Thursday, October 9, 2014

Christian Piety, Abortion, and Hypocrisy in Texas

I posted an article on Facebook yesterday that generated a relatively long stream of arguments back and forth.  The title of the article focused on abortion and the lurid specter of back alley abortions with filthy instruments and "doctors" with cigarettes dangling out of their mouths with dumpsters nearby to hold all the dead fetuses.  Obviously, the reactions on both sides were strong, but the article wasn't really about abortion.  It had three points as far as I could determine.  First, it focused on the problem Republicans are having wooing female votes and at the same time treating those female voters as if they were second class citizens who can't be trusted to make choices.  Next, it focused on the hypocrisy of Republicans in Texas (at least) who want to deregulate everything unless they don't. Finally, it brought up the hardships being brought upon the women of Texas who will now (some of them) have to drive up to 300 miles to get the kind of services provided by Planned Parenthood clinics.  Yes, a goodly portion of those services are centered around abortion, but those services also include screening for cervical cancer, screenings for breast cancer, family counseling, etc.

But the streamers, especially those conservatives who are Pro-Life, didn't talk about any of that.  Instead, they went on and on about the morality of abortion, about questions like "when does life start?", about how women use abortion as birth control and our tax dollars should not support that, and of course they talked about women throwing their aborted fetuses away.  It was a lot like the anti-abortion types who haunt sidewalks around high schools holding up graphic photos of aborted fetuses as if to say that abortion is wrong because it is so gross looking.  I understand the concerns of these folks, but I think their methods are tone-deaf, self aggrandizing, pompous, and completely divorced from reality.

The stream was fun to read and I could tell that most of the combatants were really enjoying the debate.  Just like we all kind of enjoyed the debate over health care six years ago.  Meanwhile, as we were debating health care, there were real flesh and blood people in the streets who were hoping the debate would stop and someone would actually do something.  Same thing was true in yesterday's discourse.  There were sophistic, some would say solipsistic, philosophical arguments.  There were impassioned pleas about infant rights.  There were clever, somewhat mean-spirited rejoinders, and I'm sure we were all  quite pleased with ourselves.  Meanwhile, there are a whole bunch of flesh and blood women out there who couldn't care less about categorical imperatives, or legal niceties, or tax law.  All they care about is how are they gonna make it through their unwanted pregnancy, the pregnancy they have because they couldn't afford, or were too overwhelmed to even think about, birth control, birth control that Republicans are busily trying to get rid of, along with their fiscally prudent and morally bankrupt cutting of food stamps.

I can't get my head around the picture of a club of white, male, millionaires making life decisions for (mostly) poor and indigent women.  Does anyone other than Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Hannity and the rest actually believe that the choice they want to disallow is a cavalier one?  When that flesh and blood pregnant lady above weighs her options, does the officially recognized point when life supposedly begins make a difference to her.  Does she actually think that since life doesn't start until the second trimester, if I just hurry up and abort my unborn child in the next week it will be okay.  The whole idea of some white rich guy deciding when life begins and moralizing about it is the most obscene and immoral thing I can think of.

There were also a lot of personal anecdotes that were used to shed light on the whole issue.  Excuse me, but anecdotes on either side of the issue are interesting but have no value.  Okay, you were able to hear a fetal heart beat, or see the outlines of the neonate on an ultra sound and you were moved.  Of course you were!  What kind of monster wouldn't be moved, but that doesn't make the choice to abort or not abort any easier.  It makes it infinitely more difficult.  That pregnant lady above doesn't give a shit, nor should she, about your experience.  And your experience gives you no right to legislate for others.

You don't want your tax dollars to go toward abortion.  Okay, I don't want my tax dollars to subsidize war, or corporate breaks to McDonalds, or tax free status to churches, or to the NFL (same thing).  Besides, once you sit down with your accountant, or hunker down with Turbo Tax, or just got out pencil and paper and calculator and pare down your taxes as far as possible, the check you end up sending to the IRS is no longer your money.  IT IS OUR MONEY.  What do you want to spend our money on if not to insure the health and happiness of as many of our fellow community members as possible.

