have admired the Bushes, the Kennedys, and the Roosevelts, but we love the Trumps.  They are the closest we will ever come to cultural arrival.

This is what the Trump revolution is all about; and why Donald Trump has been so successful.  We know that we are all Bargain Basement shoppers, but we are at heart Trumpists who want not sedate intellectual weekends on Nantucket but high-octane trips to the Bahamas on private jets with trophy women.  We buy cheap but aspire dear.

The progressive Left has missed the point entirely.  Trump’s accession has less to do with geopolitics than with class and culture.  Less to do with white-black issues than with socio-economic aspiration; and nothing to do with race, gender, and ethnicity.

Donald Trump’s presidency is the most revolutionary in American history because it represents a true cultural revival.  For too long American bourgeois, middle class, religious fundamentalist ideals have been ignored or overlooked; and cultural contradictions dismissed.

American Airlines may be the first to offer ‘Last Class’ but not the last.   The race to the bottom while aspiring to the top is the essential American dilemma.  We will always be unwashed but hoping to be dressed in finery.

Such is the American saga.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Recipes - Lamb Curry With Cream

There are a variety of ways to make lamb curry, but I prefer this recipe which includes all the traditional curry spices but which uses a cream/yogurt/sour cream sauce base which provides texture and richness.


Lamb Curry With Cream
* 1 1/2 lbs. lamb shoulder, trimmed, cut into 1 1/2” pieces
* 1 med. onion, chopped
* 2 Tbsp. curry powder
* 5 cardamom seeds, crushed
* 1 Tbsp. coriander seeds, crushed
* 2 tsp. cumin powder
* 1 very small piece stick cinnamon
* 5 whole cloves
* 10 shakes hot pepper flakes (approx.)
* 5 shakes poppy seeds (optional)
* 6 Tbsp. olive oil
* 2 tsp. garlic flakes
* 1 cup half-and-half
* 2 lg. Tbsp. sour cream
* 2 lg. Tbsp. whole milk Greek yogurt
* 1 Tbsp. sugar
- Place the lamb pieces in a lg. pot with enough water to cover

- Add onion, 3 Tbsp. oil, 1 Tbsp. garlic flakes, 5 shakes hot pepper, 1 Tbsp. curry powder.  Stir

- Cook for approx. 1 hr. or until lamb is very tender, easily broken with fork

- Remove the meat with a slotted spoon and reserve

- While lamb is cooking sauté the remaining spices in 3 Tbsp. oil for approx. 10 min, stirring constantly, until fragrant

- Add the cream, sour cream, sugar, and yogurt; stir, and mix well

- Add the meat, mix, and place all in covered ovenproof dish

- Heat at 275F for approximately 30 min. (mixture should be bubbling)

- Taste for salt, stir, place in serving dish

- Garnish with sliced toasted almonds or parsley and serve.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The United Nations–The Singular Failure Of International Idealism

War is not a pretty thing, and to many it is surprising that it still exists at all in the 21st century.  It seems such a primitive way of solving conflicts and disputes.  Although battle armor, weaponry, and battlefield strategies have evolved over the millennia, photographs of today’s wars are little different from paintings of the Crusades, the War of the Roses, or the Hundred Year War.

            War of the Roses, Battle of Bosworth Field

The wars the Romans fought against the Visigoths were fought with buckets of boiling oil catapulted across the plains of battle onto the amassed enemy; with swords, lances, and bows-and-arrows; with cavalry, phalanxes of foot soldiers; with frontal assaults and hand-to-hand combat.   The Napoleonic Wars were fought with more strategy and deception and caused more death, destruction, and mayhem thanks to cannon artillery; and although they were more bloody and devastating than wars past (over 70,000 casualties in one day alone at the battle of Borodino).

World War I was no less brutal.  Poison gas was added to the German and Allied arsenals, but the two armies still fought in pitched battles on bloodied ground.

World War II, Vietnam, and the Gulf Wars were no different.  Although in each successive war new hardware; improved surveillance and battlefield intelligence; superior air power; and chemical weapons were added to military arsenals, the basic strategy remained the same – attack, defend, and kill.

In all wars civilian casualties have accounted for a significant proportion of deaths.  The United States in World War II firebombed Dresden and dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  The civilian losses in the current war in Syria are even higher since both sides have shown little restraint and have bombed residential areas of Aleppo and other cities on the assumption that enemy fighters were using them as bases.

                     Aftermath of the firebombing of Dresden

Why, then, given the death, maiming, destruction, and inhumanity of war do we continue to wage it?  How is it that after three millennia of military conflict we have not learned how to avoid it?  And how is that with all the advances in technology, psychology, and historical analysis we continually fail at negotiation?

Francis Fukuyama, a Harvard- and Yale-trained political scientist, wrote The End of History (1992) a book which predicted a new world order of peaceful accommodation after the fall of the Soviet Union.  Once the the threat of nuclear war had been eliminated and the world’s two superpowers put down their weapons; and once the geopolitics of hegemony had ceased; and once client states were freed from the yoke of Communist influence the world would prosper under liberal democracy.
What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.
Under such a system based on a respect for civil liberties, free markets, and open borders, war would cease to be a reality.

Of course just the opposite was true.  Once the Soviet bloc dissolved, long-repressed ethnic and religious nationalism emerged.  The Balkan Wars were the first example of how autocratic hegemony had kept the lid on antipathy and violence; and how old hurts, resentments, and insults never die.

                  Josip Broz Tito

The wars in Iraq and Syria, and rise of jihadist Islam are unsurprising further examples of how the Cold War only suppressed antagonisms.  The real nature of human society is, as it has always been, territorial, self-interested, aggressive, and implacable in its ambitions.

It is likely, given the course of history, that wars will be fought between the United States and Russia and/or China.  Already familiar markers to the run-up to war can be seen.  Russia’s annexing of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine are clearly precursors to further neo-imperialist expansionism.  China, now an economic and growing military superpower, is less shy about showing its muscle and will never back down on its own territorial claims and global economic ambitions.

Why is this not surprising? Not only are wars an integral if not defining feature of human history, they express something even more fundamental – an aggressive, self-protective, territorial, combative, and implacable human nature.  At every level of of human society – family, tribe, ethnic group, region, and nation -  disputes are rarely settled amicably.  Lawsuits have replaced Hatfield and McCoy feuds, but the purpose and strategies remain the same.  Get yours through whatever means.

The League of Nations formed in 1920 after the conclusion of World War I was intended to provide a forum for discussion and rational debate for the resolution of geopolitical disputes before they escalated into war.  The Charter was explicit:
In order to promote international co-operation and to achieve international peace and security
By the acceptance of obligations not to resort to war; by the prescription of open, just and honorable relations between nations; by the firm establishment of the understandings of international law as the actual rule of conduct among Governments, and
by the maintenance of justice and a scrupulous respect for all treaty obligations in the dealings of organized peoples with one another,
Agree to this Covenant of the League of Nations.
Noble but hopelessly idealistic, World War II broke out less than twenty years after its inauguration.

                      League of Nations Founding Members

The Charter of the United Nations, an organization formed in 1945 immediately after World War II had the very same ideals:

To  save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,


To  practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbors, and to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security, and to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest, and to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples,

Noble but like the League of Nations hopelessly idealistic the UN could only watch the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the two Iraq Wars, the War in Afghanistan, and is currently watching the war in Syria.

