A Good Corporation?

I am the first to point out the shortcomings and travesties of large corporations that put profits above people. One of the major corporations that heads the list because of its treatment of its employees and its inclination to buy cheap goods from third world countries is Walmart. There is no end of the bad press this company has received over the years, and deservedly so. Among other things, during the latest violence in the stores on Black Friday, the name “Walmart” kept coming up and there is no question they took the lead in encroaching on Thanksgiving in order to get customers out early buying their product. And this is not the first year Walmart has been in the headlines on the day after Thanksgiving.

But, then, there is another side to the story and it is a relief to read that Walmart partners with “Second Harvest,” a Twin Cities food bank that feeds the hungry and does immense good each year. In fact, Walmart has helped provide 197 million meals of late in the form of meat, fresh produce, and other nutritious foods. In addition, they have pledged $2 billion in cash, equipment and food through 2015. As the director of Second Harvest says, “That’s just a mind-blowing investment.” It comes in the form not only of food but also refrigerated food trucks that play an essential part in food-rescue efforts.

Walmart has long been involved in charitable giving, including millions of dollars in scholarships. But these gifts often seemed like a publicity ploy designed to off-set the image the company was getting as an exploiter of its own employees and one of the most greedy of the profit-seekers. This latest step has been taken on the quiet and dwarfs previous efforts in the good it will do for people in a time of real hardship.

Cynics will say this is a huge write-off for the company, and this is true. But, again, it is also an act of generosity that will help feed hungry people in an economy when their numbers are growing. We need to see this as a good thing to balance out the picture we have of large corporations that can’t see beyond the bottom line. Those companies are still out there and they dominate the landscape. But it is nice to know that there is some good hiding amidst all the short-sightedness.


Wealth, Power, and Wall Street

Robert Heilbroner wrote a classic study of capitalism. In that book he notes that the competition among the wealthy in a capitalist society amounts to a Hobbesian state of nature in which there is war of all against all. This war is being carried on not only among those with wealth but also between those few and the rest of the nation which must be content with the leftovers that trickle down. The results in the case of present-day U.S. are appalling: with the tax breaks that were voted in during the Bush-era, the uneven distribution of wealth in this country has become positively obscene.  There has been a 36.1% drop in the wealth of the median household since the peak of the housing bubble in 2007. As of that year, the top 1% of households owned 34.6% of all privately held wealth, and the next 19% held 50.5%. This means that the remaining 15% of the wealth in this country was shared by 80% of the people.  And the problem has gotten worse. Why so?

Because money is power and those in power invariably seek more power. What has happened, as Heilbroner shows, is that capitalism breeds a culture in which wealth is not collected for its own sake, but for the sake of gaining more wealth. While those who control the wealth in this country compete among themselves for more and more of the same, the poor get poorer and the middle class disappears into the impoverished class.

Those who are wealthy dream about days gone by when free enterprise capitalism was the rule and government kept out of the business of making money; these people are deluded. This country has never embraced free market capitalism unfettered by governmental restraints — except, perhaps, during and just after the Civil War when the industrial revolution was taking off in this country. This ended abruptly when a series of antitrust laws were passed toward the end of the nineteenth century, introduced by people like Senator John Sherman, that were designed to restrict the growth of capital in the hands of the few. And those same people who moan about the coming of “socialism” (a word they don’t understand) refuse to acknowledge that government controls are the only thing standing between the dwindling middle-classes and increasing poverty — and powerlessness — for the vast majority of citizens in this country.

Or they just don’t care: it is part of what the mania of power is all about.  Newt Gingrich makes the snide remark that those who would occupy Wall Street should get a job after taking a bath and his comment is met with snickers and loud applause. These are the words of a man with great wealth who has nothing but disdain for the many who do not and whose lack of wealth he sees simply as a lack of initiative. This is both callous and absurd on its face. The Occupy Wall Street movement makes perfect sense and should be supported by all who care about fairness and justice for all of the citizens in this country, including those who would be its President. It is the voice of the people who are, we are told, the ultimate source of power in a democracy.