Look, I still am unable to get rid of the shackles of my Catholic boyhood.  If my wife and I were ever in a position where an abortion might be an option, I can't imagine I could go through with it (of course, I'm not the one who has to go through it.)  For me, as a good, but lapsed, Catholic, abortion would be a mortal sin( Do Catholics still use that term?).  But for you or anybody else?  It is none of my business and it is certainly not the business of a bunch of clueless white guys (Read: Corey Gardner) in Washington.

If you think abortion is immoral, by all means don't have one.  Just keep your Christian piety to yourself when it comes to others.

Friday, September 12, 2014

It Is What It Is

The Asshole's Retort

I think there should be a psychological syndrome right up there with Tourette's officially recognized and defined by the AMA calling attention to that smug comeback:  "It is what it is?"

I don't want to get all schmaltzy here, but I'm going to have to use a quote:

There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why . . . I dream of things that never were, and ask why not? - Bobby Kennedy

If you're my age and not a nutcase, far-right Republican, that quote gives you the shivers.  Depending on your point of view, it either signals the beginning a great movement, or the first warning sign of the emerging welfare state.  In Kennedy's time, the sad complacency of The Asshole's Retort, wasn't even a consideration.  Notice Kennedy did not say "There are those that look at things the way they are and say 'it is what it is.'"

I think the quote and my addition pretty much sum up a basic difference between the liberal and conservative world view.  In the (many) arguments I've had with my right wing friends, the issue has almost always come down to Federalism vs. Anti-federalism, Hamilton vs. Jefferson.  You know, the whole idea that the federal government has no right trying to make blanket decisions that effect everyone.  The State vs. the Individual.  Communism vs. Individualism.

My mother serves as a case in point.  Like everyone my age (I guess--I hope it's not just me), I have Mother-Issues.  She was beautiful, witty, twinkly-eyed, courageous, and certainly destined for sainthood.  She was an autodidact and like most autodidacts I've known, had a hard time admitting she was wrong.  As a teacher, I am ashamed to remember the number of times she blamed school for my laziness.

The main thing about my mom was that she was an Illinois Catholic Liberal born and bred.  She wore her heart on her sleeve and could always be counted on to shed a tear or two over anyone in need.  Just like she was witty and happy and warm, she was just as frequently outraged.  I'm just sad she didn't remain cogent long enough to watch THE DAILY SHOW.

Her liberal side was most on display when in the company of my first wife's parents, rich, genuinely thoughtful and friendly people, and CONSERVATIVE.  Mom actually told them she thought it wrong for people to have as much as they when there were folks who had nothing!  She couldn't understand how we could all sit by while people were starving in Africa, etc., etc.  My first set of in-laws basically rolled their eyes, shook their heads, and marveled at her naiveté.  I, nineteen at the time, rolled my eyes and shook my head right along with them.

The same thing happened with Katherine's parents, also lovely people, fun to be with, and CONSERVATIVE.  She would explain how Reagan (her first cousin once removed) was a terrible president because he put his mother, Nellie, in a nursing home and never went to see her.  Sometimes after a particularly nice get together with plenty of liquor and food, her eyes would tear up over the thought of all those people who had nothing.  I'm telling you, it got old after awhile.

She used to embarrass me when she got like that.  But here's the thing.  She was right.  The rest of us were as wrong as we could be.  We live in a world that produces enough food to overfeed everyone in the world, but we somehow still allow starvation.  It is what it is.

We live in a country in possession of enough wealth and wisdom to insure universal health care, free day care, free pre-schools, improved roads, etc., etc.  Instead, we elect people who are more protective of their ideology than their constituency.  It is what it is.

