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Sep 19 10

Mom & Me

by Editor

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

I had three big arguments with my mother this summer. Each was typical of our fights over global issues, driven by different perspectives on the world and people in it—but also connected by a broader theme that only became evident to me more recently, retrospectively.

We argued about environmental conservation, with the tragedy of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill as a backdrop. My mother argued her green credentials by claiming that she turns off the tap when she’s brushing her teeth. Now, my mother has been our family’s leader in environmental conservation, perhaps as a result of her northern California roots; this record, however, is mixed. Back in the late 1970s, we replaced an oversized American car (a now-classic Dodge Dart, probably circa 1972) with a diesel VW Rabbit. This same Rabbit was subsequently turned into a self-defeating tortoise with the addition of an AC unit; the compressor probably weighed a couple hundred pounds, enough to slow the car down and make the engine less efficient. A few years ago, Mom also passed on buying a Toyota Prius in favor of a Toyota Matrix, because of the price premium on the Prius. The Matrix is small and efficient, and my parents don’t drive a whole lot, so it wasn’t a huge shame. But for a woman who has been railing about the need for electric or hybrid cars since giving up the Rabbit back in 1982, it stung a bit to watch.

As we watched the BP spill helplessly, like so many other Americans, we also suffered through a tremendous heat wave all along the East Coast, also like many others. Over lunch or dinner in the gazebo—with the AC on in the farmhouse behind us—we argued over greenhouse gasses, the fragility of the planet, and the seeming impossibility of any individual having much of an impact on the environment. By that point in July, estimates of the flow out of the BP spill were running close to 60,000 barrels per day, or 2.5 million gallons; over the course of 90 days, that’s 225,000,000 gallons. I have no desire to minimize the scope of damage from the spill, but keep in mind that the Gulf of Mexico has about 660 quadrillion gallons (2.5 × 10^15 m3) of water. So to call the oil spill a drop in the bucket is terrifying in part because it is true—and at the same time because one can see the impact that a “drop” can have.

And so my mother declared she was doing her part by turning off the tap when she brushed her teeth. Easy to dismiss—and I did—as being an equivalent kind of drop in the bucket. We live in areas not known for having challenged water supplies, and reclining there in Massachusetts we were in fact drawing from our own artesian well. In contrast, the tailpipe emissions from the Toyota seem more damaging, as did running the window unit AC full-blast when the whole point of being in the country (even in the heat) is to get the fresh air.

Of course, that overlooks the impact of turning off the tap. If Mom saves (on a typical gallon/minute sink) a gallon of water a day, that’s 365 gallons a year. If every able-bodied American did this, we would save 36,500,000,000 gallons of water a year (assuming 100 million participants). Not bad, right? Maybe my mother should start a campaign. Moreover, I can concede that my mother has a point, I just wish it was a point with a greater impact or likely to capture anyone’s imagination.

In argument number two, my mother forwarded a manipulative e-mail from liberal activist group (and reflexive supporter of Democrats) MoveOn, urging people to boycott Target over their donation to a right-wing gubernatorial candidate in Minnesota. “We can’t let corporations like Target get away with trying to buy our elections,” went part of MoveOn’s message—though it’s OK, of course, for MoveOn to try to influence elections with similar kinds of financial support for candidates and party line issues. My mother and I fought over this in August, long after Target had officially and formally apologized, which (as the Los Angeles Times noted) still wasn’t enough for MoveOn.

I cannot defend Target’s political contribution in this case; I didn’t like it a all. Here’s the thing that really ticked me off, though: my mother doesn’t shop at Target. I am not sure she’s ever been inside one, and if she has, it was surely brief and not a trip of her own making. I do shop at Target—with two small kids, I cannot afford not to shop at places like Target—and indeed, consciously choose Target over WalMart because of the company’s generally better record as a philanthropist in a world that is important to me. Target is one of the largest national corporate supporters of the arts, and a visit to their website will show the wide scope of activities available at reduced (or no) cost as a result of their generosity. So while I support marriage rights for gays and lesbians (and, really, any other combination of consenting adults), and was not happy with Target’s donation, I also think it is important to look at the broader context. Not to mention that boycotting a store you already don’t shop at strikes me as the height of passive-aggressive activism. (Sorry, Mom.)

Finally, there’s the whole mortgage financing and capital markets disaster that the nation and the world have been living with for the last two-plus years. Our argument here was really simple: my mother blames greedy banks; I blame greedy banks, along with greedy borrowers and greedy investors and shareholders. Sure, the banks were greedy and manipulative and acted outside of the rules as much as possible. Certainly “risk assessment” became a lost part of the vocabulary, and they were looking at short-term gain not long-term success. But none of this works without homeowners who believed—against all logic!—that an interest-only mortgage was a good idea. Or without investors who had become oddly conditioned to double-digit financial returns, with no understanding of the potential risks, let alone a clue about what “paper profits” means. The libertarian-communitarian in me found my mother’s point of view naive and absurd: we all have to take some responsibility for this mess, because (like it or not) most of us were involved in one way or the other. Even our passive, psychological assumptions of “wealth” spurred greater spending and greater household debt. Never mind the political and financial implications of a host of ill-managed government programs, from our two foreign wars to Social Security. In a society governed by the rule of law, we cannot simply displace blame by always saying that someone offered us a deal that turned out to be too good to be true.

