Sunday, December 15, 2013

5 Reasons Why 2013 was the Best Year in Human History

5 Reasons why 2013 was the best year in human history - a quick summary of an article at
  1. Fewer people are dying young, and more are living longer.
  2. Fewer people suffer from extreme poverty, and the world is getting happier.
  3. War is becoming rarer and less deadly.
  4. Rates of murder and other violent crimes are in free-fall.
  5. There’s less racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination in the world.
While this is a good list, I suspect it's incomplete. What else would you add to it? For example, in 2013 there were probably more scientists working to solve more of the world's problems than during any year in history. Other thoughts?

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Introduction to Complexity

This is a re-offering of our popular "Introduction to Complexity" course, with some new material, homework, and exams.

In this course you'll learn about the tools used by scientists to understand complex systems. The topics you'll learn about include dynamics, chaos, fractals, information theory, self-organization, agent-based modeling, and networks. You’ll also get a sense of how these topics fit together to help explain how complexity arises and evolves in nature, society, and technology. There are no prerequisites. You don't need a science or math background to take this introductory course; it simply requires an interest in the field and the willingness to participate in a hands-on approach to the subject.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Effects of Climate Change on Austin and Central Texas

Don't miss The Effects of Climate Change on Austin and Central Texas.
Date: 15 Oct 2013 6:00 PM
Marie Callendar's Restaurant 9503 Research Blvd. Austin, TX 78759
We intent to offer a series of topics covering the future of Austin and Central Texas this year. This month's meeting will be on the the future effects of climate change on Austin and Central Texas in the context of predicted global conditions.  The latest IPCC report on climate change came out just last week, making this a very timely meeting.  Carl Berman will present a talk on this topic, followed by a group discussion. 
Gathering will start at 6pm, with the presentation starting around 7pm.  This is a dinner meeting, with a charge of $20 for members, and $25 for non-members to cover the cost of the dinner and group expenses. 

Carl Berman's biography:
Carl spent 5 years in the US Navy and 25 Years in the NOAA Corps, working as an oceanographer and fisheries biologist for the US Government. He received his Ph.D. in Marine Science from the College of William and Mary in 1983 while on active duty. During this time he served on three ships, the last of which was the ALBATROSS IV which he commanded, and as a project manager with the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (of UNESCO), in Paris. Carl Berman's on-line teaching activities include marine biology, general biology, meteorology, geology, environmental change, physical science, and computer science. He has also serve as an in-class lecturer for biology, geology, polar history, and physics. In addition, Carl presented several talks on Polar Exploration to the Life Long Learning Program at the University of Texas. He married Joyce Gioia, a professional speaker and Futurist, in December of 2009. They live in Austin, TX. Carl's interests include RV travel, reading, cooking, music, photography, writing, and riding his "trike."

Please be sure to go online to register for 
The Effects of Climate Change on Austin and Central Texas

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Our Future in Cities

Humanity's future is the future of cities. Explore the crowded favelas, greened-up blocks and futuristic districts that could shape the future of cities -- and take a profane, hilarious side trip to the suburbs.

Stewart Brand: What squatter cities can teach us

Majora Carter: Greening the ghetto

Jaime Lerner: A song of the city

Robert Neuwirth: The hidden world of shadow cities

William McDonough: Cradle to cradle design

Alex Steffen: The shareable future of cities

Paul Romer: Why the world needs charter cities

Kent Larson: Brilliant designs to fit more people in every city

James Howard Kunstler: The ghastly tragedy of the suburbs

A series of nine videos from TED. Clock here to see the whole set or select the ones you want to watch.