Because the United Nations has been singularly ineffectual in meeting the conditions of its charter – to prevent war – but because it, like all bureaucracies, once formed has an organic imperative to grow and to appear successful.  As a result the organization has become highly politicized and far from the neutrality envisaged by its founders. 

To give legitimacy to its cause, United Nations specialized agencies have proliferated.   They are intended to provide support to the world’s nations in need, but have done so with highly selective agendas, programs, and policies. UNESCO, UNFPA, and the ILO are but a few examples of how United Nations agencies develop their own particular ideological positions regardless of world consensus.

To keep the flame of internationalism alive, the United Nations has sent ‘peacekeepers’ to world trouble spots, but have been ineffective in keeping warring parties apart and have been accused of everything from minor misdemeanors to high crimes.

The point is that conflicts will be resolved as they always have been – one party will come out on top, rule over the conquered until the day it is challenged.  The cycle of dominance and submission will continue to turn as long as human nature still rules human behavior.

The latest (12/16) UN debacle – the Security Council resolution to censure Israel for its settlement policy – is but the latest case in aggressive, politically-driven decisions cloaked in the mantle of righteous patronage of the world’s peoples.

The conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis runs so deep, with so many historical, social, and cultural imperatives; and with so many deeply-felt suspicions and hostilities, that there is not even a scintilla of hope or evidence that a Security Council resolution will have any impact or influence whatsoever.  What it will do is harden Israel’s position; and as of this writing it is already accelerating its settlement program.

The dispute between the Palestinians and the Israelis will not be resolved by any negotiation, international pressure, or persuasion.  Israel will only consider itself safe from the enemy only after it has expanded its territories far enough into hostile lands around it.  The Palestinians will not cease its aggression until it has wiped Israel and all Jews (Hamas charter) off the face of the earth.  Israel clearly has the upper hand and will use all its military might and economic power to succeed.

There is no way that ISIS will stop its territorial and geopolitical expansionism because of negotiation.  It believes so strongly in the power and supremacy of Islam as a religious and political institution that it will not give up its war until it is beaten and destroyed.

The war in Syria will not end because of negotiation but only after one side wins.  Now that Russia has entered the conflict on the side of the Assad regime, its victory is now certain.

Russia will not stop its own expansionism unless and until it is met with military force; and China when pushed will do the same.

The days of geopolitical idealism are over, and only the United States has continued to base its foreign policy on moral exceptionalism, an idealistic faith in the rightness of liberal democracy and free markets.  The rest of the world, increasingly divided into separatist, imperialist, or jihadist movements has for better or worse moved on; and unless the United States finally, once and for all, gives up its idealism and supercilious righteousness can it get what it wants.

And ‘get what it wants’ is what the international game is all about.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Islam vs The West–A War Against Secularism And The Restoration Of Spiritual Values

Much has been written about radical Islam and the establishment of a Muslim Caliphate; but the focus has been more on geopolitical issues and ambitions rather than on what is far more central – the increasing secularization of Christianity.  It is not so much that Islam wants to replace Western liberal democracies with a theocracies; but to turn them away from secular expediency and return them to the spiritual values which have always been at their foundation

Catholic Popes have repeatedly warned against this expediency.  Pope Paul II was the first to  frame the argument against abortion in these terms.  Focus on the secular premise of a woman’s right to choose ignores more fundamental moral and ethical issues.  It is too easy, John Paul admonished, to dismiss life as a  biological accident.  To put spiritual issues aside in the pursuit of a more equal civil society may seem reasonable and just given women’s fight for full participation in society; but to do so ignores the mystery of life, its divine origins and purpose.   Focusing only on issues of equality and civil rights serves to distract men and women from the more fundamental issues of being and purpose.

Pope Francis has taken up John Paul’s argument and expanded it.   In his latest encyclical, Laudato Si he stressed how a rejection of the absolute value of human life erodes respect for all life. 
“How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties?” he asked.
Once the ability to welcome a new life is lost on the part of individuals and society, other forms of acceptance also “wither away,” he said, warning against a “culture of relativism” that sees an absence of any objective truth outside of our own immediate wants and needs.

In other words, as heinous as abortion itself is, intervening in the natural process of procreation to end embryonic human  life erodes the absolute sanctity of the rest of God’s creation.
When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities – to offer just a few examples – it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected.”
This thesis has been defended and expanded by Cardinal Christoph Schonborn:
Pope Francis hasn’t conceded an inch on the Church’s pro-life stance, and in October he assailed postmodernist gender theories that pretend that human sexuality is a social construct and therefore infinitely malleable to personal and political whimsy. Such theories, Francis said, are part of a “global war” aimed at destroying marriage and the traditional family (WSJ 12.24.16)
The Church’s position on the centrality of family, procreation, and human life has not changed since the days of the Early Church.   Not only does procreation fulfill the divine mandate to be fruitful and multiply, but unites man and woman in a special indissoluble bond.
For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife,  and the two will become one flesh.  So they are no longer two, but one flesh.  Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Mark 10:7-9)
The Old Testament’s exhaustive genealogy is a chronicle of families and  the importance of lineage and ties to the Hebrew patriarchs.   God the Father and God the Son add a new, more profound spiritual dimension to the concept of family.  Early Christianity was based on community the center of which was the family.

Abortion and homosexuality are repeatedly condemned for their interruption of the natural order of life.  The act of Creation is central to Christianity – God’s creation and man’s.  The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ restored the Trinitarian family and united humanity (Christ as Man) and divinity (Christ as God).  The acts of divine creation and resurrection were over but those of human creation would continue within a new, promising context.

The references to homosexuality and abortion were not condemnatory per se but made within the context of creation, procreation, and rebirth; and were meant to emphasize the integrity of the human-divine community.  The Church’s teaching about contraception is essential to this conception of creation and life.  The artificial and arbitrary interruption of the natural procreative cycle is no more than an expedient dissolution of the divine historical imperative.

It is too simplistic to criticize the Church’s teachings on abortion, homosexuality, and contraception as antiquated, anti-progressive, and retrograde.  It is only the Church which stands between a completely expedient and secularized society and one which retains its spirituality.

Pope Paul II knew that his conservative interpretation of doctrine would go counter to the increasing secularization of  the West where  morality was increasingly discussed only within the context of civil rights.  Unless the Church framed the argument in a more persuasive way, men and women would continue to treat human life as fungible, relative, and ultimately insignificant.
A spiritually unmoored West is vulnerable to its own demons, Schonborn noted, chief among them…various ideologies that treat human beings as means to and end. Threats to the dignity of life on the Continent, such as the relentless expansion of euthanasia…suggest that the demons of Europe are still around” WSJ, op.cit.)
All of which is a preamble to the Cardinal’s central point – that Islam as a religion offers a return to fundamental spiritual values that Christianity is losing:
“Will there be a third Islamic attempt to conquer Europe?”, he asked…”Many Muslims think this and wish this and say that Europe is at its end”.
The Left pounced on these words and accused him of thought crimes, and his message was lost in the acrimony.
[His message] was not mainly aimed at Muslims.  “I can fully understand Muslim believers – authentic believers whom I profoundly respect in their beliefs – who see evident signs of decadence in Europe…They think that Islam will be a good thing for Europe, to bring Europe on a better path to morality or faith in God.   So for me the threat is not believing Muslims (WSJ, op.cit.)
The Cardinal goes on:
But these things are byproducts of the West’s own existential confusion. “The real challenge is: What does it mean for the Christian roots of Europe?  Christianity is a missionary religion by its founder.  Jesus Christ said, Go and make all nations my disciples, teach them what I said, baptize them.  And a similar thing is true for Islam.
Only many in the West have  relinquished their inheritance, let alone any desire to share it.  Meanwhile Muslims remain devout and are growing more so.  The clash between a secularized, doubt-ridden West and a missionary Islam is Europe’s central crisis in a nutshell (WSJ, op.cit.)

