Uncommon Sense

March 31, 2021

Finally, American Politicians Are Taking Pollution Seriously

Filed under: Politics — Steve Ruis @ 12:44 pm
Tags: , ,

It wasn’t enough that our water is polluted, rainwater on mountaintops is polluted, our air is polluted, and the land is more and more polluted. Air pollution has led to Climate Change with massive negative impacts on human societies . . . but still our politicians did nothing. Well, not nothing, they continued to cash checks written by the polluters.

Well, all of a sudden rapid massive action is taking place in the halls of Congress and in statehouses. This is, apparently, due to a blockbuster of a disclosure first reported in The Onion newspaper in an article entitled “Pollution Shrinking Human Penises, Warns Scientist.”

A Mask Revelation

Filed under: Technology — Steve Ruis @ 10:36 am
Tags: ,

Claudia brought me some new masks she was trying out. I believe this is the eighth or ninth different commercial mask we have tried. The issues with the others are strain on one’s ears, fogging of eyeglasses, etc. all of the usual complaints. So, this mask was much like the other disposable masks we have tried. (We also had tried washable cotton masks.) I put one on to go get the mail and I immediately noticed a difference. When I inhaled the mask collapsed against my face and when I exhaled, it ballooned slightly away from my face. What that told me is that the air being moved was actually going through the mask rather than around the mask, constituting actual evidence that it was working. I hadn’t notice this effect on any of the other soft masks, actually, just the opposite—more air flowed around those masks rather than through them.

None of the masks we have tried so far are of the fairly rigid kind. I assume they, too, have advantages and disadvantages, but I like the feedback these masks give me (I’m working, I’m working . . . like the Little Engine That Could Mask it is).

I suspect we still have months if not years of mask wearing in front of us, so I thought these insights might be helpful.

Black Disposable Face Masks

Let Them Do It How We Had To

Filed under: Business,Education — Steve Ruis @ 10:32 am
Tags: ,

In Diane Ravitch’s blog she reports that “Over the opposition of Joy Hofmeister, the state superintendent, the Oklahoma State Board of Education voted 4-3 to allow charter schools to have a share in property taxes and motor vehicle taxes that previously were reserved for public schools.

State schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said the settlement could violate state law and have ‘seismic’ implications by redistributing school funding.

“Today’s board action circumvents the will of the people of Oklahoma and the state legislature by unilaterally determining how public education is to be funded,” Hofmeister said in a statement Thursday evening. ‘I fear this action knowingly violated Oklahoma statute and the Oklahoma Constitution.’

“The original promise of charter schools when they started thirty years ago was that they would cost less than public schools because of their lack of bureaucracy. That pledge has long been forgotten as charters fight to have equal funding–or in some states, like Texas–more funding than public schools.

“This decision will mean less money for Oklahoma’s underfunded public schools.

The Charter School Business in this country is so far off base that it is undermining public education as a whole. There is a solution, however.

Whenever school districts wanted more funding in the past, they floated a “bond issue” to pay for it and then the people decided whether or not they wanted to pay for it. Most often, they did not.

In Oklahoma, as elsewhere, public schools are massively underfunded (by their own standards, not mine) and clawing back a large segment of those funds is defensible only if what they are being used for replaces what those funds used to pay for. And, basically, they should do that task better, otherwise why make the change?

Charter schools have proven to be no better than our current public schools and in more than a few cases are much, much worse, even to the point of being total frauds.

So, here is how we fix this mess. In the past public schools made a pitch to the people or the legislators representing them to fund what they do. If a charter operator (more and more these are large organizations, far from Mom and Pop efforts) wants to open a charter school. let them float a special bond issue and see if the public is willing to pay for it. Currently legislators are making this decision and charter operators are allowed to make “campaign donations,” aka bribes, to those legislators (often using funding supplied by the state) whereas the public schools are not. And is it not obvious that those who come bearing checks to our legislators get better treatment than those who do not?

If we have a democracy, let the people decide. A special tax issue for every charter school or group of charter schools can be voted up or down and then you will know whether “the people” actually do or don’t want those schools to be created.

The Role of Tradition in Culture

Back when I was in college I got my hands on a set of “The Story of Civilization,” then about ten volumes I think, and read them. I then found and read “The Lessons of History” from the same duo. These are brilliant expositions on the “big picture” of human history and, I am sure, full of mistakes and flaws as are all works of history, but glorious nonetheless.

