What We Never Know

We never really know.  It just happens.

I lost my sister this past week. Well, I guess people would call her my sister-in-law, but really she was like both my second sister and a brother I never had. 41 years. That’s a long time. We take it for granted. It seems like our most loved ones will always be there, especially those that have been there for us when we struggled or floundered. We call them our rocks. We never know when the rock slides come.

I’ve had some rocks slide away from me slowly. My dad 23 years ago defied the docs and took a year-and-a-half to move on. Mother was the same. My father-in-law was quicker, taking only a few days. Truth was, though, we knew for weeks ahead but we just denied it.

But Nancy? This was a sudden landslide. An earthquake. The rock is there and then it’s gone.  Bam. She’s gone. Pulmonary embolism outside a store while running a quick errand.  She didn’t expect it. I didn’t expect it. Lord knows my sister didn’t expect it.  We never really know.

Tell your loved ones you love them. Do it often. Because we never know.

So today is Saturday. I’ve got a lot of work to do, but some unstructured time. I’m trying to figure out how to move forward in a landscape that’s missing one big rock.

The news isn’t helpful. Two black men killed by a white supremacist outside a grocery store in Kentucky. An anti-semite shoots up a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Bombs mailed to reporters, former Presidents & cabinet officers, and others by a hate-filled, paranoid right-winger in Florida.  All of these men, and sadly they are all white men, chose to escalate from throwing verbal stones to throwing rocks to shooting bullets and throwing bombs. Why? Because they thought they knew. They thought they knew that their targets weren’t fully human. They thought they knew they were in the right. But their facts were wrong. They didn’t understand. Their own traumas and fears painted a false landscape of hate and an isolated world.  But they didn’t really know. We never really know.

Those men never met my sister. They probably would have hated her too. I don’t know for sure.  But she wouldn’t have hated them. She would have seen the hurt child in each of them.  She knew that’s something most of us share. It’s where we can start healing. That’s where she did work. Work on the healing now to prevent the hate later is the best way to stop the hurt.

This week is the 56th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis.  There’s a great read here by Jon Schwarz in the Intercept, What Trump and Bolton Don’t Understand About Nuclear War. Take some time and read it. It’s about what we didn’t know. It’s about what most of us haven’t known or known wrongly.

I was in first grade during the October Cuban missile crisis. It’s still my strongest memory of first grade. I remember hiding under my desk during an a-bomb drill. That’s not just an Internet meme. It was real. We did it. I remember my anxiety about trying to remember the difference between the fire drill alarm and the a-bomb alarm. I mean, you run outside for a fire but you really don’t want to run outside into the a-bombs, right?  You never know when the a-bombs will come.  I was lucky. I had an older sister who helped calm me and figure out the alarms. We knew in Dayton, Ohio we’d be among the first to go – unless we could stay under our school desk. We never knew how close we came.

Like the rest of the U.S. we were sold a story about how President Kennedy stood up to Khrushchev and made those Russians back down. We weren’t told about the missiles we agreed to tear down too in the deal. We weren’t told how we had erected the many missiles threatening Moscow first.  No, we were told the Russians (excuse me, the Soviets) were just evil. They wanted to destroy us – just because. But we had to stand up to them and be willing to destroy them first.  Just like how this week’s bomber, synagogue shooter, and Kentucky shooter all were told that the blacks, the Jews, the Democrats, the liberals were all evil and out to destroy us, just, just  because. But they didn’t know. They didn’t know that their information was incomplete and often wrong.

The leaders in the Cuban missile crisis didn’t know either. They made assumptions about the others. Assumptions that were wrong. They saw each other as, well, “others”, not humans.  56 years ago, we were saved because one out of three Soviet submarine commanders wouldn’t/couldn’t agree to kill or hate despite the peer pressure of his  two fellow commanders.  One person was aware that he might not know.  Instead of acting on what he felt he “just knew”, he acted on the possibility that he just might not know. If you’re too young to remember the Cuban missile crisis, think about this. If that one Russian sub officer hadn’t dissented, you likely wouldn’t be here. Period. You’d never have been born.

We don’t know. The only way to for us to know more, to move forward, to keep this human race and planet alive and thriving is to talk, listen, and consider that maybe we don’t know it all right now. That means learning. And being open.

I don’t have Nancy’s ability to work with kids and adults about their traumas. But I’m going to keep working on open learning and being open to the possibility that we just don’t know it all.  It’s the only way we move forward.

Peace folks.  And tell each other you love them. Be a rock for another and let us build a peaceful world together.

jim

Who’s Zoomin’ Who?

How do you know that? Why do you think that?  How does that make any sense?  

