The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Friday, January 30, 2004
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There was a good article in the February Atlantic Monthly about trends in the American economy. The author made a pretty good point about college education. One of the reasons why this country did so well economically after World War 2 was the fact that it built a lot of colleges and made college available to the masses. Having a lot of fairly educated people around (OK, I know that a college degree doesn’t automatically make you smart, but on average it does seem to help) really did help businesses to operate better and develop new products, and that really helped the economy to grow.

After the War, the GI Bill sent a lot of guys (and more and more women) to college who otherwise didn’t have a shot at it … including one of my uncles. Then in the 60s, a whole lot of state schools and community colleges were built or were expanded, putting a college in just about everyone’s neighborhood. Maybe because of our fear of being outdone by them smart Ruskies (who by then were putting people into space and shooting off some pretty nasty H-bombs), our nation decided to open these colleges up to just about everyone who seemed bright enough; money was not to stand in the way. I went to a state engineering school here in New Jersey back in the early 70s, and I remember tuition for a full 16-credit semester being maybe a couple of hundred bucks; hardly any more than the cost of books for 4 or 5 classes. OK, money was worth more back then, but still, today that would be around $1000. I know for sure that a full semester’s tuition for a decent state school today is much more than $1000.

Yea, times have definitely changed with regard to the cost of a college education. Let me mention one more example of the good old days: until the late 70s, anyone living in New York City could get a 4 year college education for free at City University. But that sort of thing required a citizenry that was willing to put up with higher taxes in return for greater social capital (i.e., a greater number of educated people in town). Today, the general mood of the citizenry is to cut taxes to the bone. Ironically, even those who benefited from a low-cost college education courtesy of other people who put up with high taxes have agitated for tax cuts, at least once they bought a house and an SUV.

So, the Atlantic article points out that due to skyrocketing college costs (which correlates with government support cutbacks needed to finance bigger tax cuts), the percentage of Americans with a college degree is no longer increasing, as it did for most of the 20th century. It seems to be leveling off at around 30% of adults. The author thinks this may have serious long-term consequences for the American economy over the next 20 years or so. Other nations are still putting money into free or low-cost advanced education. Somehow, a lot of poor or near-poor people in India are getting college degrees, and are then taking over American jobs like computer programming and claims processing (through Internet-based outsourcing). On this issue, we Americans may well be in the penny-wise, pound-foolish zone with regard to tax cuts and government spending limitations. Sure, we may be enjoying our McMansions and super-sized SUVs right now, but in 10 or 20 years, our kids may be dealing with an economy that ain’t the world’s best anymore. It happened to Great Britain, with all its sorry decay and unemployment, and it can well happen to us.

Thanks much, Mr. Bush, Mr. Reagan, and all you other rabid tax-cutters.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 6:46 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Sunday, January 25, 2004
Personal Reflections ...

HIGH SCHOOL MORTALITY: I stop in at every now and then to see what I can glean about my high school alumni. The Internet has been quite a boon to me in that regard; I totally lost touch with that group. I really haven’t had any contact with anyone from my class in the last 25 years. It’s like they all never existed, it was all just a dream.

But no, they did actually exist, and maybe they still do. About 80 out of a class of 180 are registered with classmates, including my self (but under a nom de plume – sorry, I wasn’t quite ready to suddenly end my external status). Actually, I registered about 3 years ago on classmates, and nothing too surprising came if it. Here and there I’d get a clue or two: so and so moved to Hawaii, someone else became a teacher, one of the party animals became a cop, while one of the really bright kids now works for the New York Times.

I never paid for the premium membership, so I just pick thru the scraps that allows for freeloaders like myself. It turns out that they recently decided to expand the freebie offerings a bit, and us cheap skates can now view a discussion area and bulletin board. One of the pre-set topics on that bulletin board is “obituaries”.