I ran across a quote or summary of a point made in The Lessons of History; here it is:

“It seems arrogant to doubt tradition too much, to think that your supposedly brilliant mind could develop a better solution in 30 or 40 years than humankind has developed over thousands of years of working together. For this reason, it’s quite possible that we discount how useful and powerful religion can be.” (Will and Ariel Durant)

It “seems” arrogant? Hmm. It might if there were tradition minders woven into the scheme of our culture, but traditions happen willy-nilly, especially religiously. (Yes, I am aware of massive convocations held to determine what dogmas and traditions will be in this or that church, but most of these meetings are stage shows for the spectators rather than real working sessions. Most of the decisions of such councils were already made before they convened.)

I often refer to traditions as “the ways we have always done things,” not as a disparagement but as a reminder that traditions are cultural memories. So, that crafts and arts and knowledge not get lost over time, they are made into “traditions,” that is something important to remember. A son learning a traditional craft from his father might be cheeky enough to ask “why” during a training session but was liable to receive a slap for his challenge. A good father reinforced the importance of this knowledge/skill being transmitted and made it “special” in the mind of the son.

So, traditional knowledge was passed from father to son, mother to daughter and from uncles and aunts, too. This was knowledge too important to be left to chance: what plants are poisonous to eat, the hunting grounds for certain animals and the techniques used to hunt them, the techniques used to knap rocks into tools, etc.

Now, these “learnings” were hard to come by and dangerous if lost, but as the pace of change has accelerated, are lost at an ever increasing rate. Why? Because the traditional knowledge became irrelevant. For example, when tools made of metal became commonplace, being able to make cruder versions out of stone became less valuable. The convenience of email and texting has made letter writing a less important skill.

Tradition yields to change over time and that is normal. So, in the phrase “It seems arrogant to doubt tradition too much” the key words are “too much.” So what constitutes “too much?” Discarding useful things has consequences, but sometimes it spurs rediscovery or even invention that betters the whole situation. I suggest that possibly what is being said is that tradition is not something to discard casually.

And that brings me to “it’s quite possible that we discount how useful and powerful religion can be.” I wish they would have said “religion is” because there is a large gap between “can be” and “is.” In any case, religion is the embodiment of tradition. Although these traditions seem to be far much less pragmatic than flintknapping, or basket weaving, or growing the Three Sisters. (Which is why religions horned in on other, more useful, traditions (Blessing the crops, blessing the harvest. marking the changes of season).The Durants (both dead now) were on the whole religious positivists, that is, all in all, religion has been a positive force in human society. I, on the other hand, see religion as a control mechanism to coerce the labor of the masses to serve the interests of the elites, both religious and secular.

In the context of religious tradition, therefore, do we ask: “Has this or that religion become a tradition passed over? Is it time to discard it?” This question is being acted out in American culture right now. The rise of the “Nones,” people who participate in no religion has been accelerating and now the Nones outnumber the most popular religious sect in the U.S. (We’re No. 1!; we’re No. 1!) What few people know is that a majority of the Nones still harbor some sort of belief in a “higher power.” They have not thrown off the shackles of supernatural nonsense, they have just thrown off the shackles of “houses of worship.”

I am one who thinks that superstitious nonsense is not at all helpful as it is all make believe. The comfort religion supplies is based upon being familiar, for example. To get to the place where we can discard the tradition of believing superstitious nonsense, we have to discard religion, a reinforcer of superstition nonsense first, so I guess progress is being made . . . cautiously, as the Durants would advocate. Instead of Shakespeare’s “First, kill all of the lawyers,” we are at the “First, defund all of the priests” stage.

Progress marches on!

March 29, 2021

You Have a Conscience, Right?

I have been writing about the major axis existing for all sentient social species, that of dividing up our collective responsibilities from our individual responsibilities. In science fiction there are species with “hive minds” in which the individuals are totally subordinate to the collective (think of bees or the Borg). There are also species that are total individualistic. These are, of course, fictional, because we do not see these on Earth, where we are basically the only sentient social species.