I was a highly opinionated child with a lot of crazy ideas. But my Dad was patient. He never told me “that’s crazy” or “that’s wrong”.  Instead he usually greeted my pronouncements with some variation of those three questions and often he strung them together into a dialogue.  I’d answer and he’d ask the next question or repeat the first.  At some age, I don’t really recall when,  I began to internalize those questions and the resulting dialogue.  When I got to college I had the chance to study rhetoric and semantics. I added my own questions to his three.

Why these words? What do they want me to think/feel/do? Why are they saying this?

I guess these questions are what the education folks call “critical thinking”. What I know is that we’d be better off asking these questions when we read. I’ve been reading lots of stories, tweets, and posts about “fake news” websites and the need for improved “fact-checking” and digital literacy.  But I’m not too sure we’re getting at the problem. The problem is a lack of critical thinking as my Dad would have approached.  Instead, people seem to be emphasizing the following questions:

What are the “facts”? Is this true? Is this a “legitimate” news site? Should I trust this source? How do we filter out the “fake news”?

These are the wrong questions. They won’t lead to critical insight. They’ll only lead to more deception and propaganda.  I see two problems with these questions people are posing.

First, everything cannot be reduced to some “fact” status as either true or not true. I don’t want to get into some deep philosophical exploration of the nature of truth, I just want to point out any statement of the future  or intentions is inherently speculative and cannot be “fact checked”. All statements of policy intents are statements about the future.   A person can lie about their intents (and even lie to themselves) but it cannot be “fact checked”. The lie can only be challenged by building an argument of reasoning why the person should not be believed. Further the class of things that can be called “facts” includes only objectively verifiable things. Yet subjective things matter too. Feelings, preferences, and perceptions cannot be “fact-checked”. Culture is made of more feelings and perceptions than it is facts.

I could elaborate on the inadequacy of “fact-checking” and likely will in some future post, but right now I want to focus on the second issue: the problems involved in focusing on “legitimate” vs. “fake” news sites.  This isn’t really critical thinking at all. It’s a reliance on authority as the sole arbiter of truth. It’s actually the approach that says we don’t have to engage the actual message itself and critically think about it. This approach advises to divide the world into approved “legitimate” news sources, presumably nice establishment entities such as the New York Times, or Washington Post, or ABC/CBS/NBC/CNN.  I suppose whether Fox News qualifies depends on whether you’re Republican or Democrat.  But other sources are deemed suspicious and likely to be “fake”.  Folks, the problem isn’t whether the news publisher is “legit” it’s whether the news story itself is “legit”.  Big difference.

Let me use a story that has made the rounds in the last day or so.  The Washington Post published a story with the headline:
Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say

Almost instantly, the Twittersphere and blogosphere lit up with mostly unhappy Clinton supporters claiming this is the biggest news story and everybody is missing it.  And yet, the Washington Post site fails on all my Dad’s questions. There’s nothing really there. And when I ask myself about their semantics and ask myself “cui bono?” from this piece, I find it seriously lacking.  I don’t have to take it apart for you because Fortune magazine and journalist Caitlin Johnstone, quoting Glenn Greenwald, did it for me.  You can read for yourself:

Fortune:  Russian Fake News

Caitlyn Johnstone on Newslogue: Glenn Greenwald Just Beat The Snot Out Of Fake News Rag ‘The Washington Post’

(update 28Nov2016: An even better critical thinking take-down of the Washington Post article from William Black at New Economic Perspectives: The Washington Post’s Propaganda About Russian Propaganda )

I’ll reiterate what I’ve said on Twitter and FB.  We shouldn’t be calling out “fake news” sites. We shouldn’t even be calling out “fake news”.  We should call it what it is: propaganda.  Calling it “fake news” will mislead us and get all of us into trouble.  It leads to binary thinking: is this “true” or “fake”?  The problem is propaganda. The most effective propaganda is neither true nor fake. It contains at least some elements of truth or facts but uses rhetorical sleight of hand to get you to believe something you really don’t know. We used to call it spin, but I guess that’s gone out of style.

Let’s remember “legitimate” news sources can and often do deliver propaganda, “fake news” if you will, just as easily and even more effectively than any “fake news sites” spun up by some troll teenager in his basement.

I’m old enough to remember that the legitimate news sources delivered the news to us about Gulf of Tonkin incident and Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and anthrax.   Those were propaganda, “fake news”, spun up to work the nation up to war. They worked unfortunately and hundreds of thousands died. Indeed, the march to war is always accompanied by the whole hearted support of the merchants of death and the “legitimate” news sources.