Obituaries. Hmm. Well, I knew about two Class of 71er’s who “punched out” early. One of them was a tall black kid named Les Cason. Les definitely knew what to do with a basketball and powered our team to a state championship. Unfortunately, Les wasn’t all that good with other things in life. He got a basketball college scholarship although he didn’t have much going academically (I recall sitting near him in an English class and he usually bothered me for answers during an exam). To make matters even worse, he started getting cocky about his prodigious hoop talents, missing practice sessions and eventually free throws. Not surprisingly, he didn’t get too far thru college and was soon out on his own. Unfortunately, Les didn’t have a plan B and soon drifted down to the street drug culture. Eventually the AIDS epidemic caught up with him. If you need to know more, check out the article “Caution: Hard Times After the Hardwood” by Mark Blaudschun on the web site.

The famous footnote to the whole incident regards Les Cason’s high school coach, a local character named Dick Vitale. Does the name sound vaguely familiar? Well, in another month or so perhaps it will, once the NCAA basketball tournaments take over the sports airwaves. Cason’s success brought some big-time sports guys into our town. Seeing this, the coach decided to go for the gold ring too. He managed to get a pro coaching contract in Detroit, but just like Les, he washed out on his big chance. But unlike Les Cason, “Dickie V” did have a Plan B (or perhaps better said, a Plan B presented itself to him). Cable TV was just getting started at the time, and a little-known sports channel called ESPN was looking for college basketball commentators. I can’t image that the job paid much, but Dick Vitale figured that it was worth a shot. So it gave his new gig lots of enthusiasm, e.g. “Did you see that? AWWWWE-some, BAY-BEEEEE!!!!” And somehow it caught on. In the late 90s, Vitale’s agents parleyed his “awesome baby” into a series of advertising contracts that took him semi-national. And now, my high school will always be famous for producing an extraordinary car dealership pitch man.

OK, so RIP Les Cason. And Albert, the other one whose passing I knew of — Albert didn’t seem all that happy with life, he was a bit different (and thus wasn’t very popular). So it didn’t surprise me to hear that he had a short life, although that did sadden me as I used to talk to him now and then (hey, I was different and not all that popular either). But now I know that more have crossed the river of eternity since then. To be exact, seven more, for a total of nine. Nine out of 180; 5% of my class. Dead. Totally gone. I’m not sure if this is statistically unusual; we all are hitting the 50 year point, so you’ve got to expect some losses. Still, it hurts when you see the actual names, when the statistical abstraction translates into real faces that you once saw in the hallways and classrooms most every day.

Yea, I know, 95% of my angst here is just the fear of it happening to me. But there is a small sliver of regret on my part, a feeling of sadness that I didn’t stay up with them, that I didn’t share anything that in any way enriched their lives, that I wasn’t able to relate very closely with those who passed (or with most of the others of my class). Nor have I stayed up very well with any other group that I was ever a part of, whether in school, at work, in church, etc. Yea, I have my consolations; I’m an INFJ, a sensitive and shy person who ain’t all that handsome and who doesn’t naturally attract people. I mean, back in high school, up thru junior year, I was the subject of much unpleasant bullying and jeering. Admittedly, it was only a handful of jerks who did this, but the silent denial by everyone else (including many teachers) while it was happening kind of turned me off to the whole bunch.

But dead. I mean, that’s kind of extreme. That blows me away, as the expression went back in my time. So, I’ll do what little I can here for all of you: I now offer my tribute to all of my high school compatriots who have fallen: ALBERT, LES, LINDA, GARY, JACKIE, MIKE, STEVEN, LINDA, and last but certainly not least, PAMELA. My web site is not equipped for multi-media, but if it was, I’d be playing Dire Straits’ “Local Hero” right now, the live version from the Very Best Of album (Sultans of Swing). And I’d include the applause. Cause you guys all deserve it.

But please. Let’s not add anyone more to this list anytime soon, OK?

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:01 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Friday, January 23, 2004
Personal Reflections ... Spirituality ...