And in order to make sure that what it is stays exactly the same, we act tough.  We dig in our heels.  We go bomb somebody.  And we worship the NFL.  The three holiest days of the week are Monday, Thursday, and Sunday.  In the football supplement to The Post at the beginning of the season, there was a slick magazine insert focusing in on the toughness of the Broncos.  It seems it was lack of toughness (we all know it couldn't have been talent) that made us lose the Superbowl.  The magazine was sickening.  It just showed photos of the starting Broncos acting tough.  There was Payton Manning, muscles tense, strained fingers on the ball, looking dangerous and ready to beat the shit out of someone.

Wasn't it amazing when the whole city rejoiced (at least the football nuts) when Manning ran down to the end zone and got in that DB's face and told him to "fuck himself."?  Wow!  What a guy.  It makes you proud just to have witnessed the whole thing.  And the awful thing was that I was right there with them.  I would have given Manning a fist bump if I had been on the field.  It is what it is.

Of course, when something like Ray Rice pummeling his soon-to-be wife splashes all over the crawls at the bottom of the TV screen, we become outraged and spend the next weeks (at least it seems that long) analyzing it, agreeing or disagreeing with the outcome, subjecting that poor, battered woman to the leering comments  of Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity or the blonde bimbos on Fox.  This will dominate the news until the next inevitable school shooting and the ensuing debate.

But, hey.  It is what it is.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Is Mike Rosen Writing The Post's Editorials Nowadays?

Whenever we subject schools to more than our usual scrutiny, which is to say whenever an election is impending or contract negotiations are underway, we are shocked--shocked!--to discover them filled mostly with flawed people, you know, people like you and me and the clerk at the 7-11 and the ill-tempered nurse last time you went to the doctor and the guy in the cubicle down the aisle who spends entirely too much time on Facebook.  The Jeffco school board has just decided not to award pay raises to those teachers who have been rated partially effective or worse.  Gasp!  You mean to tell me that there are partially effective teachers in schools?  I guess I run around with the wrong crowd, but I don't know anyone who isn't partially effective.

The problem, of course, is determining what exactly it means to be partially effective and how an evaluator might spot partial effectiveness when it comes up to bite him/her on the ass.  Is there any institution in society that will look better when subjected to the kind of scrutiny that teachers and schools regularly see.  Haven't we all grown up scrutinizing our teachers?  And with a few notable exceptions, weren't our teachers easy prey?  Is there anyone who hasn't mimicked a teacher or been outraged by a teacher or been disappointed by one?  When Franny was in first grade and she learned the truth that there was no Malcolm in the lake close to Mrs. Spayd's house, she was furious.  I'm sure she still hasn't forgiven her.

We grow up familiar and therefore contemptuous of schools and teachers.  That's just how it works.  It is very difficult not to be contemptuous of anything we know that intimately.  We certainly can all find things about our parents, our friends, to be contemptuous about.  But just because we are familiar with something doesn't mean we know anything about it.  Look at today's editorial in the increasingly irritating Denver Post:  "Jeffco gets it right on pay increases."

The major thesis of the article is if Jeffco can't trust its principals to know a partially effective teacher when they see one, who can?  Therefore withholding incremental raises based on Jeffco's evaluation process is the right thing to do.  At first blush that sounds reasonable, but if the argument is subjected to the same scrutiny it is asking teachers to face, it doesn't hold water.

The first sentence says a fact-finder "allowed the perfect to become the enemy of the good" when he recommended that raises not be tied to evaluations.  It sounds like Mike Rosen is writing the staff editorial.  The only loaded word missing is "liberal," as in "liberal fact-finder." I am ready to agree with the "goodness" of Jeffco's evaluation process when the rest of this article proves it to me, not because it was stuck inside a cleverly spun lead.

A few paragraphs later the essay casually dismisses the fact-finders recommendation as "bad advice." How so?  It's bad because even though the evaluation system is not perfect ("Perhaps not" the Post sneeringly says in response), it must be good.  That word "must" is my editorial comment because the tone of this article isn't focused enough to say that anything IS the case.  Mostly, the article just keeps ratifying its undying faith in the wisdom of Jeffco's school board.

