Hope As Illusion

I am not a psychologist nor, indeed, a social scientist of any particular stripe. But I do like to think about people, the things they do, and the society in which we all live. Further, I am a bit of a sports nut. I have always participated in sports — in fact, they kept me sane (!) through college and graduate school — and continue to do so today (?). And I watch a lot of sports on television, as my wife will attest! So I was delighted to see that a group of kids from South Chicago recently won the United States portion of the Little League World Series (which is actually a world series, since it involves teams from around the world and not just in the United States). As of this writing they will play Korea (that’s South Korea) for the Little League world championship. It’s a great story, though, like many others, I was disappointed to see Mo’ne Davis and her team defeated and unable to continue to play. Now there was a great story.

But when I heard this morning on ESPN that the championship by the team from South Chicago brought “new hope” to that city, and particularly that section of that city, I did wonder. Seriously? New hope for South Chicago because a group of kids won a few baseball games? Get real.

And that’s the issue. Sigmund Freud talks about the need for all humans to develop what he called a “reality principle.” We need to be able to separate reality from illusion. The notion that this championship can bring new hope to a huge portion of a large city in America is pure illusion. South Chicago is a place where most people would not choose to live. I know. My wife’s grandparents lived there and we visited them on weekends while we were at Northwestern. We were always careful to leave before dark. Students at the University of Chicago are warned not to walk alone in the streets around their campus. It’s simply not safe. That’s reality.

It is certainly the case that involvement in sports can save many a kid from gangs and drugs, which are common in South Chicago. Let’s hope their involvement in Little League Baseball will save most, if not all, of the kids on this particular championship team. But to state as a truth that this win gives the city “new hope” is, as I say, pure fiction. It is the sort of hyperbole that television engages in to tug the heart-strings of their viewers, keep them watching, and help them escape their drab, wretched lives (as Tom Lehrer would have it). We should be used to it by now, but we need to recognize it for what it is: it is pure escapism, an attempt to substitute illusion for reality. Sports are simply a fragment of life itself. After the LLWS those who live in South Chicago, like the rest of us, will have to get back to reality, though television is always there to help them escape whenever it gets too tough. After all, the Chicago Bears are supposed to be very good this year!

We need to be concerned that we fail to develop that all-important reality principle that Freud talks about. We need to keep reminding ourselves that games are just games and sports are fun and games, but they are (for most of us) merely an escape from reality. They cannot become the whole of reality, though I am beginning to suspect that for many people who are immersed in such things as “fantasy football” that ship has sailed. Reality can sometimes be unpleasant and even downright painful. But it is what it is. And it isn’t fantasy football or a winning team that gives us all a thrill but should never pretend to provide a substitute for the real thing.

 

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Greening America

I was aware that California and Hawaii were on the cutting edge of the inevitable conversion to clean energy in this country. I say “inevitable” because, in spite of Big Oil and a recalcitrant Congress, growing numbers of people are aware of the problem and demanding clean energy — and, more to the point, there is money to be made in clean energy. Eventually even the dirty energy companies will realize that. But what I was not aware of, though pleasantly surprised to find out, is that three of America’s dirtiest cities are committed to cleaning up their act and have taken major steps to convert to clean energy.

In the Summer issue of World Wildlife the cities of Chicago, Cincinnati, and Cleveland are featured. The steps they have taken are impressive. Let’s hope other cities will soon follow.

In CHICAGO, for example, the number of hybrid vehicles in the municipal fleet has grown to 240, including 200 hybrid utility vehicles and 40 hybrid cars. The city has committed 100 miles of separated bike lanes over the next four years to encourage increased bike travel, which will increase the number of miles of bike trails in the city to 645. The city has also committed to 280 electric vehicle charging stations to encourage the use of electric cars.  Further, the city has committed $1.3 billion to create a smart electricity grid between 2011 and 2021. They are in third place in the country in green jobs — its clean economy employed an estimated 139,800 people in 2012. By the year 2050 Chicago is committed to reducing emissions by 80% from 1990 levels.

In CINCINNATI in the meantime,  more than 50 traditional trash receptacles throughout the city have been replaced by solar-powered compactors — at a cost of $4500 each. The cans require less frequent pickups, thereby saving fuel otherwise expended by trucks.The Greater Cincinnati Energy Alliance has helped retrofit over 1700 homes in greater Cincinnati. The average amount of waste recycled by Cincinnati households has grown to 241 pounds, for a total of 17,815 tons in 2012 alone. Cincinnati is the largest city in the nation to buy 100% green electricity for its citizens. The city, like Chicago, has committed itself to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 84% within four years.