I was thinking about prayer the other day. Thinking about it, but not really doing it. Prayer ain’t so easy when you’re getting up in your middle years (when you HOPE they’re your middle years). When you were a kid, you prayed because you were told to do so (well, you did it for a while, anyway). When you went to church as an adult, you did it as a group thing. And maybe you kept the habit of mentally reciting a formula prayer like the “Our Father” when you get up or go to bed or when you’re in a scary or demanding situation. But it’s usually pretty hard to really get excited about prayer. It ain’t like sex or food or money. It’s generally a rough slog, if you still practice it at all.

But I’d like to think that there’s something fundamental (maybe even “archetypal”) behind the common idea of prayer, i.e. the situation where one or more human beings uses their communication devices (speech, singing, thinking, maybe other ways) in a one-way manner toward an imagined superior force or presence. I’d like to think that prayer is more than wishful thinking. Something felt down deep, something beyond reason or passion.

If that’s the case, then maybe true prayer is more of a feeling than a set of words or thoughts. Prayer is ultimately an issue of faith, and faith likewise is much more than simple intellectual assent to the theory of a divine being. It’s even more than the wishful group thinking that seems to power most religious feelings. When you think about it, most people’s faith is rooted in the experience of being part of a group that asserts a commonly expressed belief. A group phenomenon, in other words. And that’s a good thing. But would it last if an individual were separated from the group? I truly believe that people who go out of their way to convert others to their particular kind of religious practice are very insecure about their own faith (despite their alleged concerns about the salvation of others). They need a group to support their belief in the almighty, and the bigger the group the more comfortably they can believe. To know that others disagree with their particular form of prayer, or with the whole idea of the divine, really rattles their cage.

But what I’d like to know is whether “natural prayer” is possible, i.e. something beyond “now I lay me down to sleep” and petitions to feel better and requests for answers to various problems in life. Something even beyond “hey thanks, things are going great” (a rare form of prayer for most). Or in my case, prayers of confusion. Most of my own prayers these days are questions about why things are they way they are, such a crazy mix of goodness and badness and randomness (think of the lyrics to Jackson Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes”). I’d like to think that deep down inside, somehow I’m still keeping some kind of faith despite all the things that make us lose faith. Perhaps the idea of natural prayer is summed up in a line from one of those modern liturgical hymns by David Haas. To wit: “we ache to find the song of a God, one to whom we can belong …” Perhaps prayer is more in the ache, and less in the song itself.

Well, some big religious writer said that the desire to pray is prayer in itself. So, maybe the fact that I’d like to pray, that I’m still looking for something that gets thru to the psyche like sex or booze or food but has truly lasting value, something that is more than a quick fix, means that I’m still in the prayer zone. Hey, I hope so anyway.

Otherwise … rest in peace, Captain Kangaroo. Maybe I didn’t like the corny violin intro to your show, but hey, that was just CBS for you … always the “Tiffany” network. Otherwise, Mr. Kesham provided good, reliable entertainment for a kid. And hey, back in the land of the living, it’s nice to hear that the Mars rover may be fixable. After Beagle 2 and all the other space ventures that fell prey to “loss of signal”, it’s nice to hear that we may bring one back. My prayers are with you. And with the Captain too.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:19 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Saturday, January 17, 2004
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I have a public confession to make: I once worked for the New Community Corporation of Newark, NJ. Actually, I worked twice for them: 10 years as a development office, and another half year as an info tech assistant. Oh, I also volunteered for them for 2 years and was a part-time consultant for another 6 months. All told, I had 13 lucky years in and about the New Community empire.

What the heck is New Community, you ask? Well, it’s an urban community development corporation, probably the biggest one in the nation. It builds and rents housing to low-income people, provides job training and social services, runs two charter schools, provides pre-school programs, supports a credit union and other financial services, and runs various small businesses that provide jobs in the low-income neighborhoods of Newark. Sounds great, huh? A place with a mission led by a man on a mission, the Monsignor William J. Linder. Father Linder was the founder of NCC, and remains the grand poobah to this day.

