Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Giving this Season Could Improve Your Happiness as Well as Help People in Need

As we enter the gift giving season it may be a good idea to visit sites like Oxfam America and UNICEF which allows you to send a new kind of gift card--with a photo of a donkey or a goat
on it that you have donated in the person's name to a village on the other side of the world. This seems a neat idea--give a sheep for $50 instead of buying a sheerling coat that if you were honest you don't really need. As the Oxfam America item description reads:

"Raising these fleecy critters allows women to create their own income. What's more, the sheep's wool is used to make local textiles. When you give this gift, you know it's helping others, so there's no need to count sheep—you're sure to sleep well!"
It is a clever idea that Oxfam America has hit on and it does make it tempting when you can also make the donation tax deductible.
UNICEF Winter Survival Pack
If sheep are not in your thoughts this year perhaps a "Winter Survival Pack" would be more to your liking, for $81 dollars  ($30 or so more than the sheep)  UNICEF will buy
" a girl or boy with the supplies they most need to survive the next 6 months:
Micronutrient powders that help a child on the brink of malnutrition get the vitamins and minerals that are most essential for them to grow up healthy. Immunizations from measles and polio that will save a child from two of the most common and painful diseases in the developing world. Water purification tablets to filter out dirt and bacteria from water so that children can drink without fear of getting sick. Your pack contains enough tablets to clean 50,000 liters of water!"

Something to think about this holiday season as we wander the malls with no idea of what we need to buy for the person who has it would seem everything when compared to the desperate people who reside on our planet! Research supports a more giving attitude--studies "reveal that personal spending had no link with a person's happiness, while spending on others and charity was significantly related to a boost in happiness."  According to one reference to a  study published in no less a journal than Science--"In a representative survey of 630 Americans..regardless of how much income each person made..those who spent money on others reported greater happiness, while those who spent more on themselves did not."  In a separate study of 13 employees at a Boston-based firm, the researchers found that employees who devoted more of their profit-sharing bonus (which ranged from $3,000 to $8,000) to others reported greater overall happiness than those who spent the windfall on their own needs." Something to think about as you are out in the malls this year. How about a sheep and a gift card instead of that tie/gadget or other thing you have plenty of?

Monday, November 22, 2010

Reflecting on the Global Happiness Index Stimulated by a great TED lecture

TED talks occupy a distinctive place in the world of ideas between the best kind of well argued op ed article, and the lively and interesting lecture. At their best they engage their audiences as few of those latter two formats can when they reveal a lecturer who is both passionate about the ideas he or she presents and able to compress the key ideas into a lively 18 minutes. Rarely do the best of these presenters use video aids and seldom Power Point--they use instead old fashioned human powers of communication. In 18 minutes, you cannot afford to pad out your ideas or condescend, you must energize and sometimes inspire your audience with the power of your words. The format proves awfully good at busting through the heavy fog of the conventional wisdom.

The best at the game are deeply knowledgeable about their fields and use skillfully chosen examples that connect with their audience and many of the best are not traditional academics, they are simply engaged people who through dint of their passion have made their ideas count.

Take the one I heard the other day by Nick Marks, he is a UK statistician the founder of the Centre for Well-Being, an independent think tank at the New Economics Foundation (NEF), in London. Marks asks the simple question as to why we are so obsessed with measuring a country's success through measures of economic growth rather than measures of happiness. He has developed something called the Happy Planet Index which shows the relationship between national well being and the amounts of resource it takes to be happy. In the US we take a lot of the word's resources but seem no happier as we consuming 25% of the worlds oil for just 2% of the world's population. The surprise is to find the country that is at the top of the league tables for happines is of all places, Costa Rica which abolished its military in 1949 and has a very broad social safety net for its citizens. Living in a country that seems bent on increasing the gap between the ones with the "have more than enough" and those struggling on the margins in the US and in developing countries this maybe a good time, as Nick Kristoff urges us, to rethink the US model that is leading us inexorably towards a banana state republic. Do the super rich really want to live in a banana republic? Surrounded by high walls, security guards and armored vehicles? As Warren Buffett points out he pays less percentage wise in taxes than his secretarial assistants. Is that their idea of happiness? Why they keep pressuring their Republican benefactors for more tax cuts is beyond me does sheer greed now control them? Maybe this TED talk can inspire them to change their misguided ways--enjoy!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Russian Politics Takes Another Brutal Turn: Perhaps YouTube Will Now Improve the Chances that Global Outrage will be Heard

In what must surely be one of the most outrageous attempts to use Twitter to conceal  a guilty conscience, the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev according to a report in the Washington Post "tweeted Saturday, shortly after the beating happened, that the criminals must be found. " I am referring of course to the savage beating of Oleg Kashin who made the "mistake" of  writing things on his blog that allegedly "upset the governor of Pskov and controversial youth movements." The Post reporter somewhat unhelpfully does not provide many details but other news sources like NPR are willing to name the reason that Kashin opposed the construction of a road that was clearly going to be lucrative to some interests.  The Post in a sharply worded editorial points out that "the highway near Moscow, for example, is being financed by a crony of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Mr. Medvedev's de facto superior. Mr. Kashin's reporting about the road was attacked on the Web site of a Kremlin-sponsored youth movement, which declared that "Journalist-traitors need to be punished!"