And here we are. But what became clear in all this is the degree to which both my mother and I, with our intrenched positions, are motivated by the same frustrations: an inability to have much of an impact, and a failure to see a way out of our country’s current problems. Whether it’s conservation or political influencers or the security of her retirement funds and mine, we clearly feel trapped—indeed, we are trapped. Nearly everything about United States policy on these issues is just place wrong. We penalize savings—pure, cash-in-the-bank savings—while incentivizing market-based savings that may or may not bear fruit. We (still) incentivize the sale of fuel-inefficient cars if only by not taxing gasoline heavily enough. We talk about public transport infrastructure investments, but until it costs significantly more to drive than to take the bus or light rail or subway, a majority of Americans will opt for their cars. And good god, the building janitors in New York City who are forever spraying good drinking water down the drain, via our sidewalks, well … at a minimum, the price of water—even in water-rich locations—should rise to the point where we tolerate such waste much less easily. (Just watch how fast an NYC co-op’s board would rule out sidewalk spraying if the price of water doubled.)

My mother and I are very different people. Her approach tends to favor an analysis of what is right in front of her, what has the most impact on her directly; so a more expensive car is just that, more expensive; water saved is just that, water saved. I tend to look for the underlying problems, and to push on a broader sense of personal and civic responsibility. So I don’t trust the Democrats any more than the Republicans, because they seem just as corrupt, once you get past the talking points—which means I dislike attempts at manipulation by organizations like MoveOn as much as come-ons from bankers.

But clearly, my mother and I are also more alike than it sometimes seems.

Sep 17 10

Take It When You Can

by Editor

I will happily take my validation where I can get it.  The September 11th, 2010, edition of The Economist included an article about the value of education to earnings, and the types of work that graduates end up with.  It included the following paragraph, along with an illustrative chart:

“The ‘education is good’ mantra does not work everywhere (see chart). In some countries many students have to be content with the intellectual rewards of

Education doesn't always help...

From The Economist. (Right above Poland - what a coup!)

study. In Spain, for example, 44% of college- and university-educated youngsters are working in low-skill jobs. America, Canada and Britain also have high shares of graduates working in jobs for which they are overqualified. In lucky Luxembourg hardly any graduates end up in menial jobs.” [The emphasis is mine.]

Yes, well … I’m big on this point, as readers of my column “The Jobs and Education Con Game” will surely recall.  I think we are kidding ourselves if we are not able to be more specific about the different kinds of education — and the different value they offer.  Not all jobs are created equal, neither are all forms of education, and there cannot possibly be a perfect and unwavering connection between simply having a college degree and higher earnings.  In the United States, where it is easy to get a college education but not necessarily easy to get a good college education, that point seems clear, and is underscored by The Economist‘s chart.

This should deter no one.  I believe in education for the sake of the mind.  But for the sake of the mind, let’s stop pretending that formal, higher “education” solves every problem.

Aug 25 10

Fans and Heroes

by Editor

I love NPR’s sports commentator Frank Deford: he’s comfortingly authoritative and commanding, in the way that newscasters mostly are not these days, even if he’s generally talking about a subject that does not interest me.

But my ears perked up this morning for Deford’s story “Who Can A Young Fan Look Up To? It’s Tough.”  It is not that I disagree with him — the current crop of sports stars are either bizarrely self-centered (Lebron) or have flamed out gloriously (Tiger, Ben), or simply faded a bit in the way that people do (Serena), — but to my mind, he did not go far enough in defining why a sports star should be a hero, or why a fan should care.

Yes, of course, someone playing professional sports owes their first allegiance to being good at their chosen sport.  At the same time, I think what defines a sports star as a star is when they surpass their own achievements as a player because they realize they can apply their success in more significant ways.  Jesse Owns, Jim Thorpe, Jackie Robinson, Billie Jean King, Larry Doby, Arthur Ashe, or Muhammad Ali?  Those players were stars, stars worthy of being heroes, because they surpassed their on-court mastery to have a tremendous and positive impact on our society (and in more ways than just providing fodder for the paparazzi).  Where are the 21st century versions of these players?  Missing, entirely, as a class of people it seems.

So, thanks, Mr. Deford, for reminding us of the failings and persistent fallibility of folks like Tiger Woods, and for the endless confusion of the news media who seem increasingly to need stars to guide their coverage of issues (navigational puns intended).  (And thanks, too, NPR, for two good sports stories this morning; for the record, I agree with Tim Layden that football would benefit from bringing back the running game.  Passing is boring!)  But, Mr. Deford, I think you missed an opportunity to call sports players to account, and to encourage them to seek out a higher purpose for their lives and even their sports.