His is a profound understanding of the clash of Muslim and Western cultures.  He has gone beyond the geopolitical rhetoric and the historical imperatives of expansionism, and looked at the fundamental reasons why Islam has such an allure and why its spiritual convictions will conquer the West in more complete and universal ways than ISIS or al-Qaeda ever could.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Extreme Charity - Is There Such A Thing As Doing Too Much Good?

Americans are among the world’s most charitable people.   Churches, private foundations, voluntary organizations, the United States Government, and the Corporate Responsibility departments of multinational corporations are all involved in the multi-billion dollar business of doing good.   Managing such American largesse requires infrastructure, logistics, accounting, personnel management, legal counsel, advertising, promotion, and marketing.  Helping the world’s poor and disadvantaged is a major industry.


The organizations involved in the industry never want for personnel.  Every year thousands of young men and women apply for low-paying jobs that will give them the opportunity to make a difference.  Sending a check is not an option.  Only work in the trenches of poverty – in overcrowded health clinics, nutrition rehabilitation centers, isolated villages, and urban slums – can fulfill their dream of doing good.


Unfortunately, their effort rarely makes a difference.  The international aid business is among the most inefficient and politically-driven of any enterprise of the US government.  Billions of dollars are spent annually on ‘development’ programs in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean with little return.

It is hard to name any African country on a solid democratic or economic path.  Most are a mess – Nigeria, Congo, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Somalia, Ethiopia, Equatorial Guinea, Sudan, Angola, Mali just to name a few.  If you count countries above the Sahara, Egypt, Algeria, and Libya are going through cataclysms from which liberal democracy is unlikely to emerge.  Even the darlings of the West like Uganda is corrupt, homophobic, and fighting a long and brutal civil war. 

Idriss Déby, the dictator of Chad played the US and the World Bank for fools, duplicitously agreeing to a gas-for-reform agenda and then reneging completely and continuing his despotic rule over one of the poorest countries in Africa..  The lionized Kagame presides with a repressive regime which muzzles opposition.  He has lied or distorted reports about his support of anti-government clandestine military operations in the Congo.  There are many more examples.
Helen Epstein recently described in these pages the support that aid donors give to Ethiopia’s tyrant Meles Zenawi, who has roughly matched Biya [President of Cameroon]  in aid receipts in a shorter period of time.Peter Gill in his excellent recent book Famine and Foreigners: Ethiopia Since Live Aid (2010) documents Meles’s misdeeds further, which rise to the level of war crimes in his counterinsurgency in Ethiopia’s Somali region.
Other long-serving aid-receiving dictators include Idriss Déby in Chad ($6 billion in aid between 1990 and the present), Lansana Conté in Guinea ($11 billion between 1984 and his death in 2008), Paul Kagame in Rwanda ($10 billion between 1994 and the present), and Yoweri Museveni in Uganda ($31 billion between 1986 and the present) William Easterly, NY Review of Books, 11.2010
Image result for images idriss deby

Those observers looking for success stories in Africa point to Angola’s  GDP which is indeed growing by leaps and bounds but only because of the value of the oil pulled out of the ground.  What these critics do not mention is that this vast wealth benefits only one percent of the top one percent whose foreign bank accounts swell while the majority of citizens remain impoverished in as bad conditions as any in Africa.

Yet none of this deters the young, idealistic men and women who feel that despite the corrupt context in which development programs are implemented, their passionate, committed, personal investment must make a difference.  In fact they believe that the collective effort of like-minded, spirited, and engaged workers can help to change the culture of government officials from venal, self-interested overseers to more enlightened administrators.  Love, concern, and spiritual intent can influence even the hardest and most corrupt politicians.

After years on the front lines of development, even the most idealistic aid workers become disillusioned by a system which turns a blind eye to corruption in the interest of geopolitical friendships and which funds programs that satisfy the interests and requirements of American interest groups rather than country beneficiaries.   They become fed up with management systems so out of synch with the levels of administrative ability of local bureaucrats and the expertise of field workers that they are doomed from the start.

Inertia is what holds this disillusioned and cynical cadre.

Yet as they retire or leave the industry, there are thousands of young and still motivated young people lining up to take their places.  There seems to be no end to their good will, optimism, and native idealism.

Doing good is not restricted to charity, social work, or foreign development assistance.  Climate change, environmental protection, peace, and the rightful place of women, gays, blacks, and ethnic minorities are causes that attract tens of thousands of workers and volunteers.  Engagement in these causes not only promises actual, observable change – i.e. the slowing of world temperature rises, more women in executive positions, the decline of homophobia, sexism, and racism – but an increased valuation of self-worth.  Doing good is an end in itself.  It provides the salve for old wounds of guilt.  It offers meaning and purpose in an increasingly complex and befuddling world; it adds value to self-worth; and offers a community of like-minded, equally committed colleagues.


Larissa MacFarqhuar, author of Strangers Drowning: Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Urge to Help was interviewed recently on NPR’s Interfaith Voices described the conundrums of extreme idealists.  One family who had given away all their disposable income except that for the barest necessities was still dissatisfied.  How could they continue to live in relative comfort when so many in the world were living lives of misery, penury, and want?

The crisis came when they were considering having another child.  Although they very much wanted a baby, they were concerned that the thousands of dollars they would have to spend on his upbringing were resources that could be better spent on the needs of the poor.  The husband became obsessed with the mathematical calculations of cost benefit.  Yes, he argued to himself,  a child represented lost revenues for the poor, but the balance sheet would not be complete without a calculation of the good that child would eventually do in the world.  As MacFarquhar recounted, the man drove himself mad with endless calculations which provided no sure, clear, and absolute answers.

MacFarquhar also recounts an interview between Stephen Colbert (comedian, host of a spoof talk show on American television) and a well-known philanthropist who in his lifetime had given millions to the poor.  “Why do you keep giving  to the poor?” asked Colbert to audience laughter.  What a question! Giving to the poor is at the heart of Christianity and a core value of Jesus’ teaching.  Giving alms is required by Hinduism and Islam.  Charity towards those less fortunate is a necessary obligation in unequal societies, a spiritual imperative, and a moral necessity.

Yet Colbert had hit on on an important issue – when is enough? Does a moral imperative demand drawing down on every last cent of surplus income?  What is so important about the plight of the poor that the philanthropist restricted his giving to them? Why had he not given to the arts, an ennobling investment?  Surely the value of assuring the well-being of an artistic dance company who would spread beauty and grace to the world was incalculable.