Cold Hard Facts

One of the most popular segments on E.S.P.N.’s popular Sports Center is called “Cold Hard Facts,” and it consists of one or more “experts” sitting down and giving his opinions about upcoming sports events. The confusion here between “facts” and “opinions” is instructive. We seem to have lost sight of a rather important distinction.

While there is nothing we claim to know that should ever be held beyond doubt, as I mentioned in an earlier blog, there is certainly a basic distinction between an opinion — which can be silly or sensible — and a fact which has the weight of evidence and argument behind it. It is a fact that water freezes at 32 degrees fahrenheit. It is a fact that objects fall toward the center of the earth. The most reliable facts are in the hard sciences and in mathematics (though there is some discussion whether a mathematical formula is a fact of simply a tautology). But even when an expert tells us that the New England Patriots are sure to win the game on Sunday, that is an opinion.

As mentioned, opinions can be silly — as in “there’s a monster in my closet,” or sensible, as in “don’t raise the bet when holding a pair of twos — unless you are a really good bluffer.” And opinions can differ in degree, some being more likely or more probable than others. But they do not cross over into the territory of fact until the weight of argument and evidence is so heavy it cannot be moved. Thus the opinion that smoking causes cancer became fact once the correlation between the two became very nearly inviolable (there are still exceptions). And the opinion that humans are evolved from lower forms of animals became fact when the weight of evidence became so heavy it could no longer be ignored — except by looking the other way.

One of the big controversies in our schools, especially in the South, is whether “intelligent design” is a fact or an opinion, that is, whether or not it should be taught along with the theory of evolution. But as there is no possible way to disprove intelligent design and there are any number of ways to disprove evolution, the latter can be regarded as fact whereas the former cannot. Intelligent design, the claim that human evolution is guided by a Creator, is a matter of faith. It may have plausibility, but it cannot be proved or, more importantly, disproved. This is where Socratic doubt comes in.

The secret to Socrates’ method was to doubt until we could doubt no longer. At the point where a claim seems to be beyond doubt, we can claim it is true — so far as we know. The key to the Socratic method was questioning and attempting to disprove. That is the key to scientific method as well. Claims become factual to the extent that they cannot be disproved. If there is no way to disprove a claim, it cannot ever rise to the status of fact. We can talk until we are blue in the face about who was the best basketball player ever, or whether the souls of evil persons will suffer eternal punishment, but since no claim we make could ever be proved false, we never get beyond the realm of personal opinion. The claim that the polar ice caps are melting is a fact. The claim that humans are part of the cause of global warming is an opinion, though it is plausible. And in this case, it would be wise to treat it as fact because even if it turns out to be false, it hasn’t cost us a great deal. And if it turns out to be true, we will have taken steps to solve a serious problem facing our earth.

Distinctions help to clarify our thinking. When they are glossed over, it leads to confusion. That is my opinion, but it seems plausible. That is the most I can say until further review.

Black Friday

[I am headed to Minneapolis to spend Thanksgiving with my son and his family. So I am copping out by re-blogging a post I wrote last year. When you’ve seen one Black Friday you’ve pretty much seen them all — except that the Walmart employees have threatened to strike this year and that will hopefully reduce attacks from pepper spray!]

The headline read “Woman pepper sprays other Black Friday shoppers.” In an effort to have a better chance to get at the cheap electronics Walmart was using as a lure to get shoppers jump-started this holiday season, a woman pepper sprayed about 20 customers who were in her way. Except for the talking heads on Fox News who think this is perfectly acceptable behavior, everyone is in a dither —  but for many of the wrong reasons. Out-of-control shoppers are a worry, but the whole marketing ploy that increasingly encroaches on Thanksgiving is the larger problem.