Crying “Russians! Russians!” is dangerous. Accepting such stories uncritically is even more dangerous.  It allows people, especially establishment Democrats, to ignore their own culpability in creating this disaster of an impending Trump presidency. But even more dangerous is it feeds the war machine. We have a populace that wants to look elsewhere to blame their problems: Republicans want to blame Arabs, Muslims, and immigrants.  Now Democrats are crying to blame Russians.  That way lies madness. Let’s remember, when it comes to world wars, it’s three strikes and we’re all out.

So I humbly ask that we all ask ourselves as we read these days: Who’s zoomin’ here?

hat tip to the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin for the inspiration for the post.  Enjoy:

 

 

Doing the Write Thing

The past 4 weeks have been unsettling.   As above, so below.  At my school where I’ve spent 8 years heavily engaged in governance, planning, and accreditation work I’ve come under a severe personal and “political” attack that has put the open learning project I’ve decorative image of trees reflected in pond led at risk.  I didn’t see that coming.  Yet, three weeks ago I participated in my first Lilly Conference. I felt comfortable and surprisingly (to me) confident. I’ve never thought of myself as having much pedagogical expertise. I always thought I was just an economist, an unconscious competent when it came to teaching.  I started to realize that even though I don’t have any degree in “education”, I’ve got something to contribute and I feel comfortable with these “teaching experts”.

Then two weeks ago it was OpenEd16. I’ve already written about that. I found my people. Never have I have felt more at home with some academic group.  I went to OpenEd hoping to tell the story  of what we’ve done with open learning and a domains of one’s own project at my community college.  I seriously hoped to get a kind of “that’s a good job, there, little bro” from all these thought leaders and big research schools that pioneering this movement.  What I got was a welcome and interest as a peer – people thought I had something interesting to say.  My voice was welcomed. And it was welcomed on a stage much larger than I pictured. It’s an international stage.

And then election came day.  Trumpland.  I didn’t see that coming either, but in retrospect this week, I should have.   I’m still an economist. I teach not only macro principles, but econ history and comparative econ systems.  But I listened to pollsters instead of relying on my own analysis as economic historian.  So I’ve been deeply buried in trying to figure out what Trump + Republican congress means. How will things change.  How do I explain it.  And I’m trying to figure all that out while sorting out my own feelings of grief for my country and society and my realization that I have to help protect all those that are so threatened  by this coming new administration.  I am fortunate enough to be older, hetero, white married male. I am not as vulnerable as so many others are.  That’s a privilege.

But with great privilege comes great responsibility. 

So what to do?  I realize that I’ve let my blogging and writing languish in recent years as I got more and more involved in governance and politics inside the little campus where I work.  I got tied up in a silly anxiety over whether I should use this blog, which originally started as just explanations of economic news for my students and somehow gained some followers, or use a different platform for topics that weren’t directly economic analysis: open learning concepts, pedagogy, management and leadership of higher education, and just broader social commentary.  I realize I’ve let my voice get too quiet.  I also realize that while I don’t have all the answers,  I can offer some unique perspectives.  What’s felt like an unfocused jack-of-all-trades-not-expert-in-anything career with corporate planning, strategic & technology planning consulting, teaching economics, economic analysis, college governance, economic history,  rhetoric studies, and pedagogy might actually be an advantage.  I can connect dots that others can’t even see.  I’m also now in my sixties. I’ve seen many things those that are younger haven’t and were never taught.

So I hereby commit to write more.  I’m going to contribute my voice more and quit hesitating.  The role I’ve come to play on campus needs to step up to a larger stage where more across long distance can hear and where I can amplify their voices.

I’ve developed a bad case of blogstipation*.   Specifically, you the reader can expect more and more frequent posts about the following themes. I promise there will be more of not only the original reason for this blog,

  • More macro policy analysis – As we shift from Obama’s inadequate policies based on broken mainstream macroeconomic theories to Trump’s likely to be volatile and failed policies based on a free-market fantasy, there will be much to explain.

but also more about what I’m doing and experimenting with pedagogically.

  • Open Learning – the nuts and bolts of what I’m doing, what I (we) are learning about learning, and the odd insight

I now see that I these aren’t entirely different worlds of thought.  They’re connected.  So I’ve got some pieces in the works that make the big picture connections.

  • It’s the End of the World, except It’s Not.  Brexit. Trumpworld.  Putin. Europe seems to be turning to the right.  I read and hear way too much commentary that sees this as the end of the world but sees it in older 20th century right-left, free market capitalist vs. socialist, cold-war or WWII terms.  It is possibly the end of a dominant system in the West, but that system is globalized neo-liberalism (don’t reach the verdict yet, the Empire has yet to strike back).  That view also ignores the heavily colonized vast rest of the world. What comes next?  There’s a lot to talk about.
  • Sub-Prime US.  Gardner Campbell  planted this seed.  The financial crisis of 2007-09 that started in the U.S. with the sub-prime mortgage mess wasn’t an accident. It was a feature of the system and not bug.  When seen as part of a globalized, neo-liberal, hierarchical system, we see that sub-prime is a class thing.  The “student success” and “completion” agendas and efforts in higher education have much in common with Wall Street’s embrace of sub-prime mortgages.  The corporate restructurings and shift of the US economy from manufacturing to finance & entertainment is part of a class system: the blue-chip 1% and the elite-educated struggling to become the 1%, and the rest of us reduced to sub-prime status.  Sub-prime us.