Many private schools have obligatory community service programs, and students choose from a list of possible options.  Most are soup kitchens, services for the homeless, hospitals, or inner-city programs for disadvantaged children.  Volunteering at art centers and libraries, while theoretically possible, are discouraged.  Teaching privileged children how to paint is not really doing good.
Why keep on giving to the poor?  The subject of charitable giving is now a field of academic research:
Chicago-based philanthropic adviser Lisa Dietlin noted that such studies might accelerate giving, but they won’t create it. “I think it’s still about people having relationships with people and sharing their stories about why their cause is so important.”
Another academic inquiry into the topic comes from the Harvard Business School’s 2009 working paper “Feeling Good about Giving: The Benefits (and Costs) of Self-Interested Charitable Behavior.” The study showed a fortuitous circuit: “Happier people give more and giving makes people happier, such that happiness and giving may operate in a positive feedback loop” (The Mensa Foundation, 2010).
The research is clear.  We give as much if not more for ourselves that for those we intend to help.

If such calculus is correct, that the phenomenon of extreme giving is understandable.  Giving to validate self-worth, leaving personal isolation for community companionship, expiating the sins of slave-owning ancestors, searching for meaning in a chaotic world all have psychological disturbances built in.  If giving were simply a matter of making the lives of others better through investment, there would be no extreme charity.  Giving would range from one-and-done to frequent donations and efforts.  A normal distribution. Since it is not, the bell curve is very different – from the hard,
embittered, and resentful who give nothing, to those who draw down to their last time to help others.

Who knew?  Yet focusing on extreme giving sheds light on the nature of charity, giving, and helping the poor; and corroborates what psychologists and philosophers have known for decades. 

We give for ourselves, not others.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Timidity Of The American Left

'Progressive’ is hardly the word for the American Left which has become more conservative than any Republican movement.  The response to Donald Trump’s victory – a promise of the most radical changes in the American socio-political landscape since Ronald Reagan – has been nothing short of reactionary. 

Trump has challenged every principle of the Old Left.  His culture is not only one of wealth (the Bush family, FDR, and the Kennedys were all families of means) but of bourgeois, tinseled, Las Vegas, Hollywood, NYC glitz and show wealth.  He has dismissed patent calls for ‘diversity’; intends  not only to ref0rm public education but to dismantle it; to oversee the final days of big labor; to recalibrate the balance between religious and secular values; and to return American foreign policy from moral exceptionalism to realpolitik.

He has promised to reclaim free speech and religious rights and in so doing force issues of race, gender, and ethnicity far below the fold. He will eliminate stifling regulations and taxation which limit business enterprise and job creation; will call Islamic terrorism what it is; and deal directly and uncompromisingly with immigration.

Donald Trump has addressed those fundamental issues universally recognized to be problems;  but rather than tinker and fiddle to reset, adjust, or recalibrate programs which have failed to produce results, he has chosen to eliminate or drastically restructure them.  The Left on the other hand timidly holds on to the old notions, entitlements, and policies which have not only not shown results but have exacerbated the problems they intended to resolve.

No one argues that the public education system in America is broken.  Inner city schools are racially segregated and little more than prisons for disinherited, marginalized children from dysfunctional families.  Yet progressives insist that public education still represents America’s historic democratic spirit of multicultural, pluralism.  It therefore must be retained, reinforced, and supported at all costs.
Yet families from those blighted neighborhoods jump at the chance to escape, send their children to charter or religious schools, and leave behind delinquency, assault, and indifference.

Trump’s new Secretary of Education, although limited in what she can do because public education is largely a local affair, can facilitate the engagement of the private sector in education and can set new standards for school choice. She as well as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development can begin to roll back the culture of entitlement and the lack of personal and social responsibility that continues to infect and corrode dysfunctional communities.

The Left remains timid in its approach both to community development and educational reform.  Entitlement is necessary, it insists, because the legacy of slavery is still alive and well; and only a moral and socially committed government can address persistent racism. 

Yet hundreds of millions of dollars invested have only served to prop up a failed system of patronizing and socio-economic  slavery; and to support the politicians and unions which have benefited from government largesse.

Donald Trump’s promise to dismantle these archaic systems of entitlement and focus instead on systems of individual and community responsibility are far from timid.  Only through such radical social and political structural adjustment can those living in blighted neighborhoods have a chance to succeed.

Progressives because of reverence for their multicultural canon have refused to acknowledge legitimate concerns about immigration.  Sanctuary cities and colleges reflect their insistence that the goal of diversity is of a higher value than more insular laws and legislation.  Social integration has been set back decades because of their misguided focus on identity politics.  Diversity has become an a priori good, and threats to it are immoral.

Conservatives, on the other hand, understand immigration simply as part of the natural movement of labor according to the marketplace.  Immigrants keep crossing the border illegally because of the promise of jobs; but by so doing they force down wages for American citizens and artificially drive down the prices of goods and services.   The answer to the problem of illegal immigration is not obvious; but few deny that resolution is urgent.  Facing and analyzing facts is what is required, not relying on a priori assumptions.

Retreating into a philosophical cocoon – i.e. diversity is supreme and above all other considerations – is timid.  There are many possible solutions to the issue of undocumented workers, many of which would be acceptable to liberal thinkers; but such safe-room mentality benefits no one.

The progressive Left has always been timid when it comes to foreign affairs.  The movement has always been proud of its pacifist and non-confrontational, one world political history; has always preferred negotiation over conflict; and abhors the thought of any inflammatory rhetoric, military exercises, or diplomatic moves that might anger our international competitors to violence.

Conservatives have always understood that conflict, confrontation, territorial imperatives, and self-interest have always ruled human society from family to empire; and that the only way to secure national interest is through confidence and challenge.  Diplomacy is not the be-all and end-all of foreign policy; just one piece of it.

The Left has for decades accepted the truism of ‘A Woman’s Right to Choose’; and once Roe v Wade was decided almost fifty years ago, progressives have accepted the ruling as received, absolute wisdom.  They have refused to hear the increasing resentment of religious Americans and their demand for a hearing.  In their view, the issue is not about the civil rights of women, but the sanctity of life itself; and no court of nine should every rule on such a contentious issue.

Trump and radical conservatives are not so timid and are willing to enter the unsettling debate about the origins of life, the Biblical injunctions against abortion and Christ’s insistence on the integrity of the family as a human portrait of the divine Trinity.   Unsettling because abortion is so tempting and such an easy way out of uncomfortable positions.  Pope Paul II decades ago attacked abortion not only on the basis of Christian morality but on the culture of expediency which it fostered.  Pope Francis took Paul’s thoughts even further. A disregard for the sanctity of human life can only result in a disregard for all life.

Hillary supporters are so distraught over the Trump election because not only does the President-Elect represent a threat to the programs and policies they have taken for granted for so long; but because he rejects the very philosophical principles which underlie them.

Their anger, frustration, resentment, and sense of futility are understandable.  Not only have their policies and programs been discredited but their entire worldview and moral philosophy as well.