I had a bit of a revelation when I heard a recent discussion of what we call our conscience. It was referred to as a subconscious function of our minds but I don’t see it that way. It seems to me that our morality is either taught to us or learned by us and so is like any other knowledge that we acquire. Possibly it is tinged with emotion more than anything else. I am sure you can remember occasions when as a child, you had an inner debate that began with the thought “If I do I am going to get in trouble!” (or feelings that amount to those words). Such thoughts/feelings come from where thoughts come from (which we still don’t know) and are conscious, not subconscious. They may be accompanied by emotional affect (tingling sensation, quivering, shuddering, etc.).

So, what is this “conscience thing”? I suspect it is a label we give our thoughts on issues that fall into the category of morality. I don’t think it is a thing in itself, like curiosity seems to be. It is, in my humble opinion, a social construct, the monitor so to speak of our social compact with one another. This is why in some cultures our consciences include feelings of how to deal with witches and in others this is absent.

So, basically, the fact that we recognize that “having a conscience is a good thing” is a recognition of our collective responsibilities to one another. It is rare, I suggest, that our consciences provide any guidance for us when the only person affected by the triggering action is us ourselves. Some claim that individual responsibilities come up in such a context religiously, but I suggest that those are collective feelings brought about by the teachings of a religious community. It is not a god which is the enforcer of our behavior but the approval or disapproval of those in our religious community. This is supported by the wide variations of what is acceptable behavior in various religions.

What this amounts to, if my supposition is correct (that our conscience is a monitor of our collective responsibility of others), is that if a matter impinges upon one’s conscience, then the responsibility is communal, not individual. If you see a child suffering because his/her parents’ cannot afford to take them to a doctor and you “feel bad” about that (empathy) but also pangs of conscience, then you are acknowledging that this is an area that belongs under our collective responsibilities and not just an individual responsibility.

Of course, there is no such thing as complete honesty when sharing feelings, consciences, etc.

Repost—A Novel Way to Regulate Corruption and Campaign Financing

Filed under: Politics — Steve Ruis @ 8:18 am
Tags: , ,

This post is from 2010 but the topic has come up again, so I thought it is worth reposting. It is still an issue because our legislators are serving their wealthy donors rather than all of the people they are supposed to be representing. SR

Currently (in 2010) Wall Street banks are shelling out $1.4M per day trying to block the federal government’s effort to regulate their business. Some legislators have gone so far as to say outright “Sure, we will block that legislation. Now are you going to donate to my re-election campaign?” This is plain and simply corruption in our government and it’s legal! If we do not correct this flaw in our government, will just be accelerating our decline as a nation. The flaw is that we have made influence peddling legal and we have to make it illegal to save our representative government from the distorting influence of money. There are a great many approaches one could take. This one is simple and could very well succeed.

Previous attempts to regulate political campaign financing have run afoul of the constitutional right of free speech and the right to petition the government. Time and again Congress has passed promising reform legislation only to have it declared illegal/unconstitutional.

Since the recent Supreme Court decision to allow corporations unlimited spending on political campaigns, the need for some limitations on campaign financing has become even greater than it was. And ordinary people were complaining about the influence of rich people’s and corporations’ money on the political process long before the Court’s decision. Elected officials complain about the need to do nonstop fundraising. And now, taking the fiction that a corporation is a “person” for business purposes and extending that fiction into political arenas, the Supreme Court has aggravated the situation.

In some ways, the Supreme Court decision is a log jam breaker. Unless we want corporations to be running the country (more than they do now, in any case) we need some limitations on political spending. This is the impetus for the following proposition.

The founders of the country established that each of us had the right to petition the government and to speak freely. (These, after all, are the rights of individuals.) The Supreme Court has ruled that spending money on political campaigns is a form of free speech and that corporations have the same rights as people when it comes to spending on campaigns. But, it is still illegal to “peddle influence.” Influence peddling is to sell one’s influence in government in the form of “you give me money, I give you a political solution to your problem.”

What I contend is that any government official who asks for money from a person they do not represent is peddling their influence and that this should be illegal. When they do this they are essentially saying “give me money and even though I do not represent you, I will make it worth your while.” The flip side of this idea is if I offer a government official money and that official doesn’t represent me, I am soliciting that influence illegally. If this principle is followed to its logical conclusion, a great deal of good can be had. Basically such a new regulation would restrict the passage of political money only to between those people who have a representative relationship.