Inequality for All

This week marks both the fifth anniversary of the fiscal meltdown that almost tanked the world economy and the second anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, the movement that sparked heightened public awareness of income inequality. Yet the crisis is worse than ever – in the first three years of the recovery, 95 percent of the economic gains have gone only to the top one percent of Americans. And the share of working people in the U.S. who define themselves as lower class is at its highest level in four decades.
More and more are fighting back. According to Robert Reich, Bill Clinton’s secretary of labor: “The core principle is that we want an economy that works for everyone, not just for a small elite. We want equal opportunity, not equality of outcome. We want to make sure that there’s upward mobility again, in our society and in our economy.”
This week, Reich joins Moyers & Company to discuss a new documentary film, Inequality for All, opening next week in theaters across the country. Directed by Jacob Kornbluth, the film aims to be a game-changer in our national discussion of income inequality. Reich, who Time magazine called one of the best cabinet secretaries of the 20th century, stars in this dynamic, witty and entertaining documentary.
A professor at the University of California Berkeley, Reich is the author of thirteen books, including The Work of Nations, which is available in 22 languages; Aftershock and Supercapitalism, which were best sellers; and his latest, Beyond Outrage: What Has Gone Wrong with Our Economy and our Democracy, and How to Fix It. He appears regularly on television and radio – you can hear him on public radio’s Marketplace – and blogs about politics and economics at

American Winter

The idea that certain historic events are cyclical in a central theme in future studies. Nicolai Kondratiev and Strauss & Howe likened this dynamic to the seasons. What generational theorists Strauss & Howe call the Fourth Turning or ‘Crisis’ era is also known as a Kondratiev winter. In other words, a season characterized by decline rather than growth. 

The depression of the 1930s was the last time the country was at this turning. Childhood poverty, one of the most pressing generational problems now in our Crisis/ Kondratiev winter is explored in a recent documentary timely called American Winter.

When in the wealthiest country in the world, between 1/4 and 1/5 of the total child population lives in poverty, it affects a whole generation, even most of the 3/4 who are not poor. Because in this one-strike-and-you’re-out reality everyone but a few financially secure people are just one paycheck, one mortgage payment or one recession away from personal disaster. And if you don’t live in a permanent zen bubble, that knowledge will eat at your nerve endings.

Please watch the trailer below. It will tug at your heartstrings and wet your eyes, but this is more than exaggerated cinematography. It’s actually true for very many families who are falling out of the middle class and into an uncertain future. If you don’t have time to watch the full clip, the dire message here comes about 1:23 minutes in.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Summary of The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change By Al Gore

This a brief summary of the book that was the basis of the talk given by Al Gore on C-Span. You can view the video here. I hope to continue our discussion that began after the group watched the video.

Ours is a time of revolutionary change that has no precedent in recent history. With the same passion he brought to the challenge of climate change, and with his decades of experience on the front lines of global policy, Al Gore surveys our planet’s beclouded horizon and offers a sober, learned, and ultimately hopeful forecast in the visionary tradition of Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock and John Naisbitt’s Megatrends. In The Future, Gore identifies six emerging forces that are reshaping our world:

  • Earth Inc.: Ever-increasing economic globalization has led to the emergence of an integrated holistic entity with a new and different relationship to capital, labor, consumer markets, and national governments than in the past.
  • The Global Mind: The worldwide digital communications, Internet, and computer revolutions have led to the emergence of “the Global Mind,” which links the thoughts and feelings of billions of people and connects intelligent machines, robots, ubiquitous sensors, and databases.
  • Power in the Balance: The balance of global political, economic, and military power is shifting more profoundly than at any time in the last five hundred years—from a U.S.-centered system to one with multiple emerging centers of power, from nation-states to private actors, and from political systems to markets.
  • Outgrowth: A deeply flawed economic compass is leading us to unsustainable growth in consumption, pollution flows, and depletion of the planet’s strategic resources of topsoil, freshwater, and living species.
  • The Reinvention of Life and Death: Genomic, biotechnology, neuroscience, and life sciences revolutions are radically transforming the fields of medicine, agriculture, and molecular science—and are putting control of evolution in human hands.
  • The Edge: There has been a radical disruption of the relationship between human beings and the earth’s ecosystems, along with the beginning of a revolutionary transformation of energy systems, agriculture, transportation, and construction worldwide.

From his earliest days in public life, Al Gore has been warning us of the promise and peril of emergent truths—no matter how “inconvenient” they may seem to be. As absorbing as it is visionary, The Future is a map of the world to come, from a man who has looked ahead before and been proven all too right.