The response – demonstrations, petitions, and disruptions – is very timid.  The demonstrations are inchoate and emotional rather than focused.  The social protests of the Sixties on the other hand had specific goals – to end the War in Vietnam, to pass civil rights legislation, and to force recalcitrant states into compliance.  Progressive goals must be narrowed and activities to promote them well-designed and –orchestrated.   The time for emotional distress is over; and the time for mobilizing the loyal opposition is now.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Even Optimists Get The Blues–Keeping The Black Dog Away From The Door

Albert Bolton knew depression – or at least what Styron’s full-blown,  Black Dog pall that comes unexpectedly and completely might be.  He had known only funks, temporary episodes where it felt good to be mean; and however ultimately unsatisfying it might be to relive resentment and insult, it juiced enough bile  to relieve the boredom and enough epinephrine into the limbic system to jolt him out of temporary despair.

Image result for images william styron

Meanness served him well as an anodyne  - a behavioral drug  that lifted the closing curtain for a last, shabby encore. 

There is no psychoanalytical literature on the phenomenon of meanness as asylum for depression; and in fact Albert himself wondered why relieving himself from the consequences of a life incompletely lived had to involve others.   Why couldn’t he simply feel remorse for his mistakes and regret at his missed opportunities? Why did his black dog need to feed on others food?

One psychologist had suggested that repair from depression was a zero sum game.  Self-cure, epiphany, and revelation could only be salves while cure or relief could only come from sacrificial blood.

Albert had married his wife less for love than for financial and practical convenience as the sturdiest architecture to house  uncertainty.

Albert had had previous marriages and  lovers, but had long ago decided that duplicity, deceit, and disrespect were not worth the effort.  After a certain point he ceased his infidelities and returned home.

To be sure the hearth was not all it was cracked up to be especially since recompense had to be exacted for his dalliances. Yet it was still a consolation.  Aging and death should never be faced alone so why complain about the shutters and furniture when the building itself  was solid ?

Albert’s late middle age was at best cyclical  - periods of mild depression encircling more serious episodes of funk and despondency.  He dispelled the darkest funks through irony, cynicism, and habitual meanness, self-medicated his way to routine, and had his moments of satisfaction.

It was only when he was gifted  ‘the best Christmas present I ever got’-  a young women thirty years his junior, as hungry for a meaningful and promising relationship as he was for one final psycho-sexual fling. 

Albert had long before given up any thought of real sexual adventure. Yes, there were hundreds of women of a certain age who would have been delighted with an affair with a still attractive, well-travelled, senior professional; but his sexual interests were only in rejuvenation, not mature relationships, and so he always demurred.

When Libby came along – bright, moderately ambitious, still working out her failed relationships with her father and her farmland past , blonde, and sexually alluring – Albert was besotted.   This was the epiphanic, final and conclusive love affair of his life.  The liaison to dispel all black funk depressions. The one last and lasting sexual encounter which would affirm his manhood,  validate his self-worth, and send him off happy and content.

They met in Haiti, romantic enough with its Voodoo, gingerbread houses, Tonton Macoute intimidation and violence, tom-toms, and marimba; but even more so because of its outlaw sexiness.  It was one thing to have a liaison in Guadeloupe or Martinique; another thing altogether to spend nights in the Olaffson in the Graham Greene suite, overlooking the pool where the dead body had been found, listening to the tom toms in the hills below Kenskoff.

Image result for images oloffson hotel

The affair lasted long enough time for the romance to fade, enough time for Libby to realize that her life was not to be with a still vigorous but rapidly aging lover and for Albert to retreat to the welcome and necessary confines of accompanied old age.

Now what? wondered Albert. He was still young enough for another affair, but the wind was out of his sails.  Had he not taken sexual desire to its limit? Had he not satisfied every fantasy, submerged psycho-sexual fantasy of his past?  Had Libby not regressed to her childhood obsession with her father, her pre-teen sexual fantasies, and her self-conscious intellectual doubts?  What was left?

Of course there were hundreds of women waiting for a suit0r, as romantic and perpetually hopeful as he, but ‘existential depression’ had no over-the-counter remedies. As enticing as a cinq-a-sept liaison might seem, it would be no more than parchment sex, foundering, ultimately ending with very unromantic good-byes.

No, Albert would have to face the Black Dog without female company.

He tried everything – a Tolstoy-esque search for meaning and purpose; a Nietzschean arrogance, a Schopenhauer determinism, even an Aquinian  faith-with-reason – but came up far emptier than his departures from Port-au-Prince and his Belgian paramours. 

Image result for images schopenhauer

Every morning he woke up wondering how life had not only passed so quickly but with so few returns.  What were the memories of Petionville, the Splendide, Macaya Beach, and the Olaffson really worth?

Vladimir Nabokov was a self-described memorist, one for whom the past was more important than the present or the future ;for it, more than any other temporal reality or possibility is real, experienced, and observed.   Memory – the retention of the past – was essential to personal identity and validation.  We are only what we were, he said.

Image result for images nabokov

So Albert in his later years retreated into memory – old loves, haunts, and even disappointments – but these recollections were never enough to chase the black dog away from the door.

Nor was meanness which, attenuated by age became less nasty and hurtful.  It was little more than the eccentricity of an old man who could no longer keep his own counsel.

At times he thought that his lifelong companionship with depression – but never partnership – had given him energy and vitality.  He ran faster when the black dog chased him.   Long relationships only accentuated the boredom that led inevitably to an existential dead end.   Affairs demanded little except agility.  They never gave hope, but were not intended to. 

Hemingway had the right idea when the wrote The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber
It had taken a strange chance of hunting, a sudden precipitation into action without opportunity for worrying beforehand, to bring this about with Macomber, but regardless of how it had happened it had most certainly happened. Look at the beggar now, Wilson thought. It‟s that some of them stay little boys so long, Wilson thought. Sometimes all their lives. Their figures stay boyish when they‟re fifty. The great American boy-men. Damned strange people. But he like this Macomber now.
Damned strange fellow. Probably meant the end of cuckoldry too. Well, that would be a damned good thing. Damned good thing. Beggar had probably been afraid all his life. Don‟t know what started it. But over now. Hadn’t  had time to be afraid with the buff. That and being angry too. Motor car too. Motor cars made it familiar. Be a damn fire eater now. He‟d seen it in the war work the same way. More of a change than any loss of virginity. Fear gone like an operation. Something else grew in its place. Main thing a man had. Made him into a man. Women knew it too. No bloody fear. 
‘No bloody fear’ – a man’s way.  Ironically Hemingway suffered from depression and committed suicide and hunting, war, and bullfighting were his ways of keeping the black dog at bay.  Sexual adventure was nothing compared to a charging buffalo.  It tested manhood, validated individual worth, and defied the predictable, emasculating, and deadening routine of a more pedestrian life.

At times Albert thought that he might have been better off if he had stopped trying to outrun the black dog and faced his fear of death like Hemingway had.