 NPR reports "Road construction is considered one of the most corrupt sectors in Russia, offering huge profits to the businesses and officials involved who may see the journalists and activists as a direct threat to their bank accounts." NPR is also reports that Kashin is the second journalist to be beaten up in two days, police were also investigating an  attack on Anatoly Adamchuk "by two men outside his weekly newspaper office early Monday. Adamchuk was hospitalized with a concussion, a colleague wrote on the website of the paper, Zhukovskiye Vesti." Admachuks' newspaper also had the nerve to publish critical reports on the highway project.

What is clear is that  a staggering 32 Russian journalists have been murdered since 1993 and more than 30 attacked this year and until this beating was caught on YouTube the public has seeemed to accept the horror. Part of the reason for the seeming equanimity seems to be indifference perhaps bred of years of civil rights and humanitarian abuses that were part and parcel of life in the old Soviet Union. Another factor is the low esteem in which journalists even those as brave as the ones who gave their life are held in Russia; as Andrei Richter, a journalism professor and director of the Institute of Media and Law states  "The public doesn't view them as watchdogs of government but as people selling stories." Richter goes onto comment that  "attacks against journalists are not even classified as major crimes.. Rather than attempted murder, the charge is hooliganism, which carries a much lighter sentence." Now some real outrage seems about to erupt. Let us hope. It is too late now for the 32 and more journalists who were murdered but only continued public pressure will prevent more brutalities. That pressure must continue to demand that the high placed criminals be brought to justice  Let us hope that the US administration which hungers after Russia's approval (so they can continue to support sanctions against Iran )will not continue to ignore such incidents.  In the meantime   (as we pray for Kashin's speedy recovery) we might reflect on the words of Martin Niemöller the German protestant priest who spoke up against Nazism:

When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.
When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.
When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.
When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I wasn't a Jew.
When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Obama as Educator in Chief: Reflecting on the President's Mid Term Report:

An American President wears many hats--from cheerleader to commander in chief to substitute head of state, head of the Democratic party and also (by the way) leader of the free world. The list of roles is somewhat mind boggling and it is no wonder that the protean nature of the office leads to much glamorization by the world's media and a multitude of mostly bad Hollywood movies.  The role  President Obama seems to have played the most during his first two years in office was as chief legislative maverick with the roles of comforter in chief that FDR played so successfully and the role of pragmatic visionary that President Clinton played during his first term in office much in abeyance. Clearly the times called for some energy to be spent framing legislation and making the necessary deals whether it was to frame a credible stimulus bill while continuing to bail out the banks, developing a set of  sanctions that would hold up in the UN against Iran, working on energy legislation so he could support a progressive position on global warming at the Copenhagen global warming summit meeting, relaunching the Middle East peace talks, rescuing the Detroit auto industry, reconfiguring the strategy in Afghanistan and getting health care and financial reform passed, not to mention dealing with the BP oil leak crisis in the Gulf. There was no escaping the daily grind of figuring out where the proverbial votes, the incessant travel and the calls that needed to be taken from foreign leaders. He was more than busy and so not he had not much room for deeper reflections as to how this change was going down with Americans, many of whom were losing jobs and homes and a way of life they had learned to take for granted. During this period of intense work it is not surprising that Obama that had such a fine ear for the country's mood during his election campaign began to seem disconnected from the people who helped put him in office. It showed up first in his disappointingly vague and fragmented State of the Union speech and then later in more routine phone it in speeches and more obviously when he got off to a bad start as talked about the BP Oil spill and made few clear references to where he stood on key provisions in the health care bill. There were only routine statements that seemed to show his concern about the unemployed and his miserable lack of action concerning the hundreds of thousands of foreclosures while seeming to be content with only lukewarm measures against Wall Street's culture of excess. Perhaps we were asking too much--the task to govern a country that had fallen into such bad shape as the one that Obama found when he took office was too much for anyone--short perhaps of another FDR to successfully manage.