The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change, Al Gore, Random House, 2013, 558pp
Web Site:

Friday, September 13, 2013

A Poet's View of Complexity

A poet's view of complexity:
"Nature gives us shapeless shapes
Clouds and waves and flame
But human expectation
Is that love remains the same
And when it doesn't
We point our fingers
And blame blame blame"
Paul Simon, You're the One

And it's not just love where we look for blame. Almost all human systems are complex systems, and looking for a cause in them is fruitless.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Map of America's Future: Where Growth Will Be Over the Next Decade

The world's biggest and most dynamic economy derives its strength and resilience from its geographic diversity. Economically, at least, America is not a single country. It is a collection of seven nations and three quasi-independent city-states, each with its own tastes, proclivities, resources and problems. These nations compete with one another--the Great Lakes loses factories to the Southeast, and talent flees the brutal winters and high taxes of the city-state New York for gentler climes--but, more important, they develop synergies, albeit unintentionally. Wealth generated in the humid South or icy northern plains benefits the rest of the country; energy flows from the Dakotas and the Third Coast of Texas and Louisiana; and even as people leave the Northeast, the brightest American children continue to migrate to this great education mecca, as well as those of other nations.
The idea isn't a new one--the author Joel Garreau first proposed a North America of "nine nations" 32 years ago--but it's never been more relevant than it is today, as America's semi-autonomous economic states continue to compete, cooperate ... and thrive. Click on the thumbnail of our map to see our predictions for the job, population and GDP growth of these 10 regional blocks over the next decade, and read on below for more context.
Click here for article.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Conscious Capitalism Austin Chapter

Conscious Capitalism Austin Chapter - Soft Launch Event

On Monday, September 9th we will be having our Austin Chapter Soft Launch Event & Happy Hour at an Austin Conscious Business - Banger's Sausage House & Beer Garden.

To learn more and sign up for the event you can visit our Facebook Page.

Date: September 9, 2013
Place: Banger's Sausage House & Beer Garden, 79 Rainy Street, Austin, TX 78701
Time: 5-7 pm – with Happy hour specials and BYOD (Bring Your Own Dog). Enjoy half-off all pints

The Austin Chapter of Conscious Capitalism exists to cultivate happiness and to inspire Austin's best business leaders to fulfill Conscious Capitalism. Come have a beer and learn about this movement that shapes purpose-based business and creates value for all. Help us generate our chapter's vision and get involved!

For more information on Conscious Capitalism go to You may have also heard about this movement in the book, Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business.

I hope you can join us and please feel free to forward to all those friends and contacts in your professional network that you think would like to learn more about Conscious Business and the Conscious Capitalism Movement in Austin.

Doing the Innovation Mash

Austin Chapter American Creativity Association
What: SALON evening and gourmet meal experience with Gregg Fraley, Creativity Consultant in England and US, and Cordon Bleu Chef Roger Chan 

Topic: “Doing the Innovation Mash”

When: 6:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., Monday, September 9, 2013

RSVP: by Sunday, September 8th, 2013 to

Where: 1510 Falcon Ledge Drive, Austin, TX 78746

Bring: $10 to throw in the pot for the main course. Additional potluck item optional, and a drink to share. Everyone helps Chef Roger cook shared gourmet meal.

Fraley is a writer, speaker, and consultant in the areas of trends, innovation, and commercial creativity. In 2010, while resident in the UK, he co-founded KILN, a London based firm offering innovation services, and, the trend-based “IdeaKeg” subscription system. IdeaKeg uses trend mash-ups with business challenges to incite breakthrough ideas. KILN sells products and services to clients in Europe and North America. His business novel on creative process, Jack’s Notebook, features on reading lists from the University of California at Berkeley to Cambridge’s Judge Business School. He’s also a noted blogger in the innovation space.

An early career in broadcasting saw him winning an Emmy-award at Warner Cable’s QUBE, where he also earned a cable ACE Award for innovation. After broadcasting Gregg had an entrepreneurial career in the software industry. He was a founder of Advanced Health/Med-E-Systems, and helped design the first wireless prescription system for physicians. Advanced Health went public in 1996. He currently resides in Three Oaks, Michigan, USA.

The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change - An Overview and Group Discussion.