William Styron who wrote about his own depression saw the melodrama in the struggle.  There was something not quite serious about a struggle with the inevitable:
“A phenomenon that a number of people have noted while in deep depression is the sense of being accompanied by a second self — a wraithlike observer who, not sharing the dementia of his double, is able to watch with dispassionate curiosity as his companion struggles against the oncoming disaster, or decides to embrace it. There is a theatrical quality about all this, and during the next several days, as I went about stolidly preparing for extinction, I couldn't shake off a sense of melodrama — a melodrama in which I, the victim-to-be of self-murder, was both the solitary actor and lone member of the audience.” ( Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness)
Everyone deals with existential anxiety differently, and as Albert had said depression was his companion but never his partner.  Styron’s psychological ‘second self’ was his intimate, giving him glimpses of the absurdity of his condition, but validating it.   Hemingway never wrote about what was driving him to suicide; and his writings give few clues.  Perhaps confronting death was indeed the only way he had of surviving, but in the end it only postponed the inevitable.

Albert like most men simply lost his gumption, meanness, and sexual adventure.  He ended his life satisfied that he had lived well, disappointed that he had not had more lovers, and unhappy that he had gotten no farther than Step One in his search for knowledge; but at rest.

He had tried to reshuffle the deck, raise the ante, change games, tables, and casinos; but with no luck.  The black dog still followed him demanding to be fed.  It was not until the compulsion to win and the anger and frustration at losing had disappeared did he settle down to play the cards he was dealt.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Collective Trauma–How Hillary Clinton’s Defeat Has Caused Pain And Suffering Among Supporters Who Should Have Known Better

Neil Gross writing in the New York Times suggests that many Americans are suffering from post-election ‘collective trauma’, a term originated by Emile Durkheim:
Durkheim, a turn-of-the-20th-century French sociologist and an architect of the field. argued that norms, values and rituals were the linchpins of social order; they provided the basis for solidarity and social cohesion. Collective trauma occurs when an unexpected event severs the ties that bind community members to one another.
Gross suggests that the loss of Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump was more than just an electoral defeat:
Those who voted for Hillary Clinton may now be experiencing collective trauma of their own. In the aftermath of the election, they have been walking around in a daze. Some of this is because forecasts based on problematic polling strongly predicted a Democratic win. Some is fear or uncertainty about the future. But there’s more to it than that: For progressives, moderates and “Never Trump” Republicans, the political order they long took for granted — defined by polarization, yes, but also by a commitment to basic principles of democracy and decency — is suddenly gone.


Very true as far as it goes, but the argument misses the point.  Idealism ipso facto is bound to fail in a permanently cynical world.

Progressives have always believed in the concept of human progress. Mankind can indeed evolve towards a better, more harmonious, civil, peaceful, and sharing world.  We are perfectible, endowed with a spiritual goodness which eventually will out as long as we are deliberate, patient, and above all committed to our ideals.

Conservatives on the other hand believe that man’s actions are dictated by human nature which, as history has amply shown, is aggressive, territorial, self-serving, protective, and acquisitive.   There is no such thing as progress; but only the manipulation or reconfiguration of inevitable facts to better suit the individual and the society in which he lives.   We are not on the path to a better world, for all worlds will be necessarily governed by the same basic instincts.  Our problems and solutions are only temporal and have nothing to do with human moral and spiritual evolution.

Had Hillary Clinton won the election conservatives would have been angry; but their hatred of  Washington, Obama, liberalism, and the arrogant, elite Eastern Establishment was already so bitter and defiant that it would only increase.  Since no architecture of moral principle or foundation of righteousness ever exists within a deterministic, historical philosophy, their worldview would not have been shaken. 

It is hard to feel sorry for overwrought Clinton supporters who bought her bill of goods.  It was not so much that she promised more than she ever could have delivered – all candidates do that – but that she set herself up as more than just a political candidate.  She embodied a resurgent womanhood and a commitment to universal ideals (peace, the environment, human and civil rights, justice, and social and economic equality).  More than anything, she portrayed herself as a Holy Warrior whose defeat of Donald Trump – the very embodiment of the evils of racism, sexism, and homophobia and a satanic destroyer of good – would rid the world of a brutish, nasty, war against righteousness and progress towards a better world.


Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of history knows that such self-anointed spiritual entitlements are a dime a dozen.  Holy Wars have been fought since religion’s earliest days.  Popes, emperors, kings, and suzerains all believed that God was on their side.  Pope Urban II not only wanted to expel the Godless followers of Mohammed from the holy Christian city of Jerusalem.  Charlemagne and Roland knew that God was on their side when they defeated the Saracens at Roncesvalles.  The Holy Roman Emperor was just that – holy and supreme.  The divine right of kings gave the monarchy tremendous power.

Of course beneath all the religious cant was geopolitical interest.  Popes, kings, queens, and shahs all used religion as a convenient cover for their military excursions and adventurism.  If we have learned anything from history, it is that moral rectitude and purpose are deliberate tools of autocratic manipulation.

Which is why it is surprising that so many progressives bought Hillary Clinton’s righteous idealism hook, line, and sinker.  There was nothing evil about Donald Trump who appealed to the anger, frustrations, and resentments of the over 60 million Americans who voted for him; nothing unholy about his challenges to illegal immigration and the muzzling of free speech.  Nothing seditious about his desire to recalibrate the scales of race, gender, and ethnicity to favor the concerns of social conservatives and religious fundamentalists. Nothing morally corrupt about his commitment to overturning Roe v Wade; and certainly nothing inappropriate about his economic patriotism.

The reason why there is so much ‘collective trauma’ among Hillary Clinton supporters is because they naively invested so much of themselves in a candidate who, because of her very ambitious, venal, and predictable politician’s nature, was incapable of being anything other than a pedestrian pretender to the throne.

They should have known better.

Politics is and always will be a struggle between candidates who aspire to high office because of their ambition and overweening self-confidence and sense of entitlement.  This is not to say that Presidents once in office cannot act according to higher principles.  LBJ truly believed in racial justice and the injustice of poverty; but he also so imperfectly understood the nature of American exceptionalism and liberal democracy that he was responsible for tens of thousands of needless deaths in Vietnam.  In other words the same sense of righteousness served him well and disastrously.

Jimmy Carter is a man of faith and felt that he had a mission to evangelize.  Although he believed that his campaign on international human rights and his hectoring on about American’s materialism and and secular myopia were righteous, his policies have either turned out badly or were ignored. 
Ronald Reagan was a man of principle but he never set himself up as a moral savior.  His commitment to patriotism, small government, individual enterprise, and a strong military were a result of an accurate reading of the American political zeitgeist, the internal weaknesses of the Soviet Union, and the foundering of an economy based far too much on public sector employment and investment.

By demonizing Donald Trump; by deifying A Woman President; and by promoting the very agendas of progressivism rejected by half the electorate because they represented a higher good, she positioned herself up for failure and set up her supporters for a devastating blow to their self-worth.

Again, her supporters should have known better.  The world is not based on ideals, morality, or high principles; but on competing interests.  Instead of confronting Donald Trump on the many contentious programs he promoted – e.g. immigration, trade, foreign relations – Mrs. Clinton chose to demonize him for his supposedly immoral behavior.  Her campaign chose to focus on his racial exclusivity, dismissal of LGBT rights, encouragement of rigorous enforcement of the law and the restoration of civil order, retrograde ignorance about abortion and a woman’s right to choose, and his obvious misogyny.  