Slowly over this two year period, the largely young and optimistic electorate that had voted him in sensed during this time a disconnect between the man they thought they had voted for--fearless champion of the ordinary guy who would "fight" for them, sensed a feeling of betrayal and refused to come out in these mid terms in the numbers they had two years before. Now he faces not just a base that feels alienated from what might be called the "2008 Obama project" but a fiercely partisan attack from a far right wing group, that wants to channel the anger that unemployment and broken dreams can cause into a campaign to stop any progressive agenda from seeing the light and  simply wishes to kill Obama's re-election chances in 2012. The tea-party largely middle aged and white has begun to read the US Constitution in mystical ways as a justification for a limited form of federal government that pays only for the defense and their medical and social security benefits and leaves the rest to market forces. The federal governments' historic role in addressing what markets and states have failed to do over the years, that is to address issues of inequality, to repair gaps in the educational system and regulate commerce among other things is viewed as bordering on unamerican and unconstitutional. We are at a sad impasse in terms of the debate when an individual like Sarah Palin, putative leader of the Tea Party movement, who is so fiercely proud of her anti-intellectualism,  can claim some political legitimacy and even be considered as a future presidential candidate.

The festering of large segments of the American right into a quasi religious group of zealots who want to turn their backs on the modern world, on all the pressing forces of globalization and burrow deep into a world of fantasy is not good news for a country that hopes to maintain leadership in the 21st century. Whether any of the scale and size of the backlash against perceived Obama's over-reaching could have been avoided if the President had managed to find his governing rather than his campaigning voice is open to speculation. But as all this slips into the past we need to focus on what Obama should do in the last two years of his Presidency. Among the many roles he could choose to play and fate and events will allow him to play he should consider the one of Educator in Chief. He needs to explain to the electorate both his own side and the majority of independents who during this last election season swayed towards the Republican side, what the choices are in plain and simple terms.  Obama needs to be the educator-in-chief leading a national discussion as serious as the Lincoln Douglas debates about slavery, concerning the US place in the modern world. Within that theme we can debate what is the right role for the US government  to play at home and abroad (given the close of the cold war and the rise of terrorism--it makes no sense that we fund so many aircraft carriers and jet fighters when the threat is mostly coming from failed and failing states like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran) what is the right size of the federal government, a discussion about how large deficits can be in the middle of recession as well as  the dangers of making that recession worse by cutting the spending of the only entity that can spend during a recession, and what is the future of trade policy when so many areas in the middle west (many of which voted Republican in sheer frustration this recession) have been devastated. What do 21st century jobs look like, what does an energy policy look like that reduces green house gases, makes us less dependent on foreign oil and helps American exports, what kinds of investments in green energy and education do we need to make if we are to secure them? Many of the Tea-party candidates who will be going to Washington this January to be sworn into office will only have a dim idea of many of these issues, and need to be woken up so they don't end up during their time in Congress simply reciting demagogic talking points. Why does Obama need to lead this effort? For the simple reason that the media has no real staying power when it comes to following these issues or seriously educating anyone about them since they are now convinced that kind of programming is reserved for C-Span while they trade in sound bites by a partisan punditocracy. If the President were to lead a series of town hall debates where opponents of his policy could come forward and be heard and where there would be an agreement to have follow up on the areas where compromise is possible--the American public if not a more global audience would be riveted. The priority should be on making the core ideas related to our 21st century world as clear as glass to everyone and why he wants to take the country in the direction he does based on his analysis of that world. In this way those who seek to use these times to scare and confuse people are marginalized and we use all our modern technology not to keep "amusing ourselves to death" as Neil Postman once memorably put it, but to learn from our fellow human beings who after all share our planet.  The President's men would turn this role down I am reasonably sure, fearing he would be satirized as Professor in Chief and the anti-intellectual crowds will portray him as an ivy league elitist. The danger exists. The way to counter that danger is first for Obama to do what too many professors often fail to do, make the ideas concrete and clear and provide good examples, to be talking and discussing these ideas not just with academics but with managers, workers, technical experts and the like, secondly to be seen to be willing to use his energy and intellect to work with the opposition to forge compromise positions. If he finds he cannot afford to compromise he must then clearly explain why. What is the alternative? Does Obama or his advisers think for one second that by compromising with the Republican on their sacred cows such as tax cuts that he can find a way to get re-elected? He must also know they intend to block every piece of legislation however constructive and thoughtful it might be and use his failure to pass legislation as yet another reason to vote him out in 2012. The President cannot  truly draw out the venom of the attack by the right wing or its  overwhelming negativity out by failing to engage. He must assert the new role, own it and as he does make more of us understand that politics is not some other version of show business played as they say by ugly people, not a game but a serious effort to define who we are now as a people and into the future.