Date: 17 Sep 2013 6:00 PM 
Location: Marie Callendar's Restaurant 9503 Research Blvd. Austin, TX 78759
Welcome back from vacation to the first meeting of the Central Texas Chapter of the World Future Society for the fall season.  
Al Gore recently published a book titled "The Future: Six Drivers of Global Chang".  It is NOT focused on climate change, but on a larger set of future trends and issues that we are facing.  To quote from a review: 
"Ours is a time of revolutionary change that has no precedent in history. With the same passion he brought to the challenge of climate change, and with his decades of experience on the front lines of global policy, Al Gore surveys our planet’s beclouded horizon and offers a sober, learned, and ultimately hopeful forecast"
We originally wanted to do a book review and discussion, but who better to give the book overview than Al Gore himself?  We weren't able to obtain Al Gore for the next meeting, but we did obtain a video of him giving an insightful and entertaining overview of his book.  We will watch the video during dinner, followed by a lively group discussion afterwards.  This should be a fun and relaxing way to start of the new year for our chapter. 
Best regards, 

Central Texas Chapter of the World Future Society

Please be sure to go online to register for The Future: Six Drivers of Global Chang - An Overview and Group Discussion 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

America's Gilded Capital

Mark Leibovich covers Washington, D.C., as chief national correspondent for The New York Times Magazine. In his new book, This Town, he writes about the city’s bipartisan lust for power, cash and notoriety. It’s the story of how Washington became an occupied city; its hold on reality distorted by greed and ambition. Leibovich pulls no punches, names names, and reveals the movers, the shakers and the lucrative deals they make — all in the name of crony capitalism.

Big Debt on Campus

As our public education goes, so goes our country. From Mother Jones, September, 2013

Monday, August 26, 2013

Thinking Critically

Frank Smith in his book To Think refers to the work of Ennis[1] in determining attributes of critical thinking: Grasping the meaning of a statement and judging whether 
  •  there is ambiguity in a line of reasoning 
  •   certain statements contradict each other 
  •  a conclusion necessarily follows 
  •  a statement is specific enough 
  •  a statement is actually the application of a certain principle 
  •  an observation statement is reliable 
  •  an inductive[2] conclusion is warranted
  • the problem has been identified  
  •  something is an assumption 
  •  a definition is adequate 
  •  a statement made by an alleged authority is acceptable
Ennis defines critical thinking as “determining the authenticity, accuracy, and worth of information or knowledge claims.”[3]

Smith basically thinks that critical thinking is not a skill, but a disposition and requires knowledge of the subject and the authority to think critically, even if that is granted by the person doing the thinking.

“Critical and creative thinking may be viewed academically as unique mental activities, in which individuals can be deficient, but the elements of thinking critically and creatively are in everyone's behavioral and cognitive repertoire. People may often not appear to be thinking critically or creatively because they are often not in situations that permit or call for criticism or creativity, or because they are not disposed to behave critically or creatively in such situations. This does not mean that some individuals are totally incapable of thinking critically or creatively, or that they lack training. It is just that they are not thinking in those ways, for one reason or another.”

He explains further:

“If critical thinking is not a unique set of skills, if it is essentially something that everyone is capable of, that everyone does in some measure all the time, why does critical thinking-or its apparent absence attract such attention? I have a few more remarks to make about specific knowledge[4], which is at the heart of the ability to be a critical thinker. But there are two other factors to take into account in explaining why some people might not appear to be as critical in their thought as they might be. One of them I have briefly alluded to already, the matter of disposition[5]. The other is more contentious-the extent to which anyone is allowed to be a critical thinker. In other words-how serious all this talk about critical thinking is in the first place.”

The author expands his comments on knowledge:

“Critical thinking does not demand a complex array of learned skills, but competence in whatever you are thinking about. If you understand cooking, you can be critical of the way a meal is prepared. If you are an experienced football fan, you can criticize a football game. If you are a particular kind of engineer, you can criticize the way a bridge or a ship has been built. If you are unable to do any of these things, it will not be because you lack essential critical thinking skills, but because you lack the essential experience. You do not know enough.”

He concludes that critical thinking is a disposition – “a tendency to behave in particular ways on particular occasions.” “Critical thinking is an attitude, a frame of mind.” “…reflective skepticism – the judicious suspension of assent, a readiness to consider alternative explanations, not taking anything for granted when it might be reasonable to doubt.”

“Critical thinking reflects the way we perceive the world; its concern is not with the solution of "problems" but with the recognition of prejudices and biases-including our own. The beginning must be the old Greek adage ‘Know yourself.’"