We do live in a commodified culture, as Robert Heilbroner told us many years ago, but our values are clearly out of kilter when money and the things that money can buy become the main focus of an entire nation. If we take a commodified culture preoccupied with owning things, combine it with an immense advertising machine that works buyers into a frenzy prior to Thanksgiving, it is no wonder that things like this happen. We shouldn’t be surprised; clearly things are out of focus. Citizens who bother to go to the voting booth any more are there to turn around a weak economy. That has been the rule for some time now: vote out the bastards who are taking money out of my pocket. The real issues, like the damage we are doing to the environment in our tizzy to raise our already obscenely high standard of living, are largely ignored.

Christmas should, of course, be a time for reflection and thought about others. In this country, and other “developed” countries around the world, it has become a time to get that 20% of the yearly profits that keep the engines of commerce running. It is understandable, since business has become the cornerstone of our culture. But is it necessary to point out that the ideals of business are antithetical to the ideals of the one whose birth we celebrate next month? The fact that a woman in California would pepper-spray her way to the cheap electronics in Walmart is simply a sign of the times and a clear indication that we need to rethink our priorities.

Are We Free?

If I enter a room filled with paper bags, one of which holds a rattlesnake while the others are filled with treats, am I free to grab a bag filled with treats? In one sense I am, in another I am not. I am free to grab any bag I want to because no one is holding a gun to my head and my hands are not tied. But I am not free in the sense that I do not know which bag holds the treats and which might hold the rattlesnake. Real freedom consists of knowledge and if I am ignorant I am not really free. There is a fundamental difference between blind choice and informed choice.

This is a simple illustration of a very important point that has been lost on most of us because we think that the more bags we have, the more bread in our stores, the more items on Amazon, the freer we are. And in this sense, we in America are more free to grab almost any bag we want to — well, most of us are, and the wealthier we are the more bags we can grab. But real freedom is not a function of the number of bags. Unless we know which bag holds the snake, we are hopelessly ignorant and our ignorance can render us very sick or even dead from a fatal rattlesnake bite.

This is why education is so important: because it is only through an education properly conceived that we can be truly free. A liberal  education sets us free from ignorance, that is, from the things that can truly harm us. Ironically, Harvard College introduced the concept of “elective courses” into their curriculum in the 1930s when they mistakenly assumed that freedom is a matter of blind choice. Other colleges soon followed their lead, as did the high schools and even many grammar schools (the “free schools”). Now the idea has become so entrenched in the heads of educators that they are eliminating any semblance of liberal education by reducing — or eliminating altogether — the core courses that are pretty much all that remains of the notion that there are some things people should know in order to become truly free. The assumption that the young are free is absurd, since freedom does not consist in the ability to choose the bag with the rattlesnake in it.

Freedom regarded simply as blind choice will eventually become chaos when carried far enough. Real freedom comes from a restricted number of choices based on knowledge and the ability to think about the clues that might lead us to the bag with the treats and away from the bag with the rattlesnake. Education, properly understood, is about real freedom, not about blind choice.

Education as Fraud

The eighth circle of Dante’s Inferno punishes those guilty or malice and fraud. One of the reviewers of my book on education some years back said that my “journey through the halls of the. . . university [were] reminiscent of Dante’s journey through Hell” — specifically the Malebolges of the eighth circle. When I read that I wasn’t sure what the reviewer meant. I now think I have figured it out.  All of us who attempted to educate the young people who came to us with high hopes coupled with no idea of what education is all about perpetrated a fraud. We promised them an education and we failed to deliver the goods.  A large part of the problem was that when the students revolted in the 60s and asked why they had to take courses in, say, history, we didn’t know the answer. The faculty they looked to for guidance were so mired in their area of specialization they had no idea what education was all about or what it is supposed to do. That hasn’t changed.