There are evidently three reasons why the system MUST be good.  First of all, "either the district trusts its principals or it doesn't."  Secondly, ". . .they are, after all, trained to supervise and evaluate teachers."  Finally, "if they don't know who is effective within their buildings, it's hard to imagine who would."  This is beginning to sound like a DAILY SHOW routine.

I taught for 35 years.  I had somewhere in the neighborhood of 12 principals and maybe 20 assistant principals.  There were only a couple of that group who were not genuinely nice people.  Only two of them did I think were completely incompetent.  Many of them were smart and fun to be with.  But I can only think of two who really understood what it took to be a COMPLETELY effective teacher.

Just to illustrate the incoherence of the Post's and by extension the school board's argument, let us consider the bottom two paragraphs of the first column.  In the first paragraph the essay says that Snyder (the fact-finder) "admits" (does that sound like a loaded word to you?) no evaluative process can be perfect because some subjectivity is always present.  In the second paragraph the essay says Snyder contradicts himself by saying that "a teacher should receive the same rating no matter who performs the evaluation."  That doesn't sound like a contradiction to me.  Isn't it clear that Snyder's argument is that since all such systems will smack of subjectivity and since, for the system to be fair, the evaluations should be the same no matter who the evaluator, it follows that raises should not be tied to systems that are inherently unfair.

The Post goes on to conclude that even though it is obvious that Jeffco's evaluative process is fundamentally inconsistent it is still a "good one" and "will have to suffice."  Wow, that certainly makes me feel better.

Finally, the Post looks down its editorial nose at the whole situation when it claims that less than two percent of the teachers would be denied raises.  Not only that, the Post continues, but fully 45 percent of Jeffco's schools had no one (well, at least no teachers) who were rated partially effective or below. The Post's editorial staff is, to put it mildly, skeptical that there are so few partially effective teachers out there.  "Is it really possible, for example, that 45 percent of schools have no teachers who are partially effective or ineffective?"

As a matter of fact, yes, it is quite possible that our schools are filled with good, well-intentioned, hard working, partially effective human beings who still manage to kill in the classroom.  Too bad the same thing can't be said about the editorial staff at the Post.  

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Feeding at Texas Roadkill

Have you ever noticed those restaurants that are always packed to the gills--Hacienda Colorado, The Claim Jumper, Texas Roadhouse, et. al.--always serve up portions that no normal human being could eat in one sitting?  The food itself is just passable and, allowing for the different "cuisines" being featured, tastes the same, has the same texture, the same shiny plastic sheen on the salad dressings, the same apps, the same house special margaritas, the same sad low end wines from California.

The people, both customers and waitstaff, look the same as well.  There will be lots of overweight families out celebrating a birthday, or a graduation from junior high, or the purchase of a new pick-up.  The men will be sporting guts that strain their "Nobama" tee-shirts and chances are they'll be wearing ill-fitting baseball caps with mesh panels built in and a brim that advertises bull semen or something along that order.  The women, except for the lack of a baseball cap, are pretty much indistinguishable from the men and the little children are all clinically obese.  Everybody at the big table set for eight (the grandparents are tagging along) has a great time talking about the day and the special event.  But when the young and depressingly happy servers bring out the groaning plates of artery clogging meats and potatoes, the conversation stops and the family gets down to the serious business of feeding.  These places are not dining rooms; they're feeding troughs.

We went to a Texas Roadhouse a couple nights ago.  I would have written this yesterday, but it took me longer than normal to digest (ahem) the whole experience.  The place was packed.  There were people beginning to line up by the front door waiting to get a table just as we were getting seated.  We were led through this maze of cedar planking to a two-top booth in a back cubby hole next to two tables celebrating birthdays and both looking remarkably like my description above.  They seemed nice enough and the fact that there was just barely enough room for our happy waiter and his even happier busboys to squeeze through between our two tables didn't bother me at all until it was time to bring out the cake, or the cupcakes in this case.