“Critical thinkers are often not popular. The right to engage in critical thought is not distributed equally, especially in hierarchical, authoritarian, and bureaucratic societies. You could lose your job or your promotion, or your colleagues might find you less agreeable to work with.”

“Critical thinkers are critical; they are argumentative and unsettling; they rock the boat. They can have difficulty treading the line between constructive inquiry and nitpicking trouble-making. They may not always be comfortable to know.”

He closes the chapter with this admonition:

“Critical thinkers must not only reason, they must give reasons; they must not only evaluate arguments, they must argue. They must recognize, and engage in, techniques of persuasion. Effective critical thought is largely a rhetorical[6] exercise. Uncritical passivity in thought and expression go hand in hand.
There is no doubt that the world could do with much more critical thinking. If critical thinking leads to better judgments, fewer problems, and happier consequences, then it is not just children and youth that are in need. It is unlikely that they will become better thinkers by uncritically emulating adults. The development of critical thinking requires a major shift across the generations, and the basis of that shift-if it is not to be catastrophic-must be through language.”

To Think, Frank Smith, Teachers College Press, 1990, 181 pp

Read my summary of To Think at:

[1] Ennis, Robert H. (1962). A Concept of Critical Thinking, Harvard Educational Review, 32 (1), 82 -83
[2] Inductive reasoning (as opposed to deductive reasoning) is reasoning in which the premises seek to supply strong evidence for (not absolute proof of) the truth of the conclusion. While the conclusion of a deductive argument is supposed to be certain, the truth of an inductive argument is supposed to be probable, based upon the evidence given. Wikipedia
[3] The author never mentions the ability to perceive when someone is lying. I think that this needs to be covered specifically and will do so in a separate article.
[4] Knowledge is a familiarity with someone or something, which can include information, facts, descriptions, or skills acquired through experience or education. It can refer to the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject. It can be implicit (as with practical skill or expertise) or explicit (as with the theoretical understanding of a subject); it can be more or less formal or systematic. In philosophy, the study of knowledge is called epistemology; the philosopher Plato famously defined knowledge as "justified true belief." However, no single agreed upon definition of knowledge exists, though there are numerous theories to explain it. Knowledge acquisition involves complex cognitive processes: perception, communication, association and reasoning; while knowledge is also said to be related to the capacity of acknowledgment in human beings. Wikipedia
[5] A disposition is a habit, a preparation, a state of readiness, or a tendency to act in a specified way. Wikipedia
[6] Rhetoric is the art of discourse, an art that aims to improve the capability of writers or speakers that attempt to inform, persuade, or motivate particular audiences in specific situations. As a subject of formal study and a productive civic practice, rhetoric has played a central role in the Western tradition. Its best known definition comes from Aristotle, who considers it a counterpart of both logic and politics, and calls it "the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion." Rhetorics typically provide heuristics for understanding, discovering, and developing arguments for particular situations, such as Aristotle's three persuasive audience appeals, logos, pathos, and ethos. The five canons of rhetoric, which trace the traditional tasks in designing a persuasive speech, were first codified in classical Rome: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. Along with grammar and logic (or dialectic), rhetoric is one of the three ancient arts of discourse. From Ancient Greece to the late 19th century, it was a central part of Western education, filling the need to train public speakers and writers to move audiences to action with arguments.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Critical Thinking Class

A course of DVDs and discussions. Lectures delivered by Steven Novella in a series called "Your Deceptive Mind" Part 1 covers lectures 1-14 and Part 2 (a separate course) covers 15-24.
Tentative schedule below (subject to change)
Your Deceptive Mind with Steven Novella
Fall 2013
Part 1 (7 classes)
Sep 12  Class 1: The Necessity of Thinking about Thinking and The Neuroscience of Belief
Sep 19  Class 2: Errors of Perception and Flaws and Fabrications of Memory
Sep 26  Class 3: Pattern Recognition – Seeing What’s Not There and Our Constructed Reality
Oct 3  Class 4: The Structure and Purpose of Argument and Logic and Logical Fallacies
Oct 10 Class 5: Heuristics and Cognitive Biases and Poor at Probability – Our Innate Innumeracy
Oct 17  Class 6: Toward Better Estimates of What’s Probable and Culture and Mass Delusions
Oct 24 Class 7: Philosophy and Presuppositions of Science and Science and the Supernatural
Part 2 (5 classes)
Nov 7  Class 1: Varieties and Quality of Scientific Evidence and Great Scientific Blunders
Nov 14  Class 2: Science vs. Pseudoscience and The Many Kinds of Pseudoscience
Nov 21  Class 3: The Trap of Grand Conspiracy Thinking and Denialism – Rejecting Science and History
Dec 5  Class 4: Marketing, Scams, and Urban Legends and Science, Media, and Democracy
Dec 12  Class 5: Experts and Scientific Consensus and Critical Thinking and Science in Your Life
Cost is $20 for either part and $30 for both. $5 for a single class.