But I also have ideas about how we can lead, react, and fix this mess.  I need to document and share these ideas so they can be pollinated.

  • Flipped College – How we manage, organize, and lead higher education must change.  Much has been made in recent years of the need to “flip” the college classroom (I hate the simplistic moniker BTW).  But the classroom pedagogy is but a reflection of the institution itself. If we don’t want the classroom to be top-down content-delivery, we have to flip the college itself away from top-down hierarchical structures and practices.
  • some more that I don’t have cute little names for yet.

Stay tuned.  I have work to do.

 

Do Markets Like Totalitarian Governments?

Food for thought.  We’ve been bombarded with messages for at least 20 years about how markets and democracy have triumphed. Central planning is dead.  Further we’re constantly told that democracy is “on the march” and totalitarian governments can’t survive.  The intellectual descendants of Milton Friedman and Hayek like to assert that markets promote freedom and democracy.  But do they really?  From Washington’s Blog here’s some stunning comments:

Head of World’s Largest Asset Manager: “Markets Like Totalitarian Governments”

Blackrock is the world’s largest investment manager.

As Wikipedia notes:

BlackRock is the largest g”lobal investment management firm headquartered in New York City. It is one of the most prominent financial institutions in the US. The company acquired Barclays Global Investors in December 2009 under the BlackRock name, making it the largest money manager in the world.

But BlackRock isn’t just the largest money manager … it is also the larges asset manager in the world.

As Wikipeda notes:

As of December 31, 2010, BlackRock’s assets under management total $3.56 trillion across equity, fixed income, alternative investments, real estate, risk management, and advisory strategies. Through BlackRock Solutions, it offers risk management, strategic advisory, and enterprise investment system services to a broad base of clients with portfolios totaling approximately $9 trillion.

And see this and this.

So it is stunning that Blackrock’s Chairman and CEO – Larry Fink – said on Bloomberg TV:

“Markets like totalitarian governments.”  (see here to watch the video)

Investors can determine whether a nation prospers or starves.

Investors can determine the course of nations, including who gets elected and who gets the boot.

No wonder there are so many totalitarian governments in the Middle East, North Africa and around the world.

No wonder totalitarianism has been creeping into America’s politics and economics. See this and this.

Because big investors (or at least big asset managers) like totalitarian governments. If they instead preferred democracy, democracy would flourish.

“Markets like totalitarian governments”.  It makes sense if by “markets” we really mean the collection of mega-wealthy managers and banks that control much of the world’s finance and money and then trade these paper obligations in the casinos and semi-rigged markets called “stock exchanges”, “funds”, and “banks”.  The things that the media refer to when they say “the markets did such and such today”.  It makes sense because such “investors” really crave certainty about the future and they abhor risk. Risk means uncertainty. In this sense totalitarian governments are a boon for such investors.  Totalitarian governments are more predictable, more amenable to whatever the mega-investors desire, and more controlling.  They’re about reducing future uncertainty.

Now the neo-classical/neo-liberal economic response will typically be that, no, markets are only about profit-maximization, not political control.  But there’s a hidden assumption in neo-liberal/neo-classical mainstream economics, an assumption for which we lack any evidence that it applies to the real world.  They assume that all profit-maximizing efforts are directed towards the profitable sale of more goods and services.  For most of us regular folks, getting richer means producing more and more valuable goods and services for the market. But the reality is that for the very elite, very wealthy, it’s not really about how to produce more. First, wealth is relative.  They already have most everything they can want in terms of goods and services. It’s now about status and ego. For that, absolute wealth is not important. Relative wealth is.  And there’s two ways to increase your relative wealth: make yourself richer, or ensure that others get poorer.  The other major objective of these very wealthy is protection of what they’ve got (see here for a description).  Either way, whether it’s ensuring a bigger piece of the existing pie or it’s protecting your existing assets, it’s more convenient to have pliable, very powerful government at your beck and call.  So, maybe “markets”, if you can call them that, do like totalitarian governments.

Of course, totalitarian governments in real-life tend to be very predictable for long stretches, but the end  is always unexpected and unpredicted. Witness recent events in Tunisia, Eqypt, and Libya.