From the back of joint, somewhere by the glass case displaying different cuts of withered looking beef came an incessant pounding and then a parade of all the staff led by a waiter carrying a full sized leather saddle.  I can only assume it was imported from the lone star state.  They wedged the saddle in the aisle between our tables and got everyone in the restaurant--everyone except Kathe and I--to yell a big Texas "Hee-Haw" in celebration of this chubby little kid's special day.  He had a hard time climbing up on the saddle and his leg was a little too chubby to fit between our tables, but hey, who noticed?  After the little celebration the folks in the restaurant all took a few minutes to settle back down to the serious business of stuffing chunks of, in most cases, well-done beef in their mouths.  The folks at the birthday table immediately quieted down after the saddle had been removed and dug into their chocolate sundaes, the ones they ordered to supplement the cupcakes.

The birthday celebration may have been annoying, but our food, with the exception of some pretty good fried pickles, wasn't even mediocre.  But mostly it is the service at such places that sets them apart.  The folks at Texas Roadhouse are evidently bound and determined to turn their (at least) 75 tables four times a night.  We got our cokes right away.  The pickles took a little longer and we were just starting to appreciate how thin and crispy they were when we had to push the plates aside to accommodate our salads.  I had just sprinkled my blue cheese crumbles when Kathie's prime rib and my rib eye came.  They must order their meat from the same company that supplies King Soopers.  That's exactly how indigestible it was.  I ate half of mine and took the rest home.  K did the same.  She likes masking the taste and texture of sub-prime beef in tomato soup the next day.  I would do the same, but I don't like tomato soup.  We decided to forego dessert and beat a fast retreat, determined never to return.  When we walked through the throngs of silent feeders, everyone on the wait staff smiled broadly and wished us a pleasant evening.  They smiled so much because they probably felt guilty about feeding us such swill.

Some people eat to live.  Those are the folks who get excited when they see a Cracker Barrel up ahead on the interstate.  I ate at a Cracker Barrel in Nebraska once.  The breakfast buffet was bountiful, crowded, and nightmarish.

Next time I go out to eat, I'm going to Mizuna.  If Mizuna offered blue cheese crumbles with their salads I'm pretty sure the wait staff would sprinkle them on for me.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Nannying and Politics:

Two words that normally don't inhabit the same space

I spent about three hours yesterday working on QUAD, my latest attempt at writing a novel, when I wrote myself into yet another gaping hole and decided to quit for awhile and reread some postings in Starkeyland.  I was particularly struck by some of the political rants posted a few years ago in response to all the partisan name calling and down right dishonesty.  The thing I noticed about them was that they sounded well informed.  I had done my homework.  I had read all the crap on THE DAILY BEAST, THE NEW YORK TIMES, HUFFINGTON POST, THE DRUDGE REPORT, POLITIFACT, FACTCHECK, and on and on.  If there is anyone out there who actually keeps up with this blog, you will undoubtedly have noticed two things:  first, the postings are coming fewer and farther between, and second, there is precious little politics..

I have explanations for that.  We don't blog so much anymore because we are being the nannies for Willa and Jaydee now that both Ken and Franny have jobs that take them out of the home.  Kathie and I wake up around 5 in the morning.  Instead of going to the Y like we have normally done for the past twenty years or so, we stay home, have coffee, read the paper, watch the football network.  I normally go down to the computer around half past 6 to work on my book.  Then I leave around 8:15 to pick up the girls at their home.  I get back to my home about 9:30.  We usually do something worthwhile with the girls in the morning.  We go to the zoo, or to one of the museums, or to the Botanic Gardens, things like that.  One day a week we hang out at home and have the girls' grandmother, who is currently suffering from Alzheimer's and in an assisted living facility, over for lunch.  Another day we are apt to take them to a park or on a little hike along the South Platte.  On Thursday, the last day of our four day week of nannying, we take them to the Columbine Library to nose around and take Willa to a toddler class.  It's good practice learning to play with others for when she starts real school.

