The Golf Conundrum – A Justification

To Golf Or Not To GolfI recently went on a weekend golf trip to Arizona with a good group of guys. One might imagine that, in general, the demographic of guys who go on weekend golf trips would tend toward a bro-ish, self-absorbed, perpetual adolescence mindset. I hope that generalization’s not true, and for our group, it wasn’t.

Still, I was lamenting the fact that, for all the decency that was embodied in that group of guys, there we were spending enormous sums of money on a game, on lavish living, on material excess. I said as much to a friend back in Longmont, and the conversation pretty quickly turned to my own complicity in that excess. The eclectic in me, the revolutionary, has always frowned upon a complacent, bourgeois existence. Yet here I am, a comfortable, wealthy, middle aged white guy who golfs a lot.

The Golf Conundrum

I golfed sporadically (and spasmodically), at best, up until my late 30’s, whereupon I decided I needed a twilight sport to transition into from my beloved soccer. I was becoming the grizzled old slow guy on the soccer team, and I wanted to go out with at least a trace of dignity intact. After a knee injury and ensuing osteoarthritis in both knees, I limped through an over-40 soccer tournament in Vegas a year ago, while my team carried us to victory. Two months later, it was still hard to walk up and down the stairs – I hung up the cleats for good (?).

Golf had been my rehab after knee surgery. Golf was how I recovered from the Vegas tourney. Golf is one way I’ll stay in shape as I stroll down the proverbial back nine. I live two blocks from a short but challenging course. I walk there and walk the course a few times a week, weather (and other obligations) permitting. It’s less than $700 for an annual pass.

I golfed a lot in 2017. I keep a spreadsheet of my various jobs and projects, and golf made it to the top spot last year, comprising 383.5 hours of the almost 1600 total project hours I logged. I golfed in Colorado, Hawaii, Alaska (really!), Oregon, Wisconsin, and Florida in 2017. I spent a lot of money on golf and the trips associated with it.

To be blunt, I was golfing as Trump dismantled policies to slow climate change (he was golfing, too, apparently). I was golfing while hurricanes ripped apart Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and much of the Caribbean. I was golfing while over 30,000 Americans died from gun violence. I was golfing while women began to expose the widespread tragedy of sexual harassment and assault. I was golfing while genocide was committed against the Rohingya in Myanmar. I was golfing while over 700 million people didn’t have enough to eat in the world.

In 2014 I wrote a post called “Climbing the Totem Pole of Magnanimity,” in which I posited that I was some kind of dog-like creature around the middle of the totem pole (in other words, I had a long way to go to achieve magnanimity). My goal was to inch my way up that pole. So, in light of all this golfing I’ve been doing, one might expect that I’ve slipped down on the totem pole. But, actually, I believe I am now slightly higher on the pole; maybe I’m now in between dog-like creature and head-holding guy. How do I reconcile this?

A Justification

Golf is elitist. By this I mean that it’s expensive, it takes a lot of time, it uses a lot of land and resources.1 It’s not very accessible to most folk. But what if I’d said I’d gotten in 60 days of skiing in the mountains instead? Would that be more acceptable? Or what if it was biking, or running, or exercising, or yoga, or meditation. These are noble pursuits, right? Much more so than slapping a ball around with a glorified stick, right? Granted, some of these other pursuits are less costly or have less of an environmental footprint, but all could be equally time-intensive.2

About a decade and a half ago, I realized (while I was about 20 miles into the Firecracker 50 mountain bike race in Breckenridge (I only finished one lap of 25 miles)) that endurance sports were not for me, so I focused most of my exercising activity on soccer. Endurance sports still aren’t for me, but I have upped my game in the workout department (last year, at age 44, I bench pressed more than I ever have). I will continue to use workouts to help stay in shape. I ski and mountain bike once or twice a year, and that’s good enough.

I don’t believe in the oversimplified idea that 10,000 hours of practice will make you a master at something (even the author of this idea thinks that’s oversimplified); if I practiced for 10,000 hours at the 100 meter dash under the tutelage of the world’s best sprinting coaches, Usain Bolt would still crush me. But golf is different from such a pure athletic sport as running. The PGA tour is like a Dr. Seuss book of characters: Long-Leggers, Bar-ba-loots, Loraxes, Sneeches, Yooks and Zooks… All body types seem to be represented – which gives a fairly average guy like me hope that I might be able to play this game, too. Maybe 10,000 hours (or preferably a lot less) of deliberate practice at golf could actually work for me (as it did for Dan of The Dan Plan before injury took him out).