“Education” is a word we use far too loosely. We use it when we mean “inform,” as in “he needs to be educated about the advantages of good health.” Education is a great deal more than information, though an educated person must be well informed. But an educated person must be able to assimilate and process that information and make intelligent choices. That is, an education must free the young person’s mind from stupidity, prejudice, and narrowness of vision — from the snares of “thugs who would teach them what to think and not how to think,” as Mark Van Doren once said. We are surrounded by such thugs and, sad to say, they abound in colleges and universities as well. Instead of putting young people in control of their own minds, setting them free, we tighten the chains of prejudice and stupidity. Educators  continue to insist that education is all about jobs, or we hand our students ready-made formulas for detecting the injustices we have determined surround us on all sides. The notion that we send young people to school and allow them to run up huge debts in the form of student loans in order to give them “know-how” is completely wrong-headed, as is the notion that the job of educators is to turn out hand-puppets who know only what they have been told by well-meaning instructors who hold over their heads the threat of low grades.

I cannot speak knowingly about the early grades, having only one year of experience teaching the lower grades, but I know that the young people come to college ill-prepared to do the work and leave only slightly better off. I suspect, having paid close attention for years, that there the three reasons, at least, for this lack of preparedness for college: (1) the meaningless “certification requirements” that replace substantive courses in our teachers’ colleges, (2) the lack of attention and preparation for school in the home before the child ever enters kindergarten, and (3) the mountains of paper-work required of teachers in the lower grades by boards of education that have nothing whatever to do with teaching the young. In any event, upon graduation from college they cannot read a difficult text or figure the tip in a restaurant. Their vocabulary has shrunk over the years and now consists of a few hundred words and gestures pathetically replacing complete sentences and full paragraphs. As though things weren’t bad enough, texting has now become all the rage, with its sentence fragments and bits and pieces of words. And yet we know that humans think in words and sentences, and we can predict that our college graduates, with rare exceptions, will be unable to think, speak, or figure beyond a primitive level. The reviewer was right.


Giving Thanks

I had a blog about the current state of education ready to post, but decided instead to share a thought or two about the things I have to be thankful for on this Thanksgiving eve.

To begin with, I am thankful that I live in a country where I can write the sort of drivel I write without the fear of storm troopers beating down my door and taking me off to prison, and in a century when medical science has come to the point where they can help people like me dodge fatal bullets. And I marvel at the technical prowess that allows me to type words and with a push of a button share them with the world — which at present consists of a few loyal friends.

But above all, I am thankful for my loving family, my wife of nearly fifty years, two wonderful sons who have good jobs and are happily married, each with two daughters whose future, I must confess, I do worry about. My generation seems to be leaving this world worse off than we found it. And I am thankful for good friends like Dana Yost, a writer extrodinary whose range and ability to express himself is boundless, our mutual friend Dave Pichaske, an exceptional teacher, loyal supporter of women’s athletics at his university, a terrific wordsmith with a wide range of publications to his credit, and who gives relentless support to the writers around him. And also my friend and former student Bruce Mate whose optimism in a world gone a bit crazy buoys me up in moments of doubt — especially since he has seen so much more of the world than I ever have or could dream of having done. During a recent exchange about global warming, for example, he sent me this jewel:

“If one believes in God, (S)he is one hell of an engineer to come up with a system that copes literally with all circumstances. Truly amazing to put into motion ….right down to (and perhaps fundamentally) the smallest details like quarks and neutrinos. So, on the flip-side for those Bible literalists, perhaps we are in the very long ‘seventh day’ when God rested and said it was good. I wonder what will be happening on the 8th day when it doesn’t look like giving us ‘dominion’ over all of this has worked out so well. I wish there had been a biblical translation or contract that instead read, ‘stewardship with annual reviews and right of refusal.’ Maybe extinctions should just be looked at as ‘termination notices’ (cease and desist orders). It feels like human greed has put us into a reverse mortgage program living off of the accumulated corpus of Nature’s evolutionary endowment. Well, we know how it works out in the real world to mess with the balance sheet, right?….but I don’t think printing more money or bumping up the debt is going to work this time. Despite all of that I still smile daily, I love my wife, I enjoy my 4 grand-children, and I remain optimistic that I will do my best to make it better.”

I will return to my harangues and pithy observations later in the week, But for now, it is time to give thanks.