And finally, in CLEVELAND, 50% of the citizens have received 100% of their electricity from renewable energy sources, solar and wind. For two years beginning in May 2013 city-owned Cleveland Public Power will test four varieties of LED street lights on both sides of the city and downtown to gauge efficiency. The street lights have a lifespan of 25 years and use roughly 50 percent less energy than traditional counterparts.The city has partnered with “Energy Efficiency Retrofit” to implement the program. These programs will mainly be focused on building and lighting retrofits and new green buildings. The city has committed itself to reducing emissions by 80%  below 2010 levels by the year 2050.

What is most interesting about these incentives is that business leaders and citizens alike support them and the cities are finding ways to combine economic growth and sustainability — which undermines the false claims of Big Oil that so many in this country have bought into, to wit, that clean energy will cripple the economy. It just isn’t so!

Trouble In Wallyworld

A recent story on ABC news told about a possible nationwide strike of Wal-Mart employees on “Black Friday” if the company doesn’t change its policy about allowing unions. Wal-Mart has been adamant about not allowing unions on the grounds that they are not necessary since their workers are well paid and happy. In the case of the recent threat, for example, a spokesman for the giant retailer had the following comment:

Walmart spokesman Dan Fogleman . . .claim[ed] that most employees have “repeatedly rejected unionization.

“They seem to recognize that Walmart has some of the best jobs in the retail industry — good pay, affordable benefits and the chance for advancement,” he said in a telephone interview with ABC News.

Apparently it’s not just politicians who lie with a straight face; corporate spokespeople can do so as well. We all know that things are not going well for the giant retailer. There are numerous strikes and walk-outs at Wal-Mart stores around the country where employees who make barely above subsistence wages demand what they regard as their rights. In Chicago recently, for example 17 peaceful protesters were arrested for supporting a strike that had been going on since September 15th. In addition there have been over 100 different types of lawsuits filed against Wal-Mart over the years, including one filed by female employees demanding equal pay and promotional opportunities which made it all the way to the Supreme Court.

I have blogged before about Wal-Mart which, as I have said, is a mixed bag. The company does many good things, including support of local charities and showing concern for the environment; they also employ 1.4 million people. But they refuse to allow unions, as noted, and their hourly wages are barely above poverty levels — $12.00 an hour on average which nets the worker $24,960.00 a year, barely $1900.00 above poverty levels for a family of four — guaranteeing that the employee’s spouse will almost certainly also have to work.

The employees are wrong to say that every other major company allows unions, of course, as the example of Whole Foods proves. But companies such as Whole Foods actually do put the employee’s needs first as they have better pay and even profit-sharing for their employees who do appear to like working for the company. So it’s not a question of unions, which are also a mixed bag, it’s about the giant company’s attitude toward its employees — all of them, and not only those at the managerial levels. Talk is cheap, especially when it is riddled with lies. It’s time for Wal-Mart to put its money where its mouth is and treat its employees ethically. The threat of a major strike on “Black Friday” may be the impetus the company needs to do the right thing.

Teachers Strike

As I write this, the teachers’ strike in Chicago’s public schools continues over two key issues. As a recent story tells us:

The two sides were not far apart on compensation, but were on other issues, including health benefits — teachers want to keep what they have now — and a new teacher evaluation system based partly on students’ standardized test scores, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said.

I won’t address the health issue as it isn’t clear from the article what that involves. Further, I am not in a position to comment on the Chicago strike in particular as it is a complex issue in which both sides have strong arguments — though if William Bennett is to be believed and the average salary for Chicago teachers is in fact $71,000.00 while 46% of the teachers themselves send their children to private schools it will be difficult for the teachers to garner sympathy from people not directly involved, especially since the city’s school system is reportedly $615 million in debt and America’s economy has seen better days.  Bennett seems to think it’s all about money, whereas the teachers themselves are concerned about the requirement that they teach to standardized tests and then be evaluated by how successful their students are on those tests. I will ignore the question of the money since that seems to have been settled and instead focus attention of the general question of teacher evaluations which is complex and requires some careful thought.

From the teachers’ perspective evaluations are suspect because they appear to be a way of giving the administration arbitrary power over them that might result in lower salaries or the termination of the teacher’s job. Evaluations are very hard to get in the first place and they are seldom objective — depending on such personal factors as popularity, easy grading, good looks, or heaven knows what. I used to be delighted by my favorable evaluations when I taught until I discovered that one of the students had given me high marks on his evaluation because I drove a sports car! So it goes.