At the risk of boring those of you who don’t give a rip about golf, I have to say that it presents a stimulating challenge for me. It’s an opportunity to let the eclectic blend of ideas that continually flows through my head take a back seat for a few hours – to breathe and focus on the task at hand. Robert Pirsig had his motorcycle maintenance – I have my golf. 

Besides the meditation and exercise and getting outside, I love tracking the numbers. I keep a spreadsheet of my stats, and despite how crappily I feel like I play many days, I’m getting better, albeit in fits and starts. True to my eclectic nature, I’m always tinkering, so as soon as I start to get some semblance of flow, I decide I can do better in a certain area and I regress for a while until I get that figured out – it’s chaos punctuated by brief bouts of equilibrium, but the general trend is progressive.

All of this is to say that golf, like many challenges, helps make me a happier, healthier, and (dare I say it) wiser person. There’s a lot of “self” in this, though.3 Self improvement is a huge industry in the United States: dieting, exercise, self-help, mindfulness, early retirement, lifestyle, impressing your lover in bed… All of these are supposed to make our selves happier.

But the end goal of self-help, as I see it, is other-help, which is, after all, the key to fulfillment. Self improvement can pave the way to living a more virtuous life, but we have to strap on our packs and walk down the path of righteousness for it to count. We should be continually striving to improve ourselves, and at the same time striving to make the world better for others – each of us has to find that balance.

Anybody can choose virtue, but it’s a lot easier for guys like me who dine on a cornucopia of fortune and privilege. If you’ve been around the Cottage much, you know I’m fond of the saying “From each according to one’s ability, to each according to one’s need.” The fact is, my good fortune has afforded me the ability to do more for others.

So, in addition to self-improvement qua golfing, what have I done for others? Before my recent semi-retirement, my primary source of income was from painting houses. That created value, in the sense that it improved the structural and aesthetic condition of neighborhoods. Still, I would say that my wife, a public school teacher, is creating a lot more value for society.

In 2017 I had the luxury of doing less painting: according to my spreadsheet, I spent 16.5 hours painting, mostly for a neighbor. With my newfound free time, I had more time to devote to other projects, many of which I hope inched me up the aforementioned totem pole. I spent over 400 hours working on various art, video, photography, and writing projects (including this blog).4 In addition, I worked for 42 hours with my dad on The Cooperative Society Project, aimed at assessing (and facilitating) a global shift to a less conflict-oriented, more cooperation-oriented society. I put in over 50 hours experimenting with and promoting entomophagy. I added another 50 or so hours of volunteering on a project to improve our community. And I put in over 60 hours helping to coach my son’s soccer team.

So, while I golfed more in 2017 than I did in 2014, I think I also spent more time on projects that make the world a better place.

There’s a probably-not-so-funny idiom whereby the spouses of golfers are called golf widows. I know guys who neglect their families in favor of hitting the links. There are times when I probably should do something with the family in lieu of golfing. But, thanks to my flexible schedule, most of my golf time is when the kids are at school and my wife is at work. I feel like more golf has not translated into less family time – in fact, although I don’t have this on my spreadsheet, I think I spend more quality time with my family now than I did a few years ago (I’ll see if my wife can corroborate this).

So, everything is perfect and great with my golfing. It’s all good, and I should probably golf more. I am virtuous and magnanimous and all that. I rest my case.

The Verdict

Guilty.

I’m guilty because I haven’t really found the balance yet between leisure time that benefits my self and projects that benefit others. In fact, that balance is shifting: as I have more time and means (ability) to do more, I should be re-thinking what my responsibility is to give back.

I’m guilty because, even though I devote more time to projects that are supposed to benefit others, those projects could be more effective. If you write a blog, paint a picture, write a book, and nobody’s there to read/see it, does it have meaning, or is it the sound of one hand clapping?

I’m guilty because I could be a better empathizer, listener, advocate. I could be a better husband, father, friend.