For more information go to

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Two American Families: Complexity At Work?

It’s a central premise of the American dream: If you’re willing to work hard, you’ll be able to make a living and build a better life for your children. But what if working hard isn’t enough to ensure success — or even the basic necessities of daily life?

FRONTLINE’s Two American Families follows two ordinary families who have spent the past 20 years in an extraordinary battle to keep from sliding into poverty.

The film, a collaboration with veteran PBS journalist Bill Moyers, who has followed the Stanleys and the Neumanns over the years, raises unsettling questions about the changing nature of the American economy and the fate of a declining middle class.

“He will not be able to see the retirement, you know, that he probably would hope for when he was working at A.O. Smith,” say Keith Stanley, the son of Claude Stanley who was laid off from a steady, good paying job in the early ’90s. “That’s just not a reality. My heart goes out to that generation that was promised something from America, by America, that they would have a better life and that’s not the case anymore.”

Here's my comments on the structural change and the implications if the system that changed is a complex system in a critical state. Click to listen.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The American Economy Is Eroding the American Job

"Left to its own devices, the American economy is eroding the American job. Hours decline, dragging take-home pay down with them. The identity of the boss becomes mystified, much to the boss’s advantage. A government commitment to full employment, backed up by the public investment required to create it, would bolster not just the quantity but also the quality of our jobs. Republicans are dead set against that, however, and most Democrats appear to have abandoned the fight. So much for the American job." Harold Meyerson

Monday, July 22, 2013

The State of America's Middle Class

 The following was taken from "The State of America's Middle Class in Eight Charts" by Jason Breslow and Evan Wexler, Frontline, PBS. Click here for charts and article.

Wages are down

Middle class incomes have shrunk 8.5 percent since 2000, after enjoying mostly steady growth during the previous decade. In 2011, the average income for the middle 60 percent of households stood at $53,042, down from $58,009 at the start of the millennium.

Less income for the middle class

Partly as a result of lower pay, the middle class’s share of the nation’s total income has been falling. In 1980, the middle 60 percent of households accounted for 51.7 of the country’s income. By 2011, they were less than half. Meanwhile, the top fifth of households saw their slice of the national income grow 16 percent, to 51.1 percent from 44.1 percent.

Union positions are shrinking

One factor behind the decline in income has been a drop-off in the number of workers earning union salaries. In 2012, the median salary for a unionized worker stood at roughly $49,000. The median pay for their non-union counterparts was just shy of $39,000. Since 1983, however, the share of the population belonging to a labor union has gone from one-in-five workers to just over one-in-ten.

More workers stuck in part-time jobs

A second factor weighing down pay is the rise in the number of Americans stuck in part-time jobs. In 2012, more than 2.5 million Americans worked part-time jobs because they could not find a full-time position, the most since 1993.

Fewer jobs from U.S.-based multinationals

Part of the challenge for job seekers is that U.S. multinational corporations having been hiring less at home. These large, brand-name firms employ roughly a fifth of American workers, but from 1999 to 2008 they shed 2.1 million jobs in the U.S. while adding more than 2.2 million positions abroad.

Rising debt

Predictably, the economic pressures facing the middle class have left families deeper in debt. . In 1992, the median level of debt for the middle third of families stood at $32,200. By 2010, that figure had swelled to $84,000, an increase of 161 percent.

Families are saving less

The rise in debt has meant fewer families have the ability to put away money for things like retirement or a child’s tuition bills. In 2001, more than two-thirds of middle class families said they were able to save money in the preceding year. By 2010, that figure was below 55 percent.