Aug 18 10

Not My Messiah

by Editor

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

When I think about my co-religionists, I must admit that in less generous moments it is easy to dismiss some of them as members of a messianic cult. For many so-called “ultra-Orthodox” Jews, there is a kind of messianic fervor that exerts a definite pull on their behavior and views of the world, whether it’s the anti-Zionism of the Neturei Karta (I once attended a protest rally at which these folks, and some others who called themselves simply Satmars, received much abuse from other Jews) or the “presumed with assurance” Schneersonism of some Lubavitchers, or some of the settlers occupying Palestinian lands. We may all be Jewish, but their Judaism and mine differs in a variety of ways, not the least of which is their belief in the messiah as something more than an abstract concept.

Still, it was a bit of a shock to see current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quoted in a new article by Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic, saying: “You don’t want a messianic apocalyptic cult controlling atomic bombs”. Indeed, I do not want this, and for a brief second I thought Netanyahu was speaking about the prospect of Jews more Orthodox than he taking over the state of Israel. After all, this seems to be part of Orthodoxy’s official goal, if (for example) the hubbub around a new “conversion” bill is to be placed in a broader context.

Except that Netanyahu was talking about Iran, which is the focus of Goldberg’s story, an examination around a series of questions: Will Iran get the bomb? Will they use it against Israel, if they do? Will Israel attempt to stop them by preemptively attacking their nuclear installations? Will Israel succeed in setting back Iran’s plans, or only provoke a broader war? And is the US doing enough to act as a deterrent, both to Israel’s preemption and Iran’s nuclear ambitions?

The problem is that the two-thirds of the article takes the view that Iran is motivated by an instinctive, unyielding anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, driven by this “messianic apocalyptic” view of the world—in contrast to the people of Israel, who have no such crazy beliefs and are not at all driven by some sense that they have a greater, grander, theologically inspired destiny.

I should not really be so surprised. Whatever Goldberg’s strengths as a security analyst, he also tends to be an apologist for Israel (or, more nicely put, an unapologetic supporter of Israel). With that statement, let me be clear about two things: first, I support Israel’s right to exist and to defend itself. Second, I support containment of nuclear weapons, and I have no desire to see Iran acquire them. However, I object to a journalistic presentation (even under the guise of some kind of analysis) that simply presupposes that some people or nations are inherently good, and other people are inherently evil, and that seeks to ignore evident ambiguities or contradictions. Or put another way: in Goldberg’s view, it is acceptable for Israel to insist on its policy of opacity around its own nuclear weaponry—this is just a clever playing of politics, nothing more, and no greater honesty is needed—but Iran’s “official” anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism absolutely must be taken at face value and cannot be viewed as political theater or the means to distract a beleaguered populace from oppression closer to home.

Parts of the article are more honest, such as when Goldberg presents an anonymous Israeli view with a different perspective. He writes: “Israeli policy makers do not necessarily believe that Iran, should it acquire a nuclear device, would immediately launch it by missile at Tel Aviv. ‘On the one hand, they would like to see the Jews wiped out,’ one Israeli defense official told me. ‘On the other hand, they know that Israel has unlimited reprisal capability’—this is an Israeli euphemism for the country’s second-strike nuclear arsenal—‘and despite what Rafsanjani and others say, we think they know that they are putting Persian civilization at risk.’”

I agree with this view, and I have written before that I do not believe that Iran will bomb Israel, or that the US will bomb Iran. Iran can be remarkably pragmatic, as even Goldberg acknowledges in describing how they play the game around international sanctions. So, again: it is offensive that Goldberg presents the broader contours of this dynamic in such a way that there is an unchallenged sense that Iran’s motivations are irrational, while Israel’s are eminently and obviously the opposite.

The problem with any kind of messianism, whether Jewish, Christian, or Islamic, is that it leaves little room for genuine discussion or debate. But it can just as easily be said that messianism is a problem equally in all three faiths. After all, the entire premise behind an uncompromising view of keeping the occupied land of the West Bank is based on a Biblical, messianic view of Judaism, Israel, and that land. Every other justification, including security concerns, could be negotiated in a settlement; it is only the religiously held views that cannot be swayed by other outcomes. Similarly, look no further than the messianic strain within Christian Zionism (the root of much contemporary American support for Israel). Some Christians believe that supporting Israel and the return of Jews to Israel is essential for the ultimate return of Jesus Christ and the arrival of the “rapture.” Just Google “Christian Zionism,” and you cannot miss it. The hypocrisy here from an Israeli perspective—or even that of an American Jewish one, since we not only tolerate but encourage these Christian Zionists in their support for Israel—is clear and unambiguous: they are “our” messianists, so it’s all ok, and anyway, we don’t believe that the rapture presents much of a threat to us.

Iran on the other hand…