Like An Ostrich

Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature, recently spoke to a crowd of 600 people at Oregon State University on the topic of global warming. From the story in the local newspaper covering McKibben’s lecture, we read: “McKibben discussed the history of 350.org, the worldwide organizing movement he helped found in 2008. The group’s name stems from research that claims anything more than 350 parts-per-million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is unsafe and will disastrously impact the environment. Scientists estimate the environment currently contains 390 parts-per-million of carbon dioxide.” He is a self-styled “bummer-outer” and yet he continues to draw crowds and sell books while dealing with a very disturbing issue. His message is bleak “It’s the worst thing to happen in the history of our Earth — at least since we’ve been on it.” But the crowds he draws are encouraging  (600 people in attendance at a lecture of this type is quite a remarkable thing!) and he hopes that social networking will help address the problem.

The interesting question here is why we continue to ignore this problem — much as we continue to ignore the problem of overpopulation? The answer, I suspect, is the size of the problem and our reluctance to think about unpleasant, indeed deeply troubling, issues. Further, we tend to ignore problems if they are not in our backyard. The disturbing thought here is that this problem is in our back yard, whether or not we want to admit it. But we prefer, ostrich-like, to keep our heads buried in the sand of our own ignorance and pretend that things will turn out OK. This is what Jacques Ellul once told us was our response to “the technological imperative,” which focuses on means rather than ends.  We think there is no problem that we cannot fix: someone will come along with a gadget and fix it.

The truth of the matter is that there is no gadget that will fix this problem. And it isn’t simply going to disappear. It is real and it requires, at the outset, that we avoid denial. — which is understandable, but inexcusable.  There are still many people who insist that global warming is a myth. They look at the thermometer, see the low temps and draw the unwarranted conclusion that the globe is not warming. But we must keep in mind the modifier, “global.” In 2010, for example, nineteen nations around the world recorded record high temperatures. And regardless of whether my thermometer reads low temps today, the average here and everywhere else is going up. It is a global issue.

Once we have advanced beyond denial, there are some things we can do to help matters — from the small things like turning down our thermostats and driving more fuel-efficient cars to the larger things like writing our congressmen, supporting companies that are known to be environment friendly, and boycotting those we know to be ignoring their global responsibilities. For example, McKibben’s efforts recently resulted in enough pressure on the President to send the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline project back to the State Department for thorough review, effectively killing the project. There is hope and political activism and citizen petitions can be effective even against the giant corporations that would pollute the earth in the name of higher profits for a few. McKibben’s web site expands on these themes. But it all starts by pulling our heads out of the sand and admitting that there is a problem and it is one we need to address. We owe it to ourselves, our children, and to our children’s children.

Socratic Doubt

I have been reading Hannah Arendt’s excellent book, Responsibility and Judgment. In that book, like so many of her other books, she draws lessons from the debacle that occurred in Germany before, during, and after the Second World War. Chiefly, she reflects on the nature of evil — which she calls “banal” — and the fact that so many of us seem to be capable of it. Evil comes, she is convinced, from our unwillingness, if not our inability, to think.

Arnold Toynbee once said that thinking is as difficult for humans as walking on two legs is for a monkey and we do as little as possible the more comfortable we are. We all assume that if we open our mouths and utter an opinion the process involves thought. Such is not the case, however. As Socrates showed many times, our opinions most often are mere “wind eggs,” unexamined prejudgments that  prevent real thought by suggesting that we know when in fact we do not. To make matters worse, we are urged in our culture these days not to be “judgmental,” when, in fact, it is precisely judgment that is at the heart of thought.  For Socrates, as for Arendt, thought requires a constant dialogue within oneself, a conversation with oneself, if you will. It requires doubt and an insistence that we do not know in spite of our pretensions. As Socrates was fond of saying, we only know that we do not know — at least that is the claim he made for himself. We don’t seem inclined to take on his mantle of humility.

Evil is “banal,” precisely because it issues forth from men and women who do not seek evil ends, but who simply don’t want to be bothered to think about what it is they are doing. Those few who opposed Hitler in Germany, for the most part, were not the intellectuals (who are supposed to be the thinkers), but the ordinary men and women who carried on an inner dialogue with themselves and simply decided they could not cooperate with those who would do terrible things. They would rather die than cooperate with evil men.