Linder started NCC with a group of parishioners back in 1968, right after the riots in ’67. Since then, New Community never stopped growing. The New York Times and other big media just love it; they’re always doing articles and stories about NCC as the light of the ghetto, the organization that thrives in the crime and drug-ridden neighborhoods that strangle public schools, mom and pop stores, public housing, and anything else that tries to stay alive down there. Since the early 1960s, almost every government effort to make things happen in those neighborhoods has failed; but at the same time, Monsignor Linder’s crew has taken a lickin’ and has kept on tickin’. They gotta be doing something right!

Yea, the good Monsignor and his right hand man, Ray Codey, have done a lot of stuff right, and people interested in urban poverty aren’t wrong in admiring them. That is, until one of them thinks to ask a rather blunt question: if NCC knows how to combat poverty so well, why are there still so many poor folk and mean streets in Newark (and increasingly in the cities surrounding Newark, as if an infection were spreading). Why didn’t the Census poverty rate go down in Newark from 1990 to 2000, despite NCC’s continued growth and the economic revitalization of downtown Newark? Why do increasing numbers of Newark youth turn to street gangs for hope, versus NCC’s many avenues of opportunity?

A rude question, not often asked. The New York Times and its cronies have been too polite thus far. But NCC is getting a whole lot of public money (more than two-thirds of its revenues come from state or federal sources) and you’d think that the press might start asking whether the public is getting its money’s work from NCC (and it’s many imitators).

In my opinion as a former insider, the biggest problem at NCC is that growth has become king. The #1 goal at NCC is to keep on adding new buildings, new programs, and new grants. That is definitely the Linder-Codey doctrine. Question it, as some thoughtful management people did over the years, and your job security takes a nosedive. The official NCC motto talks about personal dignity and improvement of the neighborhooods, but the undisputed prime directive is growth. If you want to keep your job, you don’t stop and ask, “just what do the poor people in our area really need?”

And that’s a shame, because a place like NCC could really prove to be a useful bridge between the policy wonks who affect the big decisions in DC and the poor themselves. Right now you’ve got a number of think tanks dedicated to poverty issues and governmental responses: the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin, the Joint Center for Poverty Research at the University of Chicago, the Urban Institute, the Ford Foundation, and various state-level groups such as the Rutgers University urban issue groups in New Brunswick and Newark. These are interesting places where academians and grad students crank out studies about the effect of social policy on crime, teen pregnancy, use of welfare benefits, unemployment, etc.

On the other side of the coin, you’ve got the community development corporations and other service agencies struggling away out in the ‘hoods, fighting for every dollar, trying to expand or at least make the next payroll. And for the most part, nothing connects these two worlds. The academians pretty much stick to national issues such as federal welfare policy or low income tax credits or HUD public housing directives, and don’t really pay too much attention to the non-profit agencies that have the most contact with the poor and their communities.

By that same token, service agencies like New Community put their blinders on and focus solely on what they have traditionally offered their clients, be it housing or emergency shelter or day care or drug rehab. They don’t often think about the overall mix of outside influences in a poor person’s life, e.g. police procedures, welfare rules, public school problems, food stamps, taxes, incomprehensible paperwork, etc. Only the academians up in the ivory towers have the luxury to ponder how those things interact and study what kind of responses they generate. Those who could really watch it all in action (people in the service agencies) don’t have the time, and those who do understand the bigger picture (the academic types) seldom go out to actually look at it. Bottom line, we don’t have many people who can really analyze and understand what it’s like to live in urban poverty. No wonder most of our programs to help the urban poor have done so poorly themselves.

I have a modest proposal to offer here. But before I do, let me focus once more on my experiences at NCC, an organization claiming to touch the lives of over 50,000 poor people each day. During my years there, we had occasional contacts with the thinking crowd; academic studies did take place regarding NCC and its clientele. But these studies had to be pre-approved by the big boss. And that meant that a complimentary product was expected. Despite having a Ph.D. himself, Monsignor Linder was not a big fan of academic freedom. Not in his backyard.