All U.S. citizens have a primary residence which determines who their state and federal representatives are. For example, each of us has a congressman and two senators on the federal side based on the state and congressional district in which our primary residence is located. These are the people who represent us and we should be able to petition them freely (which is why they maintain offices in their districts) and we should be able to support their campaigns or their political challengers campaigns financially. The same restriction should apply to “corporate people” if the Supreme court continues to persist in their opinion that corporations are not only persons for the purposes of business but politics, too. I suggest that the location of the corporate headquarters of a company should establish who the representatives of those “individuals” are.

Anyone offering money to an elected official or candidate for office who is not (or will not become) their representative is trying to buy influence, so those contributions should be illegal. Candidates for President of the United States would be able to solicit funds from everyone insofar as the President represents all citizens, but U.S. Senators would only be able to solicit and accept funds from legal residents of their states and U.S. Representatives would only be able to solicit and receive funds from people (corporate and otherwise) who live in their districts. The same restriction would apply to all local and state office holders and candidates for office.

Many also decry the influence of corporate lobbyists. Their influence under this plan would be greatly diminished because, while under this plan a single lobbyist could still represent the interests of a corporation to, for example, all of the members of a Senate committee under the free speech provisions of the constitution, but money could only be given to the representative of the state which houses the corporate headquarters. The reason there are so many lobbyists in Washington is the same reason given by the bank robber for why he robbed banks (“That’s where the money is.”); in this case Washington is where the influence is that can be bought. We have allowed our centers of representation, state and federal, to become clearinghouses for influence peddling. And while these lobbyists could still make the points their sponsors want them to, they couldn’t back up those points with unlimited “campaign donations.”

This approach is not an infringement on free speech because individuals would still be able to write, call, email, and speak to any member of any state or federal legislative body they chose. We are just making a distinction between political gifts of funds, one of which says “I want you to represent my interests instead of any of the other candidates in my district for whom I can vote,” and another which says “You don’t represent me but I want you to do me a favor anyway.”

The right to petition the government is not infringed because everyone has their representatives who are reachable in local offices and because campaign funds can only be solicited from people one represents there is a strong incentive for these representatives to listen to “their” people rather than to others. The courts and other systems of government are also represented locally and can be petitioned. By letting rich people and corporations unlimited access to all of our local, state, and federal officials, we are undermining our form of representative government. Currently, if I am poor or even of ordinary means, I have a few representatives, but if I am rich I have hundreds or thousands of representatives.

Foreign corporations with just one American subsidiary corporation would not have unfettered access to the entire political system, their money could only flow directly to candidates in the districts of the subsidiaries’ headquarters and not to every other office in the land.

This regulation will not totally right the campaign financial ship: the monied interests will be likely to create “separate” PACs in each state to be able to donate to all U.S. Senators’ campaigns and other subterfuges, but these will be easier to regulate than the current system. Using a PAC to “launder” donations to representatives not one’s own, should also be illegal, though, because it is a longstanding legal principle that one cannot eliminate one’s legal culpability by just using a middleman.

The question is: do we want to save our representative governments from the corruption of “legalized” influence peddling?

March 28, 2021

What People Really Want

Filed under: Culture,Politics — Steve Ruis @ 10:13 am
Tags: , ,

I have read recently more than a few articles about how one can transform themselves from being a “wage slave” into a free person who doesn’t have to “go to work” or “attend a meeting” or “do this or that task.” In such articles there seem to be these extremes and little in between. Wage slaves work in a cubicle and have no control over their tasks or schedules. Their “bosses” seem to be either assholes or tyrants or both. At the other end of this spectrum are those with “eff you money” who do what they want when they want. While I do not doubt these extremes exist, I tend to think that there are many other states between them that are desirable.

In my case, I followed Joseph Campbell’s advice and “followed my bliss.” Without a lot of calculation involved, I became a college teacher. In this job, I did have a schedule I had to follow; I was assigned classrooms and times and courses and students to teach, but I had some say into what those were. Inside my classroom, I had objectives to meet, but how I went about my business was largely up to me. Yes, I was evaluated by managers and peers fairly regularly but the processes involved were mostly reasonable, and I had some input on those processes, too. In short, I had a fair amount of autonomy in my work. As it turns out this is very high on the list of desirable attributes for people’s work situations.