Hopefully we will never be called upon to make decisions that make us party to evil; but we are called upon daily to question, to doubt, to consider, and to think about the things we do and the things we choose not to do. And when we have reached a conclusion, the doubt and thinking should begin again. When we have reached a point where we no longer feel doubt is necessary, we are in danger of falling into a dogmatic trap. As Kant would have it, “I do not share the opinion that one should not doubt once one has convinced oneself of something.” Doubt must be ongoing if it is to rise to the level of real thought. Arendt is convinced that if the German people had been more (not less) “judgmental” during the 30s of the last century Hitler never would have risen to power and the Second World War and its atrocities would never have happened. Today it is precisely the tendency we have not to think that is the greatest danger as we listen to the bloat and rhetoric of the politicians and demagogs who would capture our minds and take them prisoner.

Our best hope for staying out of this prison is, of course, our schools. But it is clear that they have taken a wrong turn and are now preoccupied with job preparation instead of mental preparation. This trend feeds into the lethargy that makes it just too much trouble to think seriously about what is going on around us. That is the trap it would seem we have indeed fallen into, preoccupied as we are with creature comforts. We need to recall Socrates’ words, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

The Business Model

Some years back NSP was thinking about putting a coal-burning power plant in a town close to ours. They sent a couple of their suits down to placate the locals and reassure them that all would be well. During the question period that followed their presentation a farmer asked them what would become of the numerous acres that would be taken up by the plant and its holding ponds. The spokesman said he didn’t know, they couldn’t project past five years. The farmer responded that if the land were left alone he could predict with some assurance that the land would still be producing corn and beans. One of the wittiest comebacks I have ever witnessed.

It’s an interesting thing, this business model that doesn’t allow us to predict long-term. It’s all about short-term — which translates into profits and losses. The models that the mathematicians come up with cannot work with too many variables, and as the years are added up the variables begin to outnumber the constants. So prediction becomes difficult, if not impossible (just ask the weather prognosticators!) The business model gives us short-term thinking and quantification. The model works, there is no doubt about it: business has brought great wealth to a few and raised the standard of living for many in this country and around the world. It has even provided us with a paradigm of success, for better or worse. But it has its limitations — as suggested above.

It doesn’t encourage long-term thinking and it seeks to reduce all issues to numbers. The model doesn’t work in contexts other than business — say, education. The problem, of course, is that it has in fact been forced on education and has increased the difficulties the schools are having teaching the young. As though there aren’t enough problems already. The notion that schools have to be held accountable and their “product” evaluated on a scale that can be quantified is absurd. But that’s where we have come, because it’s the only model bureaucrats know.

Further, the goal of education — which should be to put young people in possession of their own minds — has become reduced to getting a job. As though we could predict today what the jobs will be when the college Freshman graduates. We lie to them when we lead them to believe that the jobs available now will be available four or five years down the road. Here’s where the business model might be applied in a sensible way.  But we forget our inability to predict long-term in the desire to “sell the product,” which is the latest fashion in education finery — culinology (whatever that is), or accounting, or forestry. The only thing about the future that we know for sure is that it will change, and the only preparation for change we can urge on today’s students is to learn to think, to express themselves, to calculate, and to understand as much as possible of the world around them. The irony here is that the people who can use their minds are the ones who will get the jobs — the goals of education and job preparation are not necessarily antithetical to one another, as long as we get the priorities straight. But if we stress vocationalism and ignore liberal learning (as we have) we place blinders on the students and decrease their ability to adjust to changing circumstances down the road. If the seventeen-year-old focuses exclusively on, say, office management and then discovers at age 36 that the job is boring — or just not there — she is trapped in a straightjacket. If the focus is on breadth of preparation, the student will be ready for anything.

Short-term thinking, quantification, and the notion that it’s all about jobs are antithetical to education properly understood. The business model works in the world of profits and losses; it doesn’t work in the world of human development.