Again, the prime directive to all who worked in the front office (as I did) was growth. We were not encouraged to stop and discuss the lives of those we served, or the various forces that touched them. We were not to think about whether welfare was a disincentive to marriage, or whether competitive school vouchers would improve the inner city public schools, or whether gangs were actually rational economic choices for young male dropouts. We were told to get to the next grant, get the next building constructed, and get the next new program going. This despite the fact that we were concerned and intelligent people with college degrees and often graduate training.

OK, so we didn’t have the academic or political credentials that would get us into the Institute for Research on Poverty or the Ford Foundation. But we rubbed elbows every day with the subjects of their studies, even if most of us did not reside amidst them. You’d think that we could be of some use to the ivory tower dwellers. But they didn’t seem interested, and the big boss wasn’t interested either (unless it would somehow add to his glory).

So, I have a proposal – just a dream, I have no way of making it a reality. I foresee a hybrid organization, a cross between a research institute and a community-based service agency. In this organization, the staff would be responsible to provide services to the urban poor, and simultaneously participate in quality studies that document and help understand the poor and how they can best be helped. I would take a group like New Community or one of its many imitators and convert it from a high-growth organization into a learning organization.

Instead of continuously seeking partnerships with government agencies and businesses to garner resources for new service ventures, the new hybrid would seek to work closely with academic groups for on-site, un-biased studies of a variety of issues affecting the lives of the urban poor. These studies would be open to conclusions that went against the agency’s immediate interests (e.g., a study of HUD’s Movement To Opportunity program might show the benefits of moving poor families our of inner city housing like that run by New Community and into suburban areas with better schools and job prospects).

Instead of exclusively seeking grants for more buildings and new programs, this hybrid agency would learn to harvest funding for studies and policy papers. Every staff member would be encouraged to consider themselves research associates, from social workers to accountants to housing managers to day care teachers to grantwriters to career counselors. They would participate in carrying out studies and voice their opinions and look things up and get interested in the bigger picture of urban poverty. They would be responsible to learn more about the poor and the community every day. In other words, they would be quasi-grad students of all ages, expected to put hard work into their learning and research. Overall, such an agency would help the ivory tower people to get real, and help the people who deal with the real to see the bigger picture.

The end product? A cadre of young and middle-aged professionals with a better understanding of the urban poor and what can really be done to help them in spite of our American political realities. They would work together with formal academians and policy wonks to help the public understand the inner cities and help our leaders institute more effective urban programs and government actions.

Of course, I have a vested interest in presenting this dream. I want to work at such a place! It would really make my life complete. For now, though, I don’t believe that this place exists. Oh well … we all have our dreams.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:23 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Thursday, January 15, 2004
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WELCOME TO THE BOWL: Up here in the Northeast, we’re just entered the heart of the winter season. If you look at a chart showing the average temperature per day throughout the winter (which I’ve thoughtfully attached), you will see that it looks a lot like a bumpy soup bowl. Temperatures slide downward pretty steeply through November and December and on into January. Then right around the 15th, they flatten out. On average, it doesn’t get any colder, but it doesn’t really start getting warmer either. It just stays cold for a month (and keeps on snowing most of the time). Then, right around the middle of February, the warming trend kicks in and average temps finally start rising, continuing on into March and April and thus heralding the arrival of spring.

So we’ve just hit the bottom of the bowl here. If you’re thin like me and don’t take too well to the cold, it’s not much to look forward to. A whole darn month to wait out until things start getting better. The only encouragement available for now is in the evening, when you notice that the sun stays up maybe 10 or 15 minutes longer than back around Christmas. The mornings are still awfully dark (I never knew that sunrises and sunsets are out of synch; the earliest sunset occurs around December 15, whereas the latest sunrise waits until January 1; the shortest day, however, occurs right in-between, on December 21st).

Is it any coincidence that our nation’s biggest sporting event, the Super Bowl, occurs right in the middle of the temperature bowl? Football is ultimately a cultural phenomenon, and culture is definitely driven by its environment. So as you watch a team (the Eagles?) drive up past the 50 yard line, perhaps you’re subconsciously thinking about your life slowly making its way across the flat bottom of your own winter of discontent.