People want to feel as if they have some control over their lives, even while being willing to surrender some of that autonomy to the others in a work group. The middle ground between those who are wage slaves, who have no autonomy, and those who have “eff you money,” are all of us who have a little bit of both.

This is what I see is the major axis of our culture: deciding what we have individual responsibility to do and what we have collective responsibility to do. Any sentient social species would have the same axes of decisions.

In our past, people wanting total autonomy could leave any group and live a solitary life as a hermit or backwoodsman or what have you. Those who needed to have a structure to anchor their existence could join a military cadre or religious order that proscribed all of their actions. I suspect that most people want something in between: some structural support, so that some responsibilities could be offloaded to the group and some autonomy, so we could have “our way” from time to time.

It is interesting that American politics has this constant tension between these two states. We still are frequently debating whether, for example, healthcare is a collective or individual responsibility. We have decided that national defense is a collective responsibility and our religious practices are an individual responsibility. But, curiously, the debates over the unresolved issues are not framed as “individual responsibility vs. collective responsibility.” They are framed with hidden stereotypes instead. Those who favor collective responsibility for healthcare are characterized as “big government advocates” or “socialists.” Those who favor individual responsibility for healthcare are characterized as “rugged individualists” or “small government zealots.” Our course, embedded in such issues are party politics, racism, classism, and many other things, but I argue that we should be arguing from questions such as “are we all better off with healthcare, for example, as a collective responsibility or an individual responsibility?” This gets us to cost benefit-analyses and a cleaner decision, which is why the politicians avoid it, as they are representatives of their rich constituents first and foremost (and rich non-constituents, too—Why do we allow people from out of state to donate money to US senatorial elections? What has that election to do with those people? I have written about this at length, so back to our regularly scheduled programming . . .)

I just saw a quote that said “If you think you are too small to have an effect, try sleeping with a mosquito.” So, as “little people” we can use the language of “collective vs. individual responsibility” and ask questions addressing the costs and benefits of either and inject that into our discourse. Maybe it will irritate our current debaters enough to scratch our itch.

All we want is a little autonomy and we are willing in sacrifice some of ours to the good of us all. Now go throw open your window and shout “I am mad as hell and won’t take it anymore!”

March 25, 2021

The Esteem of Teachers

Filed under: Education,History,Politics — Steve Ruis @ 12:12 pm
Tags: , , ,

I have been reading Milton Mayer’s book “They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-1945” and I ran across this:

In the years of the rise the movement little by little brought the communities attitude toward the teacher around from respect and envy to resentment, from trust and fear to suspicion. The development seems to have been inherent; it needed no planning and had none. As the Nazi emphasis on nonintellectual virtues (patriotism, loyalty, purity, labor, simplicity, “blood,” “folkishness”) seeped through Germany, elevating the self-esteem of the “little man,” the academic profession was pushed from the very center to the periphery of society. Germany was preparing to cut its own head off. By 1933 at least five of my ten friends (and I think six or seven) looked upon “intellectuals” as unreliable, and among these unreliables, upon the academics as the most insidiously situated.” (p. 112)

I am quite aware of Godwin’s law (Invoke the Nazis and you’ve lost the argument.) but I plow on fearlessly. The Nazi’s were a totalitarian authoritarian bunch. And if you are just going to rule by giving orders, you do not want a bunch of credible naysayers arguing the other way. Fascists just don’t like opposition, so they either eliminate it or marginalize it.

Fast forward to today and we see some startling parallels. When I was young, teachers were held in high esteem, but over the past twenty or so years, teachers have been criticized as being pigs at the public trough, earning way too much money. They have been criticized as being the reason for failing schools. They have had collective bargaining rights stripped from them. Their unions have been demonized. Their role in the classroom undermined by “systems” that insist on approved classroom scripts being read instead of anything the teacher might have thought would be helpful. And when testing results of their pupils do not show progress, they are blamed as the sole cause.

I must also point out that during the social unrests of the 1960’s and 1970’s college students and teachers were much to the forefront. The revision of the bankruptcy laws disallowing student loans from being discharged (with no evidence for the claim such loans were being abused) has effectively chained students with a ball of debt they drag around with them through much of their working lives. Such people do not jeopardize their careers by falling behind on their debt payments, so they keep their heads down and just keep doing what they are told.