Net worth has plunged

The impact on family net worth — the amount by which assets exceed liabilities — has been painful. In 2007, median net worth peaked at $120, 600. Then came the financial crisis, which pushed millions of Americans into joblessness and home foreclosure. By 2010, net worth had plummeted 36 percent, to $77,300.

Friday, July 19, 2013

First Democracy

I really enjoyed this book, and I want to thank Paul Woodruff for making this academic research accessible. I think we need a lot more of this right now. We are in a time period of radical change, when much of what we accepted as “truth” is shifting out from under our feet. During times of great change, it’s wise to relearn the basics. Who are we? What are we all about? And, where do we want to go?

Woodruff opens his introduction with, “Democracy is a beautiful idea – government by and for the people. Democracy promises us the freedom to exercise out highest capacities while it protects us from our worst tendencies. In democracy as it ought to be, all adults are free to chime in, to join the conversation on how they should arrange their life together. And no one is left free to enjoy the unchecked power that leads to arrogance and abuse.

Like many beautiful ideas, however, democracy travels through our minds shadowed by its doubles – bad ideas that are close enough to easily mistaken for the real thing. Democracy has many doubles, but the most seductive is majority rule, and this is not democracy. It is merely government by and for the majority.”

So Woodruff goes back to the first democracy – the ancient Athenians. He traces the development of the first democracy and describes its principles. Voting, majority rule, and elected representatives are generally accepted ideas in American democracy, but they were not part of the first democracy.

“These three doubles are not democracy. Voting is not, by itself, democratic. Majority rule is positively undemocratic. And, elected representation makes for serious problems in democracy. I have begun to say what democracy is not. Can I give a positive account?

Democracy is government by and for the people. That is hardly a definition, but it will do for a start. As a next step, I shall propose that a government is a democracy insofar as it tries to express the seven ideas of this book: freedom from tyranny, harmony, the rule of law, natural equality, citizen wisdom, reasoning without knowledge, and general education.”

The tools of the first democracy are unique to the time, culture and size of Athens:

Legal system: No professional judges or prosecutors. Any citizen could bring charges against another, and any citizen could serve on panels of judges that correspond to both our judges and juries.

Governing body: The Assembly consisted of the first 6,000 men to arrive at the Pnyx (a hillside not far from the Acropolis)

Checks on majority rule: The powers of the assembly were limited by law.

Lottery: The lottery, chosen equally fro the ten tribes, was used for juries, for Council of the 500, and for the legislative panel.

Elections: Some important positions were filled by election, especially those that required expert knowledge in military or financial affairs.

Accountability: On leaving office, a magistrate would have his record examined in a process called euthunai (setting things straight)

Woodruff describes the progression of ideas that preceded the Athenian democracy. Then he devotes a chapter to each of principles of the first democracy:

Freedom from Tyranny: “Tyrant (tyrannos) was not always a fearful word, and freedom (eleutheria) was not always associated with democracy. The two shifts in ideas were gradual and simultaneous. By the time democracy was mature, Athenians at least knew what they meant by tyranny – a kind of rule to be avoided at all costs. And, in contract to that, they knew what they meant by freedom. These two ideas we have inherited. And they are priceless.” Woodruff writes. “No one sleeps well in tyranny,” he continues. “Because the tyrant knows no law, he is a terror to his people. And, he lives in terror of his people, because he has taught them to be lawless. The fear he instills in others is close cousin to the fear he must live with himself, for the violence by which he rules could easily be turned against him.” He warns that democracy itself can be come tyrannical, the tyranny of the majority, “…democracy could be come a tyranny of hoi polloi, literally, of the many.” In Athens this became to mean the poor who banded together, acting as tyrants, supporting the interests of the poor over the rich. This led to a two party system, as the rich banded together to form the party of the few (hoi oligoi), the oligarchs. “If the people’s party went too far towards tyranny, then the oligarchs plotted civil war. If the oligarchs succeeded in gaining power, then, the people’s party would withdraw to plot their own violent return.” The Athenians recognized this oscillation and came to agreements to limit the rise of tyranny.

