25 February 2011

Influence and the Birth of Freedom

The pace of change in the Middle East seems to be like fire burning dry grassland. First Tunisia, then Egypt, and now Libya. Muammar al-Gadafi and sons have pledged to fight to their last breath.

When I heard of their pledge, my first thought was, "May Allah grant them their wish, speedily and soon."

In the case of Egypt, the revolution looks like it might result in real democratic reform. Partly this is because of ties between the US and Egyptian military establishments, which ties exist because of US monetary aid to and training of that military. The hope is that the US Military's comfort with civilian control will influence the Egyptian Military's attitude toward the same.

Might I point out that this influence, this access, did not come for free. We bought it with our foreign aid dollars. We also buy influence in Israel with foreign aid dollars - which gives us two things: some influence toward moderating Israeli policy toward Palestinian Arabs, and access to some very useful Israeli military technology. I mention these things because some US politicians (Republicans mostly) are beating their drums to cut off such foreign aid expenditures.

You would think that our politicians, who generally peddle influence, would understand foreign aid, which generally buys it. Or is it just that foreign aid doesn't buy influence from them?

Public Employee Unions

Public Employee Unions (henceforth PEUs) are many things. First and foremost, they are the protectors of their employees' interests, including pay, job security, working conditions, health insurance, and pensions. Without their protection many public employees would simply be exploited. One of my own relatives would probably have been fired for teaching while being non-Hispanic.

On the other hand, most PEUs are "closed shop" operations. When you sign up for certain public sector jobs, you are automatically enrolled in the union, and your union dues are automatically deducted from your paycheck. If you are a public employee, the money for your pay, benefits, and union dues is taken from your fellow citizens and the companies they work for in the form of taxes. And your PEU uses a substantial portion of your dues to make political contributions almost exclusively to the Democratic Party.

In other words, PEUs are also transformers of public monies into Democratic Party campaign funds, both directly, and indirectly in the form of personal contributions made by PEU bosses. That gives PEUs a lot of power, because their power to buy politicians is combined with their power to engage in collective bargaining and strikes. Historically, that power has been abused to achieve compensation and benefits packages that are unsustainable.

The Republican solution is to limit the collective bargaining power of PEUs. But collective bargaining is the one thing that unions of any kind were established to do.

I think I have a better idea. Let PEUs engage in collective bargaining or politics (contribute to campaigns, endorse candidates, buy political ads) but not both. And let the union members choose which one - put it to a vote.

Personally, I would favor continuing collective bargaining. You can trust your own power more than you can trust politicians.

23 February 2011

The Man who Bought the Truth

Tante T. relates this Ukrainian folk tale...

Long ago, a peasant went to market. He had forgotten what his wife had sent him to buy, so he began browsing the various stalls hoping he would remember it. Suddenly he came upon a very old man trying to sell something very large for very little money.

"Truth!" the old man said. "This is the Truth, and I sell it cheap. Make me an offer, someone!"

The peasant was impressed. Surely this huge Truth must be good for something. So he bought it for the few coins he had with him, loaded it onto his cart, and with great effort took it home to his wife.

"What for you bought this great Truth?" she scolded. "It's too big to fit in our house. It's too big for our barn. We can't leave it outside, because it will attract too much attention and annoy the neighbors. We can't use it for anything. We can't eat it. Please take it back to the market and sell it back to the old man!"

The peasant heaved it onto his cart, and returned to the market, but the old man was gone. Nobody seemed even to have seen him. The peasant had no choice but to sell the Truth to whoever would buy it. But no one did. It was too much, too big, they all said.

So, he cut the Truth in half. Still no buyers. Then in quarters. Then in eighths. Finally he cut the truth into such tiny pieces that people found them convenient, and he sold them all, each one for only a little bit of money, but when he was done he had all the coins he could carry.

And that is why to this very day, everyone has only a little sliver of the truth, and no one has all of it.

And I must add that most people mix their little sliver with misinformation to make it palatable. When they give it away, they call it advice. When they sell it, they call it news. When they add falsehood to it and force it on other people, they call it advertising. And when they pay as little attention to it as possible, they call it politics.

De-pathologizing Religion

Psychologists generally regard organized religion as pathological, because their founding saint, Sigmund Freud, hated religion. He rejected it along with his shtetl* Jewish upbringing, in hope of being accepted into the urbane society of early 20th-century Vienna.

Now, however, the editors of Monitor on Psychology have permitted the writer Beth Azar to contribute the article, "A Reason to Believe," in their December 2010 issue. Religion is not so bad, she claims. It might be normal, even healthy for people. It enables them to bond together in larger social groups. It helps them be more calm and graceful under pressure.

But it can't possibly be true. Indeed Azar quotes one researcher expressing the hope that religion's functions can be taken over by secular communities built on some non-religious moral foundation, like Denmark's welfare state.

It seems to me that most psychologists feel compelled to display the left-leaning identity badges of their tribe, including spouting the anti-religious shibboleths of their own religion - psychology itself. Of course, psychologists see their discipline as science, not religion. But one very good psychologist once asked me if using more solar energy would cause the sun to run down faster. Truly, one does not need to be a scientist to be a psychologist. One needs only to believe in the modes of therapy one has mastered.

* What was a shtetl? A rural village apart, where only Jews lived. There used to be shtetls all over central and eastern Europe, with a vibrant Yiddish culture all their own. The shtetls, and their urban counterparts, the Jewish ghettos, were wiped out during the Holocaust. Those of their inhabitants who escaped extermination migrated to America, to what is now Israel, and other places. Those who would deny the Holocaust must answer this question: Where have all the shtetls gone and why?