We feed the kids lunch somewhere around noon and if we're lucky put them down for naps at 1:30.  If the naps take, and they usually do, Kathie and I spend a blissful hour hanging out, talking, having a drink or two.  The kids are normally back at it around 3 or 3:30 and we spend the rest of the  day watching a movie (BRAVE, FROZEN, THE LORAX, we've bought them all).  At 4:30 we hook up with Franny at DU and the kids go back home.

There just isn't much time to blog given all that,  but my life does feel richer than it has the past few years and not just because we are getting paid.

I also have an explanation for the lack of political commentary lately.  I figure what's the point?  Ken is still mightily involved in the upcoming midterms, targeting key races around the country for CREDO and coordinating all their activities by focusing on uninformed Democratic voters, the voters, usually young people, who are too lazy or stupid to vote during the midterms, thus guaranteeing that gridlock in Washington will be here to stay.  Franny, on the other hand, is no longer part of the political fray.  Instead, she's working at DU as the Director of Alumni Something Or Other.  She likes it.  She doesn't have to read Mike Allen every morning and watch MORNING JOE. I've followed suit.  I simply don't read about it with the same scrutiny I used to and I'm a happier man for it and, as Ken has pointed out to me on more than one occasion, the country so far is surviving my lack of attention.

With all that in mind, what I'm about to say, instead of being based on my reading, is simply a couple of uninformed knee jerk reactions to the current political season as manifested in political ads.

I don't understand why Mark Udall, who I think is a terrific and truly bipartisan senator, is running such a stupid race.  When the ads from Americans For Prosperity (read: Koch brothers) lambaste Udall for casting the deciding vote for Obamacare, I always get first amazed and then furious and then sad.  Are there really people out there who believe that there was a single deciding vote for Obamacare?  Is the electorate really that stupid?  The answer is an unqualified yes!  When other versions of those attack ads appear talking about how health care cost are still rising (OF COURSE THEY'RE STILL RISING YOU IDIOTS.  NO ONE SAID THEY WOULDN'T.  BUT THEY ARE RISING MORE SLOWLY THAN AT ANY TIME SINCE 1965!),  or that 300,000 folks have lost their insurance (THAT MANY PEOPLE ALWAYS HAVE TO CHANGE THEIR COVERAGE FOR A VARIETY OF REASONS.  IT HAS BEEN EVER THUS AND HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH OBAMACARE!), or that tons of poor people have seen their premiums increase (OF COURSE THE KOCH BROTHERS ARE NOT MENTIONING THAT PREMIUMS INCREASE AS COVERAGE BECOMES MORE COMPREHENSIVE.  THEY ALSO DON'T MENTION HOW SUBSIDIES WILL EASE THAT PAIN FOR THE VAST MAJORITY OF PEOPLE).  In other words, those ads are complete and unvarnished bullshit and yet Udall doesn't fight back.

Of course, Udall is at a huge disadvantage.  The attacks on Obamacare lend themselves to soundbites; the explanations for what's really happening with health care are complicated.  People have to be smart and open minded and patient, three qualities in short supply, to understand them.  And even if they did understand, they would still refuse to believe.  So I go back to my previous comment.  What's the point?

Do us all a favor and vote for Udall.  Do us all a favor and base your vote on truth rather than demonization.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Moving The Bomb Line On Climate Change

Yossarian has nothing on  the North Carolina legislature

This little news item ("Rising tide.  Damp Market."  The Denver Post, June 26, 2014) from North Carolina wins my first sporadically awarded Moving The Bomb Line Above Bologna prize in tribute to Yossarian doing just that in Catch-22  to avoid a suicide bombing mission.  It seems that back in 2011 North Carolina state officials, under the direction of a Democratic governor, released a study that showed the water levels on the coast rising 39 inches by the end of the century!  They were even in the process of creating a web site showing all the properties that would be inundated by the year 2100.  They figured North Carolineans could look at the handy web site as a guide to preparing for the future.