I’m guilty, but rather than saying some Hail Marys, I’ll try a different approach – there are concrete steps I can take to adjust my focus. Forgiveness is easier if the forgiven is trying to improve.5

The 10-40 Plan

Peter Singer, in his book “The Life You Can Save,” proposes the 5.10.5.10 Formula, wherein people donate 5% of gross income to charity, reduce their environmental footprint by 10% each year until they can go no further, give 5% of their time to their community, and take democratic political action at least 10 times a year.

Since I don’t have much income these days, and my wife is half time, I have a different idea. Most of our wealth is in the form of equity. I’ve set up our finances in a spreadsheet that allows me to get a decent idea of how that wealth has grown throughout the year. My idea is to donate 10% of our increase in wealth each year, so if our nest egg increases by $50,000, we will give away $5000. As time goes on, if we feel more comfortable in our retirement, we will increase this amount.

Part of effective giving is giving to effective causes. The Life You Can Save website has vetted a number of these organizations, so that’s a good start. But we’ll also donate to local causes, certain environmental groups, politicians who are fighting for a better world, and to friends who are working on worthy projects.

Regarding my time, I’d like to spend about 40% of my work/project time on causes that are making a positive change. This is a pretty nebulous concept, so I’ll just have to make that determination myself, but it could include volunteer work, activism,6 research, writing, video, or art (but not golf). Over time, I hope to devote more time to these types of projects – the idea being to incrementally shift the 10-40 plan into something like the 75-75 plan.

In my non-project life, I will continue to work on spending more quality time with my family (and actually, part of doing this may be getting my family more involved in some of my projects). I also need to improve my empathizing, listening, and just being more present with friends, family, and colleagues. And my family and I will endeavor to reduce our environmental impact through more efficiency, less gas-powered driving, less meat eating, and using renewable electricity – and offset the rest via carbon offsets.

Conundrum Solved?

So where does that leave golf? Well, I plan to continue golfing, and maybe even intensify some aspects of my game.7 But I’m also going to temper how much I play at expensive courses and how much I travel for the sole purpose of golf. I hope to play the fancy new Sand Valley Golf Resort in Wisconsin this summer, for example, but it will be in conjunction with a family vacation.

If I were a better man, I would forgo my health and happiness to devote all my time to helping others, but I don’t know how long I would last. Many people, of course, do just this, and they are the true heroes of the world. They are the wise, soaring owls at the top of the totem pole.

How to Make America Great (An 8-Point Plan)

Make America Great

#MAG

My optimism stems largely from a belief in progress. Progress is the inevitable outcome of accumulated knowledge and enlightenment. As we understand the world better, understand ourselves better, we come to understand how to improve the world and our place in it.

The Progressive approach is guided by reason and virtue. In many regards (hunger, poverty, human rights) the world is in a better place than it’s ever been, and this is largely the result of people who utilize our scientific and intellectual advancements wisely.

At the same time, the world remains awash in fucked uppedness. With climate change, the cracks in the levy are rapidly becoming fissures, which promises to exacerbate all kinds of fucked uppedness unless we get somebody to stick their thumb in it, right quick.

Make America Suck Again

Here in the United States, we would only be so lucky if the Trump administration were merely fiddling while Rome burns (to mix metaphors slightly); instead, they’re throwing their fiddles and whatever else they can find onto the fire, whipping it into an inferno.

Long before Trump, though, the Regressives in this country, led by plutocrats, have been crapping on democracy. In addition to buying (or becoming) politicians, Regressives sow division, disinformation, and dysfunction, as they reap a bounty in the wake of discontent deflected away from their devious designs.

Put more concretely, certain Regressive elites in this country (present President included), primarily in an effort to entrench their power and wealth, have endeavored to:

  • Divide Americans:  From the Southern Strategy to welfare queens to Willie Horton to Donald Trump, Regressives (in this case, primarily Republicans) have been stoking white fear and anger toward people of color. Misogyny, xenophobia, and homophobia are other tools in the divisiveness toolbox. And among whites, Regressives promote tribalism via Fox News (Liberal Elites vs. Real Americans), the NRA, religion, etc. Here it must be said that liberals and Democrats are also guilty of regressive tribalism when they ridicule and show disdain for poor and rural white folks.8
  • Spread Disinformation: There’s a certain element of my news feed that’s tragicomic. Stories from Fox News9 seem to focus on either the crookedness of Hillary Clinton, tabloidy bullshit, people of color and immigrants doing bad things, or female teachers having sex with their male students.10 When there are stories that make Regressives look bad, they are downplayed or ignored; when the stories make liberals look bad, they are pounced on. The tabloidy crap serves to distract people from real issues. Fox is a pusher of the Regressive ideology. Limbaugh, Breitbart, The Blaze, and InfoWars follow the same playbook (to varying degrees of insanity). It’s funny how people of this ilk rail against the mainstream media, claiming it has a liberal bias. Well, to the extent that some mainstream media believe in facts and reason, I guess that would make them appear more progressive – that said, in the interest of appearing balanced, I still think mainstream media give too much credence to regressive ideas. Fair and balanced, indeed!
  • Create Dysfunction: Defund public education, diminish access to health care, destroy unions, deter people from voting, drown government. Weaker public education leads to a less enlightened populace, and has the added bonus of empowering for-profit education, which primarily benefits the wealthy. Reduced access to health care, lack of unions, and poverty in general distract people from political engagement (and of course create more wealth for the elites). Voting restrictions and gerrymandering, combined with artificially divided Americans, disinformation, and ignorance, help keep Regressives in power, even though their interests are aligned with a tiny minority of the population. When they do attain power, they follow the advice of Grover Norquist and try to drown government in a bathtub. A shittily functioning government works perfectly for Regressives: See, told you government sucks! Discontent and ignorance breed yet more Regressives.
  • Promote Plutocracy: All of this division and disinformation and dysfunction is made possible by a government that is easily bought, thanks to Citizens United and other systemic failures that allow money to infiltrate our government. Since money equals free speech in this country, the loudest voices don’t belong to you or me. Thus we have the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, where the only “jobs” being given are to the Republicans’ wealthy pimps.

What could be more unpatriotic, more un-American, than the way these Regressives defile democracy?

What Do Americans Want?

Thomas Jefferson wrote that the doctrines of Epicurus (which he described “as containing every thing rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us”) included the moral that:

  • Happiness is the aim of life.
  • Virtue the foundation of happiness.
  • Utility the test of virtue.

From the Koch brothers to Rush Limbaugh to Donald Trump to Grover Norquist to my in-laws, what the Regressives have failed to grasp is that their own happiness is integrally tied to virtuous action.

Wealthy Americans (I include myself in this category) have been afforded, whether we realize it or not, enormous opportunity by virtue of living in this country. Isn’t it our patriotic duty to ensure that all Americans receive similar opportunities? Premium taxes in return for premium opportunities.

Ultimately, I believe most Americans, most people, want a system that provides opportunity and fosters happiness (in the fulfillment sense). While the system is necessarily quite complex, there is precedent for what works and what doesn’t to achieve happiness and prosperity.

The Regressive way seeks to destroy; the Progressive way seeks to build.

Make America Great

So now let my lamentations and railing give way to an optimistic, Progressive path forward. Here’s my 8-Point Plan to Make America Great:

1. Return Government to The People

  • Enact campaign finance and lobbying reform that gets big money out of politics
  • End gerrymandering
  • End voter suppression

At a time when politicians brazenly pander to their big donors rather than their constituents, we are in dire need of substantive Campaign Finance Reform. Other than the small minority of Regressives, who wouldn’t agree that politicians should be focused on the vast concerns of their constituents, not just the concerns of a few large donors? Something like the Fair Elections Now Act would address this.

Gerrymandering is some of the most Un-American bullshit out there. Both Democrats and Republicans have been guilty of drawing districts that favor them over the years, but Republicans have taken it to new lows of late, with state and federal houses across the country receiving disproportionate representation by Republicans due to partisan gerrymandering. Soon, the Supreme Court will decide Gill vs. Whitford,11 a case that could provide a metric for what constitutes partisan gerrymandering. If we believe in reason and virtue, districts should be drawn using a nonpartisan metric that most accurately reflects the will of the people, not partisan manipulators.

One other strategy that Regressives use to stay in power is voter suppression. If your interests only align with a few wealthy elite, then, aside from those you’ve duped into voting for you, you want to ensure that less people have access to vote. You do this through restrictive voting laws, making it onerous (or impossible) for people to register or vote. As people who believe in facts understand, voter fraud is negligible. Rather than extinguishing it in the gutter of voter suppression, we should light the beacon of democracy by making voting as simple and straightforward as possible.

