Archive for April, 2014

Decisions

I was given a church newsletter by a friend in which the priest’s column was about the decision making process for enlarging the organ.  He described the process he had been through to get advice from appropriate individuals and groups.  However, there was one person who was not satisfied and was agitating for a congregational meeting. The priest said the appropriate people had been involved, the decision had been made and that was the end of it.  He ended by saying that when a new building would be needed he hoped there would be a new priest to deal with that.

That led me to cogitating about decision making and I was shortly overwhelmed.  We spend most of our time making decisions and I don’t have to list examples.  As children we work hard to push ourselves into the process of making decisions about ourselves.  When we get partial control of that process, from the time we get up in the morning until we go to bed, our time is consumed in making decisions of which we are a part.

Books are written about how best to make decisions and nothing seems to change.  Now I understand why.  It’s what we do all the time and there is no real way we can separate ourselves from any decision making process of which we are part.  My whole professional message about making impartial decisions in teaching just went up in smoke.  And I suspect that is true in any other occupation.

Enjoy the rest of your day!

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Hitler to Putin

For Christians, the Easter season is a time for reflection and rededication.  This year my reflection got stuck on change, change in humans and my belief that I have helped some humans make some change in their lives

One of the things that I have had to deal with in my sixty years of teaching is the conflict between my desire to help people change and the reality of the results of my work.  The human race does not change easily.  I am beginning to wonder if the basic human being changes at all.  Nowhere has this been made more obvious than in the recent events between Russia and the Ukraine.

In 1938 Adolf Hitler determined that Austria should become a part of Greater Germany.  When the Austrians decided to vote on the issue, Hitler maneuvered a crisis in Austria and then sent in some of the German army to “restore order”.  Then he engineered a crisis with Czechoslovakia over the Czechs treatment of German citizens who lived mostly in the area adjacent to the German border.  This brought the British and French governments (which had defense treaties with the Czechs) running.  The result of this was the Munich conference at which the Czechs had to give up that border region to Germany.  According to Hitler, this was his last demand.  As we all know, that wasn’t true.  Annexation of Czechoslovakia was next.  He moved on to Poland and demanded that Germany be given a corridor through Poland to the free city of Danzig which had been back and forth between Prussia and Poland through the centuries.  At that point Britain and France said this is too much, but Hitler didn’t believe them and we know what happened then.

Well, Vladimir Putin bears more than a passing resemblance to Adolf Hitler.  His take over of the Crimea follows the path of Hitler in Austria.  His bleeding heart for Russians in the Ukraine generally has led to the kind of disturbances in various parts of the Ukraine that Hitler stirred up in countries on his border.  His profession of lack of interest by Russia in further Ukrainian territory follows Hitler’s script.  The fact that Hitler lost at tremendous cost to Russia and the rest of Europe is about the only thing that has escaped Putin.  However, it is not out of the question in the future.

The reaction of most other European countries both times has been hand wringing and verbal admonitions short of threats of action.  Both times governments have basically said “what can we do?  We are dependent on them.  We really can’t do anything to stop them.”  And, it seems that short of war, this is a realistic attitude.

As for me, I lived through World War II, served in the Navy to help prevent the North Koreans from conquering the South Koreans, watched the Vietnam War on TV every night at dinner (while shouting at the TV) and had the continuing round of involvement in war since then flowing over me, I can’t help but wonder what have we accomplished in my lifetime.  Our involvement in war in so many different places doesn’t seem to have made the world a better place to live in.  Hitler to Putin has obviously been preceded by previous lines of one despot to another and I must conclude others will follow.

In addition to wondering what my life’s work in education has meant, I now watch sports and spend little time on the evening news.  I have become one of those people I used to deplore, but I am a lot happier.  The next generation will have to solve the problems created by these bad actors.

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Gross Domestic Product

 For the past several years we have had what we have teetered between labeling a recession and various kinds of depression.  Articles are full of numbers about all sorts of things including money and products and what people want and people’s opinions about how to fit these things together.