Well, one lobbyist for realtors and home builders, combined with plenty of Republican state legislators and assorted climate change deniers, set about to fight the report.  With the help of a newly elected Republican governor, North Carolina's legislator "took back" the report and instead released information for the next 30 years only.  According to the more limited study, coastal water levels would only rise by 8 inches.  The realtors were happy.  The Republicans were happy.  Together, they had managed to save 31 inches.  If that's not conservation, what is?

Let's be fair for a second.  It is hard to blame a homeowner or businessman living on the outer coast.  A web site guaranteeing the imminent destruction of your property and all the surrounding properties would most assuredly devastate your region's economy.  Good luck selling.  Good luck attracting tourists.  How long can you tread water?  I'm glad I live in the mountains where I only have to worry about avalanches, landslides, wild fires, and floods.

On the other hand, 97 % of the scientific community not employed by the Koch brothers agree that if we don't act now,  phenomena like the inundation of North Carolina' coast are inevitable.  Of course, they're probably inevitably no matter what we do, but hey, let's keep a good thought.  So, explain to me how acting to curb climate change, to limit our carbon footprint, to be sustainable, etc., etc., is going to cost us too much money.  How much is it costing to rebuild Atlantic City and the rest of the east coast after Sandy?  How many more times in the next 100 years are we going to have to rebuild it again?  It seems like acting now would be more cost effective.  If the 39 inch prediction is true, and the confidence is high, then $700 billion dollars of property will be below sea level in 2100 and an additional $730 billion will be at risk at high tide.

I know I don't understand about business (pause to genuflect here) and job creation and all that, but all those figures in the last paragraph seem like real money to me.  We ought to muster the political will to do something about it, something other than moving the bomb line and hoping nobody will notice.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Plato at the Googleplex - Michael Lewis on Wall Street

A Prose Cocktail

The combination of PLATO AT THE GOOGLEPLEX by Rebecca Goldstein and Michael Lewis’ FLASH BOYS is a disturbing cocktail, one I haven’t been able to stop thinking about, especially since every time I turn around I see another connection.  I bought the Goldstein book because the reviews made it irresistible.  The book follows the delightful conceit that Plato is on a book tour for his most recent work, THE REPUBLIC, and in the course of the tour does interviews with techies at Google, a tiger mom, a cable news host (read:  Bill O’Reilly) and a brain scientist.  When I started the book poolside in Belize, I was mostly looking forward to Plato’s evisceration of O’Reilly; instead, I got a delightful review of Platonic thought, the history of philosophy, Greek myth, and modern science in one.  But more than that, I was reminded of the key philosophical questions that drew me to philosophy in the first place.  As an added bonus, the book is clearly a playful, but nonetheless stern, rebuke to modern day pundits and politicians of all persuasions.

There are all kinds of great questions:  Why is there something rather than nothing (ontological)?  Is it better to live a short life full of significance, or a long life undistinguished (Achilles, not to mention Pippin)?  How does one live a life that matters (teleological)?  They are all fun to debate in the campus coffee shop  at all hours of the night and morning. 

But I want to talk mostly about laws and justice here.  Plato proposes a fascinating thought experiment.  Imagine you had in your possession a ring that would render you invisible whenever you wore it, reminiscent of Perseus’ helmet in CLASH OF THE TITANS (“I’m invisible.  Can’t you see that.”).  When invisible you could do anything you felt like with no fear of getting caught, no fear of retribution.  You could walk into a house and take whatever you wanted.  You could rifle money out of cash drawers.  Lurk around girls’ or boys’ locker rooms.  Steal cars.  Take free rides on airplanes.  Anything.  Would you take advantage of that situation?  Regardless of your answer, what percentage of the rest of us would?  Most everyone would answer, “Of course not.  Of course I wouldn’t take advantage.”  But do you think that’s an honest response?  If you had the ring long enough, wouldn’t you be tempted to use it for little stuff?  You’re short of cash and you’ve left your bank card at home.  Wouldn’t you slip on the ring and score that Twinkie, or that $100,000 bar?  Who’s it gonna hurt?  And wouldn’t that make the next transgression a little easier?  I mean, that’d just be human, right?