2. E Pluribus Unum

  • End divisiveness and promote a vision of unity in which all Americans are working to attain the same goal: a happy and prosperous society
  • Re-establish that knowledge, science, facts, truth are attainable, and that they should guide policy
  • Reach out to different demographics (rural, urban, black, white, Latino, conservative, liberal) to better understand their concerns12
  • Work with local community leaders to disseminate information about the benefits of a Progressive platform
  • Spread the message that purveyors of divisiveness and hate are undermining American values

In case you didn’t know (and you’re not a true patriot!) E Pluribus Unum is a motto of the United States, meaning “out of many, one.” The Regressives seem bent on a mission that would change that to E Pluribus Pluribus. Here’s a real quote I found in the comments section of an anti-Obama piece after he won the 2012 election:

I seriously think dumbocraps have at least 50% less brain power than normal people. Otherwise how can they continiously over look the damage that he’s already done, not see it, and want MORE of it????

Aside from the comical placement of the “sics,” the troubling thing about this statement is how emblematic it is of the tribalism that has done, and is doing, so much damage in our country. I actually agree with the commenter that far too many people on the left aren’t informed consumers of media. But far more pervasive than this ignorance is the disinformation and divisiveness spread by Regressives,13 of which this guy is an eager adopter.

Dumbocraps is a new one to me, but we’ve all heard of libtards and snowflakes, and from the other side, rednecks, white trash, Bernie Bros; all of these are Regressive pejoratives meant to divide. And of course, playing on people’s fears via racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia further divides us. As mentioned above, it’s a Regressive tactic to pit people against each other who would actually benefit from working together. The Regressives will be shitting their slacks when the rest of us figure this out.

Conservative rural voters feel under siege by liberal elites, and I think they’re right to feel abandoned by Democrats, who have mostly ceded this bloc to Republicans (who pay lip service but not much else). A true Progressive platform (not all dumbocraps) encompasses the needs of rural whites as much as it does those of urban blacks, or liberal elites, or the working class, or poor folks. 

Not to get all kumbaya-y or anything, but Progressives need to make it abundantly clear that our policies are inclusive of all working class folks (defined as anybody who works for a living, wants to work for a living, can’t work for a living, is retired, or is a child). In other words, E Pluribus Unum.

3. Invest In Us

  • We are a big country – we need big government to administer equal opportunity
  • Ensure that our big government runs smoothly and efficiently
  • Enact fair regulations that ensure government, businesses, and individuals work for the benefit of society
  • Incentivize businesses to empower and reward employees
  • Establish that taxes are investments in the happiness and prosperity of our country and its citizens
  • Publicly account (via a simple website) for how our taxes are spent – our investments should pay dividends in the form of safety, security, education, health, convenience, and sustainability
  • Make filing taxes free and easy on a government website

According to the 2017 Happiness Report, Denmark is one of the happiest countries in the world (#2 after Norway). Danes pay 41-56% income taxes. For this, they receive free health care, education, and a financial safety net. They work less than 40 hours a week and get at least four weeks of vacation a year. Between them, parents get over 50 weeks of parental leave when a child is born.

Among advanced economies, the United States ranks 2nd highest in net income inequality. Out of these same 30 countries, the U.S. is 13th in happiness. They say money doesn’t buy happiness, but with about 40% of the world’s total wealth, it seems like we could be doing better.

Wagner’s Law states: “The advent of modern industrial society will result in increasing political pressure for social progress and increased allowance for social consideration by industry.”

In other words, wealthy nations have a tendency to provide more opportunities for their citizens over time. So, why, while much of the rest of the wealthy world (including Denmark) moved toward greater opportunity, has the U.S. remained relatively flat in that regard? Why, it’s those pesky Regressives, convincing people that what we really need is smaller government and less regulation – meanwhile, even as production increases, the Regressives have concentrated more and more of the resultant wealth among themselves at the top.

4. Invest In Education

  • Provide equal opportunity for all public schools by increasing and equally distributing funding among schools
  • Promote excellence in education by properly valuing and incentivizing teachers
  • Reward innovative and effective curricula that energize students
  • Integrate schools and communities more closely – many learning projects (gardens, food, building, service, technology, research, etc.) can also benefit the community
  • Use evaluative procedures that aren’t one-size-fits-all and that don’t force schools to teach to the test
  • Provide free preschool and college
  • Institute a year or two of mandatory national service after high school in which students work on national or international projects (military or civilian)

Preach a crusade against ignorance; establish and improve the law for educating the common people. Let our countrymen know that the people alone can protect us against these evils, and that the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.