Well, then again, maybe not.

SILLY SEASON STARTS: OK, so it’s time once more for the Democrats to pick a Presidential candidate. I previously expressed my positive opinions regarding Howard Dean. And I still like the guy. But to be honest, I’m having a lot of second thoughts, wondering whether he’s the next McGovern or Dukakis (the Democrats have a flair for nominating well-intentioned people that our heartland couldn’t ever take seriously; the Republicans haven’t strayed far from the mainstream since Goldwater in ’64). I read today that his wife has thus far taken almost no interest in his campaign. She mostly wants to stay in Vermont and be an aging hippie doctor. My kind of gal. But not the kind of woman who can help draw the attention of all those swing voters in Ohio and New Hampshire (so much like Vermont and yet so different) and Oregon and West Virginia who will make or break the Democrats (so far, it looks like “break”). She’s not exactly the “stand by your man and your Bible” type.

I hate to say it – maybe I’m just having Clinton flashbacks – but after watching one of the debates the other night, John Edwards by far looks the most like a President (Mr. Edwards’ wife is in fact campaigning for him). Gephardt comes across like a perpetual member of the House, and Kerry looks like an ersatz member of the Kennedy family. Sorry, but rightly or wrongly, the world isn’t ready for a President Al Sharpton yet, nor for a President Lieberman, nor (most unfortunately) for a President Moseley-Braun. General Clark is obviously trying to lock up the VP slot.

Perhaps Dean is close to the brass ring, but if there is to be a darkhorse charging up from behind in the primaries, I’d say that it’ll be Edwards, not Gephardt. We shall see — could be an interesting year (up to convention time, anyway).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:35 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Sunday, January 11, 2004
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ARISTOTLE’S GANG: Our system of representative government is supposedly based upon ideas regarding human rights and responsibilities that were first expressed by the Greeks back in ancient times. Before that, the theory of human organization and governance was pretty simple: every region or village or gathering had one boss whose word was law. You listened to what he or she said, period. No discussion, no voting, no nothing. Just how was that leader to be selected? Oh, that was mostly a function of circumstance. Whoever was the strongest or most fearsome or most crafty would emerge as the grand poobah by winning fights and killing off his rivals. Later on, the notion that leadership should be inherited was developed so as to cut down on the squabbling that happened when a leader dies. But there were still squabbles and many a king’s son didn’t get to the throne; or if he did, he didn’t have it for long.

The economics behind this form of organization were pretty simple too. The king or grand duke or maximum ruler owned everything and lived the good life. Most everyone else was a peasant who got just enough to stay alive, bare subsistence.

The ancient Greeks assumed a different form of economics and political science. They felt that things worked best when everyone had about the same level of wealth and shared in the management of the community. Not that they were exactly socialists. They didn’t impose such a solution. Things just worked out that way. A lot of people back in old Greece were farmers with rights to a small patch of land, fertile enough to support the family. There were still people who were very poor and very rich, but there were a lot of folk in the middle. And that was a good thing to the ancients. They invented the concept of the “polis”, the local community defined by geographic proximity, which was governed in a way that shared the rights and responsibilities of power. Everyone was ultimately responsible for the day-to-day things like roads, policing, taxation, sanitation, public health, and defense. Not that everyone was a jack of all trades, but all citizens at minimum had to contribute by paying their taxes and by fighting for the city when needed. The local armies were set up to fight in “phalanx” fashion, i.e. using rows of soldiers behind shields. It was expected that all citizens would take part in the phalanx when some squabble with the neighboring polis couldn’t be solved through discussion.