Plato goes off from that experiment to suggest that at the extreme end of the range of human desires lies the ring.  If heaven or hell were not hanging over our heads, we would all ultimately agree that being able to do anything we would like to do and get away with it would be ideal.  Of course, we would also agree that the worse that could happen to us is if someone else who was getting away with everything did anything to hurt us.  The space between those two conflicting desires is the realm of law and justice.  Since we have no choice but to live in a community (Plato thought that anyone who lived outside of society was by definition either a god or a monster), we have to cooperate to survive.  We have to have a social contract.  And to do that we would have consider questions like “What is the good life?” “What makes life matter?”

Even more than that, the good of the polis, the city-state, outweighs the good of the individual.  Anything else equals chaos.  Sparta honored collective glory.  Individual glory—a life that matters—was secondary to the glory of the state.  Athens gloried in the individual, but a life that mattered for the individual was still one that furthered the state.  The braid of beauty, truth, and goodness held this magical society together.  The pursuit of any part of this trilogy was the purest endeavor and one that could not help but further the good of the state.  All politicians in Plato’s utopia would be the poorest people in the state and forbade extravagance so as to guard against the inevitable corruption that comes from the combination of power and wealth.

In the ultimately unsatisfying chapter where Plato is interviewed by the Bill O’Reilly character (It is unsatisfying because you finally see that it is not possible to win an argument with a prating knave.), Plato asks Roy McCoy if he would rather refute someone, or be refuted?  Would he rather hurt another, or himself be hurt?  McCoy treats it like a trick question.  Of course, he would rather refute, would rather hurt than be hurt.  What kind of idiot wouldn’t?  Plato is just that kind of idiot.  He is the kind of idiot any polis needs to hold it together.  The USA of the first part of the twenty-first century is in short supply of such idiots and if we had them they would just queue up to be demolished by the pundits, the cable news hosts, the bought and paid for politicians.

That’s why PLATO AT THE GOOGLEPLEX fits in so nicely with FLASH BOYS.  The Plato book shows us how to make a better polis.  Michael Lewis’ book shows us why that is a pipe dream.  We all know the story.  Wall Street types, whose only motivation is to make increasing amounts of money, discovered that they could game the system by simply placing their orders faster than anyone else.  If a person could find a price fluctuation between the futures market in Chicago and the exchange on Wall Street, he could make a lot of money by placing a virtually instant order to buy or sell. 

That is an epic over-simplification, but suffice it to say that all that technical wheeling and dealing aside, FLASH BOYS is a book about unbridled greed and our culture’s tacit acceptance of that fact.  

Folks just made a whole shit load of money by jumping the market and in the process screwing the little guys, the guys who lost value in their retirement, the mutual funds who were naive enough to play by the rules.  When the book’s hero, the guy who spearheads the push to figure out the scam, tries to establish a fair stock market that wasn’t based on bilking the common man, he went to the big banks to get them to participate.  At first, when asked why he was doing this, why he was giving up a big money job to make the market fair again, he simply told them that he wanted to do the right thing.  That response was greeted by such genuine bewilderment that he didn’t raise a dime.  When he changed his story and rigged some numbers to suggest that he would make an eventual killing on the deal, the investors lined up at his door.

After I finished the book, I looked up a number of negative reviews to find out what all those Michael Lewis haters were saying.  Not much.  The main thing I took away from the reviews was that Lewis was ignoring the fact that HFT (high frequency trading) created liquidity, put more money into the economy, and of course (prepare to genuflect) created jobs.  None of those reviewers seemed bothered by the amoral pursuit of money and the shameless disregard of others that seems to control our economy.  Bill O’Reilly and the folks at FoxNews would call that democracy.  Plato, not knowing what to call it, would simply weep.