This is Thomas Jefferson again. Note that one could substitute “Regressives” for “kings, priests and nobles.” Sadly, it seems that the Regressives have used this quote prescriptively: Hey, if we crusade for ignorance, we should be able to rise up among the people!

Of course, Jefferson didn’t mean for this to be a recipe for plutocracy, but rather against it. His prescription was that we must invest in education to enlighten the common people so that we may be informed participants in democracy.

5. Invest In Health

  • Enact universal health care
  • Establish a network of health advisers who work with individuals to promote preventive health care through healthy lifestyles and preemptive diagnoses
  • Regulate standard rates for various procedures and prescriptions
  • Regulate the ability of pharmaceutical, hospital, and other medical institutions to influence research, doctors, and hospitals
  • Provide adequate funding for impartial scientific research on health, medical procedures, and pharmaceuticals
  • Create a national database that tracks health issues to provide researchers with data to establish cause and effect for both illnesses and their cures (or prevention)
  • Include DNA, microbiota, and environmental information in this database
  • Focus more resources on determining the causes, prevention, and cures of mental illness, as well as creating more opportunities and better care for the mentally ill
  • Provide better detection, education, counseling, care, and monitoring for people with unhealthy or dangerous sexual or violent tendencies
  • End the war on drugs and utilize the resources saved (as well as taxes from alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana) to regulate dangerous drugs, and provide education, counseling, and care (not punishment and prison) for those who are addicted
  • Educate people better about diet and exercise, and properly regulate and tax unhealthy foods
  • Promote measures that will reduce traffic deaths – such as less reliance on vehicles, better urban design, and self-driving vehicles
  • Recognize that guns, like vehicles, can be much better regulated to promote safety

6. Invest In America

  • Rebuild infrastructure to make it smart infrastructure, geared toward a sustainable and lower-impact 21st century America
  • Design urban space that promotes community, civic pride, safety, enjoyment, and of course happiness and prosperity
  • Create nationwide, public internet access
  • Research and reward smart and sustainable agricultural practices
  • Regulate and reward businesses and cooperatives that foster positive community and societal ideals
  • Provide amnesty for the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants living in this country
  • Establish fair and effective immigration laws, and work with Mexico and other countries to establish worker exchange programs that benefit both those countries and the United States
  • Maintain and create more open space and wilderness
  • Recognize that equality of opportunity makes a stronger society

7. Invest In The World

  • Recognize that the United States has had a huge, often negative, impact on the rest of the world, especially through our outsized use of resources, but that we can also have an outsized positive impact
  • Invest in developing countries to help them develop in a sustainable manner – more than just altruism, these investments are repaid in the form of greater security, climate change mitigation, and ultimately more prosperous nations with which to cooperate
  • Work with the United Nations to strengthen its mission of maintaining world peace and security
  • Change the Department of Defense to the Department of Global Development, with the primary mission of advancing peace around the world14 – the vast resources afforded to our military could be better spent by fostering goodwill toward the United States
  • Create a leaner, smarter, stealthier military, ready to step in when power is needed
  • Work with countries to establish fair trade

8. The Environmental Moonshot

None of the above will ultimately matter much if we don’t address climate change now. Luckily, there are multiple economic factors involving renewable energy, battery storage, electric vehicles, lighting technology, agricultural practices, and other innovations that are increasingly making it more feasible for the world to drastically reduce its carbon footprint.

What we need now is the moral leadership and vision to accelerate into this new sustainable age. This could also be an effort that galvanizes our country around an existential cause (similar to the war effort during World War II, but with some of the energy and excitement surrounding the Apollo Mission). This environmental moonshot can and should be a massive jobs creator, and a boon to the U.S. economy as a whole.