The phalanx was out of fashion by 1776, but otherwise our American forefathers used a lot of Greek concepts regarding citizenship when they wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. So, you might expect that our form of government would work well when the basic presumptions of the Greeks are satisfied, and might have some troubles when they aren’t. Thus, the big question for today is this: do we still meet the basic Greek presumptions? One of the biggest presumptions was that the great majority of citizens would be in the economic middle class. For example, Aristotle said:

“This is the class of citizens which is most secure in a state, for they do not, like the poor, covet other men’s goods … as they neither plot against others, nor are themselves plotted against, they pass through life safely … the best political community is formed by citizens of the middle class, and that those states are likely to be well-administered in which the middle class is large … ”

For most of the 20th Century, America was the home of the middle class. There were still rich folk and lots of poor folk, but overall the poverty rate went down significantly after 1950, and democracy really seemed to hit its stride. It had a big show-down with socialism and communism, and guess what? Socialism and communism lost. We were doing something right.

You’d hope that America could keep on doing things right. But the trends these days seem to be going away from the middle class. The number of rich people has expanded somewhat, but the percentage of overall wealth that is collectively controlled by the rich has shot way up over the past 20 years. On the other end of the spectrum, the number and percentage of poor people stopped declining about 20 years ago, and is arguably creeping up again.

Income distribution in America is definitely becoming a problem. More and more, American politics seems to be a game for the rich; quite a few Senators and Representatives these days are millionaires (both of New Jersey’s Senators, for instance). The President and his family ain’t no paupers either. Right now there don’t seem to be any apparent problems because of this; the average citizens still have to elect the rich guys, so they still feel OK about it. But if this continues for another 50 years or so, you’ve got to wonder if the “theory of the polis”, i.e. the feelings of loyalty and patriotism expressed by the great silent majority, will start to get frayed around the edges.

You would expect the first signs of trouble to come from the poor part of town. But for now, the ghetto seems pretty calm. The urban riots of the 60’s were definitely cause for concern, and that flare-up out in LA in 1992 caused a bit of a scare. But at present things seem OK. The worst thing happening in the streets right now is the explosion of youth gangs; but that doesn’t appear to threaten social order given that it’s a capitalistic form of crime, an affirmation of the basic American urge to get rich (only expressed in an unlawful manner). It’s no more of a threat to the basic presumptions of our nation than the Mafia or any other organized crime syndicate ever was.

Well, for now I’d agree with that. But every now and then, some of the street gangs start voicing political theories that seems downright un-American. If a couple of spoiled young suburban types ever come along seeking some rabble to rouse just for the hell of it (akin to what Osama Bin Laden did out in the Middle East, and let’s not forget what Adolph Hitler did in inter-war Germany), they might find fertile fields to plow within the American ghettos.

History is usually made when a tiny insignificant spark somehow finds a mound of gasoline-soaked waste just sitting there quietly enough. If Aristotle could visit our city streets and our jails these days and talk with some of the gang-bangers, he might well smell the fumes.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:20 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Wednesday, January 7, 2004
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TURNER THEOLOGY: I just read an article about Ted Turner. Yea, he’s still around, still has some money although he’s not the major media player he once was. He’s busy opening up some restaurants that feature bison meat (didn’t seem like something that would get him back above the billion mark, but who knows, with mad cow disease it may turn out to be a smart play after all). One of his motivations in getting people to eat buffalo meat is that it will help bring large herds of bison back and assure their survival. Hmm, now imagine if some advanced creatures ever come down from outer space and determine that in order to save the human race they have to eat us — how would we feel about that? Guess it would solve the Social Security fiscal crisis.

Anyway, the article described Ted Turner’s feelings about God. And they aren’t very positive. Mr. Turner came from a religious family, but his sister died at the age of 20. While she was sick, Ted prayed for her 30 minutes each day. And he expected something in return. But he didn’t get it, so now he’s an atheist. Well, I guess it’s not surprising that a successful businessman like Ted Turner would need a performance-based God.

Maybe Ted Turner isn’t 100% sure that God doesn’t exist, but he sure wouldn’t give “him” a good grade. Quote: “If there’s a God, he is not doing a good job of protecting the earth. He’s kind of checked out”. OK, Ted, but maybe we humans shouldn’t talk much until we start doing a better job of protecting the earth. How has Mr. Turner done? Well, admittedly, not all that bad. The guy has put out real some money and effort for ecological concerns and world peace efforts. Back in 1996 he pledged a billion to the United Nations (back when that seemed like real money). But he still owes about 2/3 of it.