Her campaign missed the point that Trump supporters did not and would not believe the charges against him.  Nor did they take his exaggerated oratory as fact or policy.  In extracting what he meant from what he said Trump supporters were better deconstructionists than any academic.
It is easy to get over electoral defeat, but not collective trauma.  Clinton supporters are still suffering and taking out their pain on the rest of America who want to move on.

Donald Trump may or may not be a good President; but he was handed the election by Hillary Clinton who misjudged him and and his supporters; who overestimated the righteous cause of A Woman President; and who clung to a progressive agenda which had had its day.

One should feel sorry neither for her nor for her inconsolable supporters.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Old Age - No Country For Old Men

It wasn’t so much his age that worried him, Peter Cohen explained to his doctor.  It was the idea of it; but no matter how much the physician assured him that he was in perfect health, that his prostate, cholesterol, blood pressure, and reflexes were those of a much younger man; and no matter how many actuarial tables showing excellent life expectancy for a man of his age, health, and family background, Peter still woke up every morning with ‘existential angst’.

There was nothing that could dispel the gloom he felt when he woke up.  The number 75 flashed in front of his eyes every morning bright and clear.

                                   1966 Batman Bat Signal

Soon it would flash 76,  a particularly important milestone the way he calculated the passing years.  What others noted – decades and half-decades – he treated without ceremony or especial worry.  It was the first off years on the downside of a decade - the 6s and 7s – which troubled him most.  Seventy-five was a kind of actuarial firewall, a round number which when spoken by a vigorous man like himself signified a professional and physical well-being.  Successful years accomplished with many more to come. 

Seventy-six on the other hand stood on its own and had to be taken for what it was – old, shaky, and unpredictable.  Seventy-five had an impressive ring to it.   It encompassed all of late middle age, and still had promise and even potential; but seventy-six was an unmistakably unpromising number which signified only an irritable twelve months.  It was an uncompromising number.

“If I alter the perception of time”, Peter thought, “perhaps I can slow it.”

People who have been in car accidents report that everything happened in slow motion.  Thanks to this slowing down of time they can remember the car hurtling towards them, the look of the hood crumpling under the force of the collision.  The glass windshield spiders out slowly and they can remember how its patterns were formed.  The coffee thrown upwards towards the roof of the car, then coming down in a long, thick stream.  It is not that time has actually slowed down, but that people are so busy recording each and every detail of such an important event, that it simply seems that way.


Others wake up to find that it’s Friday again and  find it hard to remember where the rest of the week went.

Older people report the quick passage of time most often.  Their lives are necessarily circumscribed by routine because of physical debility, fewer friends, and the increasing difficult of moving around and about.  Without changes in perspective and welcome departures from routine, one day does indeed seem like every other.  Older people feel this sense of the quickness of time most acutely because the loss is irretrievable.  Their lives have been lived, and the accelerated passage of those few years left is depressing. David Eagleman, a neuroscientist who studies time adds another dimension:
The more detailed the memory, the longer the moment seems to last. ‘This explains why we think that time speeds up when we grow older,’ Eagleman said — why childhood summers seem to go on forever, while old age slips by while we’re dozing. The more familiar the world becomes, the less information your brain writes down, and the more quickly time seems to pass (Huffington Post, op.cit.)

In other words not only do older people live lives of confining routine, after a while there is nothing new under the sun.  No other age group suffers from such a twin consignment with such terrible consequences.

There is no doubt that routine is the main culprit, concluded Peter Cohen.  He found it depressing to make tea every morning.  Didn’t he  just warm the pot, heat the milk, select the tea, pour the water, fit the cozies, and carry the tray to his study?

Yet even if he altered the routine, the passage of time was as fast as it ever had been.  He was too old to acquire new experiences and memories to slow the clock down, and God forbid he wanted no accidents or tragedies in his life.

So it all boiled down to dealing with ‘the future’, a nice way of saying death, but at seventy-five he still felt he could afford himself some sugar-coating.  There would be plenty of time before he had ‘that’ night visitor.

The main character of Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich had been very careful in configuring his life in such a way as to avoid unpleasantness.  He kept his wife and children in their dacha for much of the year, installed himself in a comfortable townhouse in the city; dealt obliquely with his creditors and congenially but never intimately with his colleagues; and until the onset of his terminal illness was quite proud of his achievements.  Facing death he quickly realized that his constructions had come to nothing and he was facing his own unconscionable end entirely alone and without preparation.

He would never be like Ivan Ilyich, Peter thought, for he had always been a thoughtful, contemplative man.  He had never been afraid to conclude that life had no meaning or there was no God.  If anything he had been obsessed with finding out what’s what before he got too old to do anything about it.  Definitely no Ivan Ilyich for him.

“Take every day at a time” was the advice given to him by a friend. “What else can you do?”  Although meant sincerely and with more philosophical salience than he had given credit for, it was still hard for him to accept.  Parceling off the rest of one’s life in practical, easily digestible bits to avoid existential gas made some sense; but that required patience, discipline, and a sense of practicality that he had never had.   He could never focus only on the Camry, the new furnace, the gym, and what to have for dinner.  Days, no matter how routine, were more like rooms with cracked walls which let in drafts and unpleasant thoughts.

“I’ll write you a prescription”, said his internist once he realized that good blood work results and promising actuarial tables had not made a dent in Peter’s armor.  “Take care of it in no time”.

Medicating the problem, Peter initially thought, was no solution at all.  One had to come to grips with these existential issues.  Hard, sharp reality was what was called for. 

“Yes, but with drugs you’ll forget that there even are existential issues", said his friend. "That’s the beauty of it all.”

Peter had been brought up too strictly and with too much respect for Torah, the Law, study, and reason to be swayed.  If there was any meaning at all to life it was in the validation of the individual; and that either it came from a Nietzschean expression of will or at least an intellectual defiance.  If a man was worth anything; if courage meant anything at all, the value was in confrontation, not retreat.  Job was his hero.

Tolstoy had been preoccupied with questions of meaning for most of his life.  As expressed through his character Konstantin Levin (Anna Karenina), Tolstoy saw the irony of a creation of human beings with intelligence, wit, insight, creativity, and humor but who were destined to live only a few short decades and then spend the rest of eternity in the cold, hard ground of the Russian steppes.

In his fifties, Tolstoy simply wore out.  After years of research on philosophy, theology, science, literature, mathematics, and history he had come up empty.  How was it that millions – no, hundreds of millions of people – had come to believe in God without years of exhausting study?

“They must be on to something”, he said; then relaxed and backed into faith.
Tolstoy wrote of epiphanies and believed in them; and this revelation, as simple and as obvious as it was, counted as a big one.  Not only did he give up his secular research, but became a religious evangelist.

“He must have been on to something”, said Peter, referring to Tolstoy.

Old age should not be a country for old men, he thought.  If we haven’t sorted things out before now, then it’s too late.  “Too soon old, too late schmart”, he said to no one in particular; but realized that he would never be smart, and the most he could hope for was not to be terrified; and that was not a function of brains but faith.  Ah, the irony of it all, he thought.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Sunk Costs–How An Economic Principle Influences Love And Marriage

In economics and business decision-making, a sunk cost is a cost that has already been incurred and cannot be recovered. Sunk costs (also known as retrospective costs) are sometimes contrasted with prospective costs, which are future costs that may be incurred or changed if an action is taken.