Central to all of these reports and arguments is the GDP, or gross domestic product, which was originally called the gross national product.  This fiscal process tried to put together all of the economic activities that could be counted and measured, and generate a report that told how much an economy had grown or shrunk in a stated amount of time.

Diane Coyle has told this story in 140 pages from beginning attempts to understand national economic health to our introduction of the gross national product in 1942 as the explanation of how our economy was doing.  She brings it up to the present in clear, simple language of explanation and analysis that even I could follow.  The closer we came to the present the more the previous part of her essay came to mean to me.  She showed how national governments, Greece for example, manipulated their figures to present the picture they wanted rather than what was the actual state of affairs.  She ends by describing why GDP is no longer up to the job it was set to do and how we need to change our thinking.

Anyone concerned with our national (and personal) well being needs to take the time to let this author shape your thinking about our future.  For some it will be fun, for most of us it may be something of a slog until she reaches the time that is contemporary to us.  Then it will nail you right between the eyes.

The name of the book is simply GDP.

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The Future

There is enormous interest in the future of finance and economic growth generally.  Books, magazine and newspaper articles and television programing all deal with various aspects of this topic.  On one day the New York Times carried an article by Paul Krugman about the relationship of skills to jobs.  He contends that the purported gap between the skills workers have and the jobs available simply blames workers for their plight.  On the same day in the Washington Post Robert Samuelson examines the proposition that we may be in a permanent economic slowdown.  In the same paper E. J. Dionne discusses the concern of work and the great variety of ways authors approach the topic.  I’m sure this does not exhaust the attention given to this topic on this one day.

 My problem with most of this is that it does not deal with the reality of work.  Throughout human history humans have worked hard to develop ways and means of making work more efficient and effective.  We have come from massive amounts of slave labor to machines that increasingly perform tasks that humans used to do.

In my own lifetime I have seen farming go from the major category in the census to no longer being included.  Small farmers using horses and mules to provide power for plowing and harvesting have been replaced by tractors and massive machines that cultivate enormous amounts of land.  The small and medium sized towns that provided services to these small farmers have been replaced by Walmart and 7-Elevens.  Small and medium size churches are also gone, removing convenient centers for socializing and the informal exchange of information about work that could be used to find ways to develop new skills.

The same thing has happened in industry.  To use just one example, one of the Japanese auto manufacturers now has an assembly plant that requires very little human labor and that involves managing machines.  Office work, particularly the manipulation of information by computers is seeing the abolition of waves of clerical work through computer use.  Bank tellers are decreasing in number and increasing theft of credit card information is leading credit card companies to look for ways to prevent this by devising new types of cards.  In addition, smartphones are simply one type of technology that is working toward an alternative to money.

There is nothing new in this set of events.  They are as old as human society.  Depriving people of work through centralization of economic and innovative intellectual activity does, however, require change in the way we look at human life in community.  Timothy Radcliff identifies three new directions that have grown out of the capitalist market economy as justifying our surging movement away from labor as a central element in human community: the cultivation of unlimited desire, the worship of money, and the establishment of private property as the dominating aspect of contemporary human life.

Advertising itself illustrates the cultivation of unlimited desire.  There are so many varieties of material goods and varieties within a single product line that we have an internal struggle not to replace a possession or to add something we don’t have.

The worship of money is shown in the obscene compensation paid out to people in various financial institutions who handled monetary transactions in the years before the recent financial crash.  Everything is valued in money; Ideas have now entered the private property marketplace.

Although individuals and companies do have the right to the products of their innovative intellectual activity, there is the matter of the effect of this control on the good of the community.  One of the most egregious example of the effect on community good is in the development of pharmaceuticals. The value of these drugs is in the  treatment of disease which is really a community good and not just limited to their effects on individuals.  What is the role of the community (the state) in pricing and distribution of drugs?

This brief statement can do little more than call attention to drastic change that is occurring in our society and to focus attention on the need to devote more effort to thinking about what people will do for work.

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