Other than suffering from an unsophisticated anti-theology (and still being filthy stinking rich, despite his huge losses on AOL Time Warner), Ted Turner is pretty much like the rest of us – a mixture of good and bad elements, driven by admirable and uninspiring motives. Turner’s biggest sin appears to be his ignorance of the fact that his success in life is greatly a function of incredible dumb luck. Guys like him really think they’ve built their castles through merit. They just can’t see that they were the lucky one out of a million who were “fated” to live lives where everything just fell together, right time, right place, right look, right message, right people, right deal, one after another. It had nothing much to do with their inner virtues. They kind of get confused between the purely random circumstances that made into pseudo-gods, and the messy course of seemingly-random events where the real God lurks and works.

You’ve got to wonder what Mr. Turner would have done if God could have answered the prayers regarding his sister with a choice. Suppose God could have shown the young Ted Turner a feature length film about the man that he would grow up to become (obviously Jane Fonda would be in it!). Then God told him, OK, if you agree to give all of this up and live an average life as a garbage truck driver out in some sweltering little city down south (Macon, maybe), I’ll let your sister live. Wonder what he would have done. You might get a clue by watching what Mr. Turner does with the $790 million in cash that he recently freed up. Will he keep the balance of it flowing toward the humanitarian causes that he’s pledged himself to and fade away as an ersatz Jimmy Carter? Or will he give in to the temptation to get back into the spotlight by putting together a play for a big media corporation or sports franchise? Ah, the devil and Ted Turner.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:02 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Saturday, January 3, 2004
Uncategorized ...

Time for a mixed bag blog … just a couple of observations of interest.

First, have you heard of Yum! Brands? I was looking at some industry profit tables in Business Week the other day and the name caught my eye (catchy name, eh?). Turns out that they own some fast food chains, including Pizza Hut, KFC and Taco Bell. I recall those brands previously being owned by Pepsi. But while you’re not looking, things change. So now, when you’re up for some non-burger junk food, just say “Yum!”.

Second, medicine’s next big thing might be something called RNA interference, or RNAi for short. It seems to be the way to turn individual genes on and off. Obviously, that could be an extremely powerful tool in fighting cancer and all kinds of other diseases. (It might also be a Frankenstein technology if it goes astray). The effect was discovered about 12 years ago by a geneticist who was trying to make petunias more purple. Now the pharmaceutical industry is licking its lips anticipating the profits they can make on RNAi drugs. But hey, that’s capitalistic medicine for you. A bad system whose alternatives usually turn out to be worse. People generally get the “-isms” they deserve.

Third, the question of whether criminals are different from the average Joe or Jane has always been one of those interesting and slightly creepy topics of research. Back in the 50s, a lot of attention was given to the idea that criminals are different from the rest of us. The idea that criminals are “special people” then worked its way into popular entertainment, e.g. in those TV or movie scenes where the perpetrator of a crime is seen lit up by harsh lights while running down a dark staircase or alleyway, accompanied by a fast-paced piano melody that just screams the word “DEVIANT”. In the late 60s and thereafter, the popular viewpoint swung back toward the notion that criminals are just like everyone else. They’re acting poorly, but that’s just a function of bad breaks in life combined with faulty law enforcement. With enough police and punishment, even the toughest person from the hardest streets will think twice.

There’s some recent research that indicates that hard core criminals may in fact be special people after all. A study of a group of guys in New Zealand indicates that a significant chunk of violent crimes were caused by men who have a certain gene that causes a low level of a protein that interacts with brain chemicals called MAOA, and who were abused as children. They found out that guys who had both low MAOA and severe childhood abuse had an 85% chance of becoming criminals.

So, does that mean we should screen ghetto kindergartners for low MAOA and develop some kind of therapy to boost this protein in them? Interesting thought. But for now, perhaps it’s time to get the piano out again.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:39 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
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