Image result for images sunk costs economics

In other words, the more one puts into a project, the less one is inclined to pull out of it.  If a parent has invested three years tuition at what has turned out to be a mediocre college at which his daughter has performed poorly, he is reluctant to give up on the school and the child, and pays for another overpriced and unproductive last year.  If a manager has spent three years in developing an employee (business, sports, entertainment) and he has turned out to be far less of prospect than initially envisaged, he has a tendency to keep the employee on hoping that another year, perhaps under improved conditions, will produce initially expected results.

To counter this, economists have encouraged the ‘bygones principle’.
They stress the "extra" or "marginal" costs and benefits of every decision. The theory emphasizes the importance of ignoring past costs and only taking into account the future costs and benefits when making decisions. It states that when making a decision, one should make a hard-headed calculation of the extra costs one will incur and weigh these against its extra advantages (Wiki)
Image result for images bygone principle

Yet the idea of giving up on an investment when there is even the slightest chance of recouping it is compelling.   It is very difficult to let bygones be bygones when the bad investments of the past reflect badly on one’s intelligence, insight, acuity, and business sense.  Managers have more to gain by turning the ship around than just economic returns.

Silicon Valley has always been very good about ignoring sunk costs.  Risk-taking is central to innovation, and a high rate of failure is endemic to the industry.  Yet because the rewards for successful innovation are so great, managers are willing to invest millions which they know are likely to be lost.  As importantly, they know when to pull the plug, forget sunk costs, and move on to the next promising idea.   The industry ethos of risk, failure, and loss as contributing factors to success challenge the traditional paradigm of sunk costs.

Sunk cost thinking is not exclusive to business.  Most of us base our decisions on this economic principle all the time.  If we have spent time on a long and difficult trip to purchase a particular item only to find it unexpectedly out of stock or the wrong size or model, rather than limit opportunity costs and quickly return home and back to productive work, we stay at the Mall hoping to find something else that will justify the wasted trip.

If an employee has spent days researching a paper to be presented at a company seminar and found that the original idea was far less unique than originally thought, rather than scrap it and move on to something more appropriate and promising, he chooses to ignore the obvious and to convince himself that he can work around the nettlesome arguments that contest his hypothesis or cast his own argument in an alluring way which will deflect inquiry.   He runs the risk of criticism to justify sunk costs.

None of this is new; but few realize how much and how often they apply the economic principle of sunk costs to personal decisions.

A colleague (call him Henry Watkins) found himself in a bad marriage and had known so for a long time; but at each stage of his progressively deteriorating relationship, he considered but rejected the idea of divorce.   He and his wife had invested so much in marriage, children, house, and home that neither one could bring themselves to separate.  They each considered divorce after ten years, then fifteen, then twenty; but since sunk costs increase the longer the term of the investment, separation – economic, financial, personal, and emotional – became more and more unfeasible.

After twenty years the house bought for $250,000 in a down market was now worth over a million. The children were in elite private universities thanks to the couple’s combined incomes; and their place in the community consolidated by their joint contributions to neighborhood improvement, schools, and churches.

Henry looked at the not inconsiderable wealth he and his wife had amassed thanks to their professional skills, her financial acumen, and his timely purchases of real estate and Western land, and realized that disentangling himself from the now complex web of joint investments would be almost impossible and outrageously expensive.

His wife had made her peace with their arrangement.  Their now diffident personal life was of little consequence given her increasingly influential and remunerative positions in business.  She loved their children if not her husband; and if she was careful to avoid contentious issues and tip-toe around minor infractions of the domestic contract, she could carry on with little second thought to what had become an essentially loveless marriage.

All marriages lose their luster, she argued to herself, so why not ours?  Marriage was never supposed to be about love but children, family, and economic and social stability, so why let some lack of accommodation get in the way?

Henry took a different tack.  Love – or at least sexual satisfaction – was supposed to be a part of marriage, and although love did naturally turn tepid after many years of sharing the same bed, it should evolve into something more subtle and permanent.

Yet his marriage was not only tepid or even indifferent; but it was not progressing towards a more mature and deeper understanding.  It had soured completely.  There was no one thing that convinced him of the irretrievability of the marriage – no discovered infidelity, social miscue, or misguided treatment of the children.  He simply discovered that his wife of twenty years was not the woman he thought she was.  Apparently he had been seduced by her beauty, charm, with, and feminine allure and either missed or ignored her emotional and intellectual bindings.  Not only were there no sexual juices flowing, whatever reserves of curiosity, emotional ambition, and surprise there might have been had dried up completely.

So rather than throw away the years of financial and personal investment in the marriage, he decided to complement it with what he called ‘collateral satisfactions’.  Still a young man, he found that affairs with women were indeed possible, and for years he contented himself in a quite agreeable, clandestine life.

My Other Life, a fictionalized autobiography by Paul Theroux, spoke for him.  One could lead parallel lives even if one was secretive and unannounced.  In what had become a marriage of convenience, he was rarely suspect and never challenged.  His wife may or may not have known about his infidelities, but in either case, she registered no reaction.

Image result for images theroux my other life

For her part, the sunk costs were less of a burden than for her husband, less imposing, and less permanently ‘there’.  She took them as a matter of course.  Not so much ‘let bygones be bygones’ but a conviction that no arrangement – no marriage, partnership, or collusion – would ever be ideal.  Play the cards that you are dealt.  They do not always end up as bad hands.

There were times when she had had enough and wanted out.  She was not so daunted by the legal and financial complexities of an intimately conjoined marriage and knew that the legal costs, high as they would certainly be, would certainly be worth it.  The idea of jettisoning the whole thing – husband, children, home, and community – was very appealing indeed; and she often envisaged opening a practice in Tucson or Salt Lake City and doing quite well for herself.  

Yet it never seemed worth it.  All that time, effort, emotional dues, physical strain were incalculable costs.  They were nothing compared to the economic and financial costs that she and her husband had negotiated well enough to create a considerable treasury if not fortune; and that was saying something.

So both Henry and his wife soldiered on, prisoners of sunk costs but adaptable enough to make the best out of a lifeless marriage. 

Eventually Henry, like most men, returned home.   In his mind he had never left, a la Paul Theroux; but had retained a consistent fidelity to the institution of marriage if not to his wife; and that was saying something.

The story of Henry Watkins and his wife is as old as the hills.  Uninteresting, unimaginative, and totally predictable and unremarkable; but that is what sunk costs do to people.  Our innate conservatism – our niggardliness in fact – inhibit our freedom of emotional choice.  Most men and women could easily leave a bad marriage just like the geeks of Silicon Valley move on after a disastrous enterprise, but few do.  It’s those pesky past years, dollars, sweat, and tears that crimp their style.

Edward Albee famously noted that marriage – as horrible and penitential as it was – was the crucible of maturity.  Only within its inescapable confines can one sort out oneself let alone one’s relationships with others.  George and Martha (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) considered sunk costs as necessary, inescapable features of the past, investments in emotional discovery.  The ending of the play is hopeful because George and Martha, emotionally, existentially drained have ‘cut to the marrow’.  When there is nothing left, when the past has been exposed for what it is – inescapable and vitally necessary no matter how destructive – there is no place to go but up.