Harmony: “Without harmony there is no democracy.” Woodson comments. “What would government FOR the people mean if the people are so badly divided that there is nothing they want together? Without harmony the government rules in the interests of one group at the expense of another. If harmony fails, many people have no reason to take part in government; others conclude that they must achieve their goals outside of democratic politics altogether; or, violence, or even the threat of terror.”
The Rule of Law (Nomos): “When law is the ruler, no one is above the law. This seems like an idea that everyone would welcome, but in truth if has had many enemies, and still does. Individuals are always looking for ways to put themselves or their government above the law. Big business seeks endless protections against the law, world leaders scoff at international law, and ordinary citizens see nothing wrong with obstructing justice.”

Natural Equality: “James Madison did not believe in the equality of the rich and poor, and so he and other founders of the United States Constitution made sure that the rich would have greater power than the poor. Voters would have to show that they enjoyed a certain level of wealth. Not so in democratic Athens. Penniless citizens – and there were many of these – insisted that they should be free to take part in their government. They went to battle for this. And they won.”

Citizen Wisdom: “In First Democracy, ordinary people were asked to use their wisdom to pass judgment on their leaders.” Woodruff concludes, “…the heart of democracy is the idea that ordinary people have the wisdom to govern themselves.”

Reasoning Without Knowledge: “Reasoning without knowledge is essential in government,” he writes. “Doing it well requires open debate. Doing it poorly is the fault of leaders who silence opposition, conceal the basis of their reasoning, or pretend to an authority that does not belong to them.”

Education (Paideia): “Paideia is the lifeblood of democracy,” he writes. “…paideia should give a citizen the wisdom to judge what he is told by people who do claim to be experts. So we should call it super-expert-education.”

Woodruff concludes the book with an afterword entitled Are Americans Ready for Domocracy? wherein he takes each of the principles and asks questions about the present state of democracy in America. He ends the book with, “Are we ready to shake off the idea that we are already a perfect exemplar of democracy? Are we ready to put the goals of democracy foremost in our political minds, as many Athenians did? Are we ready to admit our mistakes and learn from them, as they did? Most important, are we ready to keep the great dream alive, the dream of a government of the people, by the people and for the people?”

First Democracy: the Challenge of an Ancient Idea, Paul Woodruff, Oxford University Press, 2005

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Snowden, Polling and Critical Thinking

As you know from things I wrote before, I’m becoming increasing wary of public opinion polls and the people who write about them. Mark Mellman’s blog post, “Have We Been Snowdened?” raised my curiosity on the subject. Below is a summary of the data he writes about in his column. And, as a full disclosure comment, I’m aware, and you should be also, by summarizing the data as I did I’m altering exactly what each survey reported.

The person who leaked information about this secret program did a good thing in informing the American public or a bad thing
ABC/Washington Post
The NSA surveillance program was classified as secret, and was made public by a former government contractor named Edward Snowden
Snowden leaked information to the press about NSA’s monitoring of phone and Internet usage
Releasing the top secret information about government surveillance programs was the right thing or wrong thing to do

First, I couldn’t verify all of the data he reported, specifically the YouGov poll. And, when I went to look for this poll’s data (because Mellman changed the format of how he chose to report the results) I found even more polls on the subject. In browsing some of the poll data, I found that it makes a big difference whether you ask a question about Snowden, his actions, or what NSA is doing. I also have no guarantee that the sampling is valid in any of the polls, or whether the statistics employed is valid because of complex system effects. Moreover, the results depend upon when the poll was taken.

I’m not so interested in the results of these polls that I’ll invest the research and critical thinking time to find out what the public may think about this issue. However, look at the word usage in the polls – “leaked” and “secret” in the Time poll; “surveillance”, “NSA” and “government contractor” in the ABC poll; “leaked”, “press”, and “NSA” in the Reuters poll, the only one to mention “Phone” and “Internet”; “top secret”, “government” and ”surveillance” in the YouGov poll. These are all words likely to shift a person’s response to the statement.

My sole reason for writing this is just to alert you to critically examine any polling important to you. There are many ways to alter the response, or to “skin a cat” as the old saying goes[1].

[1] “Mark Twain used your version in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in 1889: “she was wise, subtle, and knew more than one way to skin a cat”, that is, more than one way to get what she wanted.”