So, now that teachers and students have been defanged, we see a veritable war on science and the pointy-headed intellectuals behind it. We have become suspicious of experts, you know the people who kind of know what they are talking about. Gosh, would any American political party find this acceptable? Apparently both do to some extent. Joe Biden was a major force behind the student loan bankruptcy legislation. And the Republicans have been full bore on a “Let’s Get Ready for Fascism” campaign.

March 23, 2021

Church Research by Ken Ham

Filed under: Culture,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 9:41 am
Tags: , , ,

If you are unaware of Ken Ham, he is referred to as “ol’ Hambo—the ayatollah of Appalachia, the world’s holiest man who knows more about religion and science than everyone else” on The Sensuous Curmudgeon website. Ham is the creator of the Answers in Genesis website and much more including the Ark Encounter in Kentucky, with the usual humans riding dinosaurs like horses displays.

In a post on Medium.com I ran across this interesting tidbit referring to Mr. Ham:

“Now, if you were a child who was brought up in Sunday school, chances are you have also rejected much of what they taught you as fanciful at best and outright lies at worse. Research from Ken Ham and Britte Breemer at “Answer in Genesis” reveals that Sunday School essentially achieves the opposite of its stated aims — to produce adult Christians.

“Ham and Breemer surveyed over 1000 young adults who had attended church as children. They divided this sample group into those who regularly attended Sunday School and those who did not. They found that compared to those who did not participate in Sunday School, those who did were:
• more likely not to believe that all the accounts/stories in the Bible are true/accurate
• more likely to doubt the Bible because men wrote it
• more likely to question the Bible because it was not translated correctly
• more likely to view the Church as hypocritical
• much more likely to have become anti-church through the years
• more likely to believe that good people don’t need to go to church
Perhaps Sunday School is not as helpful as many mainline denominations might think. But that’s not all that surprising, really, is it?”
(Source: The Lies They Told Me in Sunday School by Dan Foster on Medium.com)

The content of this excerpt is not all that surprising but what shocked me was that Ken Ham (Ken Ham!) shared this knowledge. Surely this gives ammunition to anti-religionists like me. Fascinating.

March 21, 2021

Who’s a Humanitarian?

Filed under: Culture,Morality,Politics — Steve Ruis @ 12:33 pm
Tags: , ,

I have seen people called “humanitarians.” I know vegetarians are people who eat only vegetables, but I suspect that humanitarians are not people who only eat other people. We already have a name for them. So, what is a humanitarian? What are the qualifications? Can you get advanced degrees in . . . humanitarity?

This, I suspect, is one of those labels rich people apply to themselves as part of the gas lighting of the other 90+% of the population of this country who have the moral failing of not being rich, or even “well-to-do.”

Any rich person who does something generically “good” will have this label slapped on them by the marketing machine of the rich and famous. They will refer to their actions as “humanitarian gestures” and what they did as being in “the best tradition of philanthropy” and whatnot. On the other hand, if you aren’t rich, you have almost zero chance of acquiring this status. This last Christmas I saw an article saying that because of the pandemic, the food banks (Food banks in a rich country!) were struggling to keep their shelves stocked, so I went online and donated $100 to my local food bank. I did it anonymously, which rich people don’t do. If they are going to give away a chunk of change, they want visible credit for doing so. On a global scale I am a “rich American” but in America, I am a retired school teacher, so . . . middle middle-class. That $100 was a significant amount of money to me, being several percent of my monthly income (most of which is committed before I get paid, so a much larger part of my “disposable income”). How does that compare with Jeff Bezos, who apparently has added $637,000,000,000 to his net worth during the pandemic? If he were to give a million dollars to my food bank, that would constitute a significantly smaller fraction of his income that was my contribution. But Mr. Bezos, a twenty-first century Robber Baron, would be labeled a humanitarian and I will never be.

Putting on airs is a college course rich people take, I am convinced. They are better than us, just ask them. They are convinced that their riches are an indicator of their superiority. I think that when these people die, a wall should be put up where people can write what they really thought of those people when they were alive. They and their survivors should know what we really think. I would have to bring multiple pens to label Mr. Bezos.

Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.