In this case the Chicago teachers worry that their promotions and salaries will be based on how successful they are at teaching students to do well on standardized tests. They argue, correctly, that a student’s success on standardized test does not reflect how well the teacher is doing in the classroom. It stresses rote memorization and penalizes the more creative teacher. Teaching and learning are essentially mysterious, like writing a symphony, painting a picture, or throwing a pot. Some things simply cannot be quantified. Again, the difficulty here is how to get an evaluation from a student (or anyone else) that is not somehow biased and skewed so that the teacher doesn’t get screwed. It is a sticking point.

On the other hand, administrators and school boards know (as we all do) that there are some teachers out there that are doing a poor job and they want to weed them out and get better teachers to take their places. There are a great many students graduating from colleges all around the country who might do a much better job than those teachers who simply go through the motions five days a week and draw their paychecks without making a positive impression on any of their students. And judging from the available data, the kids in Chicago’s schools are not doing very well at all. How do we get the data we need to make informed decisions? Bureaucrats are enamored of “outcomes,” which is the new adminispeak. Evaluations seem to be the answer. And using standardized test scores seems the way to go because we have numbers to look at and we know numbers don’t lie.

But they do. And that is the core of the problem. To my knowledge there is simply no way teaching can be evaluated in a fair and impartial manner — prejudice and bias always creep it. Using standardized test scores is certainly not the way to go. The teachers are right to want the administration to get out of their face and let them teach. But the administration needs some way to evaluate the performance of those who are on the public dole: they owe it to the taxpayers, if not to the kids. But as suggested above  teaching is an art, not a science, and until someone comes up with a fair way to evaluate something as enigmatic as teaching and learning, the teachers have the stronger hand. We will just have to trust the judgment of the administrators who oversee the schools and hope they do the right thing by the students and their parents. After all, that’s what they are paid for.

Gutting the E.P.A.

One of the more insidious aspects of Mitt Romney’s energy plan is to allow individual states to grant permission for Big Oil to drill on the federal lands within their borders. This plan would effectively circumvent the Environmental Protection Agency, though our large corporations would love to see that agency disappear into the night.

But as one who has taught business ethics for years and who has seen countless numbers of cases in which federal agencies stand between each of us and poisoned air and water, contaminated foods, and harmful drugs, the idea that the EPA might be weakened strikes me as a seriously stupid on Romney’s part. The recent issue of OnEarth the magazine of the Natural Resources Defense Council provides a case in point.

In this issue we are told about a  legal case brought by NRDC in conjunction with the EPA against British Petroleum in Whiting, Illinois (about 20 miles southeast of Chicago) where BP has a refinery that processes crude oil from the Canadian tar sands (which in themselves are another environmental disaster. But that’s another story.) The refining process, as determined in a study by the Sierra Club in 2010, is a hazard to the health of people within a few miles of the refinery, causing health problems such as asthma, emphysema, and birth defects.

The court ruled in behalf of the EPA and British Petroleum will have to shell out $400 million “to install [scrubbers ?] and prevent 4,000 tons of pollutants — including sulfur dioxide, soot, and toxic substances such as benzene — from billowing out of the refinery each year.” The settlement requires that BP reduce the facility’s greenhouse gas emissions and inform the public about the results of its pollution monitoring. As OnEarth goes on to point out, “the settlement means that refineries around the country will face more rigorous standards when they attempt to modify their operations.” And yet, the EPA is the agency that the Republican candidate for President would gut and render impotent in the name of “jobs” and, of course, higher profits for the wealthy.

We need to realize as this election approaches that there are issues much larger than merely the state of the economy that are in question. The mantra of “lower taxes” and “more jobs” needs to be tempered by a realization that we need to regard the long term as well as the short term. When jobs are created they need to be in industries that have a social conscience and will not undermine our health and safety. And if lower taxes mean cutting back on the authority of such agencies as the EPA it may very well entail the turning loose of unconscionable companies like BP who care only about “the bottom line” and not a bit about our health and the future of the planet.  (You may recall BP was the culprit in the gigantic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 brought about by the company’s unwillingness to build in safety measures in their drilling equipment. The repercussions of that spill are still being felt in the region) There are indeed large issues at stake in this election and we need to be aware of the cloud of rhetoric that surrounds us in an election year and can be just as threatening to our well-being as the fumes from an oil refinery.