  • End subsidies for fossil fuel and other polluting industries
  • Provide training to help people in these industries shift to new ones
  • Enact a carbon tax, with proceeds going toward sustainable energy innovation and endeavors
  • Become the world leader in green energy technology and goods
  • Shift to primarily electric transportation
  • Shift to an integrated and sustainable agricultural system
  • Work to restore and preserve biodiversity nationally and internationally
  • Work with impoverished, environmentally degraded communities to rebuild sustainably
  • Become a zero-waste nation by 2035
  • The Moonshot: become a 100% renewable energy nation by 2035

America, Fuck Yeah

I can hear all the naysayers laughing at my idealism, calling me Pollyanna. But this is ‘Merica, dadgummit, and when we want something, we take it! Many of the above ideas are already underway, if not here, then in other nations. We can see the success that they’re having – we can emulate and improve upon it.

Who would’ve thought in 2010 that, in just a few years, the Supreme Court would find that same-sex couples have a fundamental right to marry under the Constitution, or that pot would be legalized in multiple states? When there’s a good Progressive idea, the dominoes often fall pretty quickly. And, of course, many of the above ideas work synergistically, amplifying the domino effect.

Maybe it’s time to throw down the gauntlet to the rest of the world and show them what American exceptionalism is really about. Instead of internecine fighting, Americans need a common enemy we can unite against… the Danes, of course – fuck the Danes! We need to knock their shiny happy asses down a peg or two. Too tribal? Fine, then let’s just unite against Regressive thinking and fight for a Progressive America.

 

Irrational Actors

capuchin

I’ll give you $10 today if you give me $300 tomorrow

As mentioned in a recent post, we mostly-hairless apes are genetically sucky actors when it comes to economics. In many ways, we display similar irrational behavior to our relatives the capuchin monkeys. Capuchins, like us, don’t want to give up something we already have, even for more than we would be willing to pay for the item ourselves (the endowment effect). We also share some other irrational biases with capuchins: reference dependence (preferring to gamble when the outcome is framed as a bonus versus a loss, even if the outcomes are the same), loss aversion (avoiding the feeling of loss, even if the outcome is the same), and the reflection effect (engaging in risky behavior to avoid loss). One area where capuchin monkeys differ from humans is with pricing effects – capuchins don’t give a shit if their bonbons come from Whole Foods or Safeway, they’ll just go for the better deal. Humans, on the other prehensile appendage, will often place more value on the pricier object, regardless of the arbitrariness of this pricing. Of course, this makes us humans more sophisticated. Maybe it’s another evolutionary adaptation: status seeking.

Those payday lender guys must be a pretty sophisticated bunch, because they figured out how truly irrational humans are when it comes to economics. Well, they also use a lot of dissembling and trickery and outright assholery to get their hands on (mostly) poor people’s money. So it’s nice to see that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is trying to rein them in. Despite interest rates that can top 300% and a system that’s designed to ensnare people in debt, the payday loan biz has its defenders (albeit generally people who make money from them, or the usual naïve anti-regulationists). Donald C. Lampe, a lawyer for a firm that advises payday lenders, says, “Just punishing payday lenders is not going to prevent Americans from needing short-term products.”

Yes, exactly – they shouldn’t just punish them. They should punish them by regulating them into oblivion and they should obviate the need for their services. Let’s face it, most people who get payday loans don’t have very good financial acumen. As noted above, evolution has programmed us to run around like drunken sailors (or brain-damaged capuchins) when it comes to money. So how do we overcome our fiscal lunacy? Education is a good way; why not have a required course in high school that teaches some basic principles of personal finance?

Victims of the payday loan scam have some culpability, but there is also a more systemic issue; most victims of payday lenders are hard working people who still aren’t making ends meet. And, yes, a better understanding of personal finances might help there, too. But so would giving people a decent wage to start with. Shouldn’t the wealthiest nation in the world provide a minimum wage that gives people a fighting chance?

What about people who, in spite of the above measures, still find themselves in desperate need of a short-term loan? Why not have an insurance system of sorts? This could be an emergency fund that everybody pays into that distributes short-term loans at reasonable rates when people can show that they truly have need.* The expectation is that these loans would be paid back, but for those that aren’t, it wouldn’t lock people into a spiral of unending debt. It could even come with some financial counseling to help people avoid it in the future. Ultimately, such a fund would redound to the economic well-being of us all – an investment to create a more productive populace less likely to fall into a spiral of debt.

When it comes to economics, we’re not perfectly rational actors. Companies like the predatory lenders take advantage of our weakness. We wouldn’t want lawyers and lobbyists in lieu of mechanics for the airlines; why do we let crooks, lawyers, and lobbyists continue with the payday loan scam? Let’s stop letting the predatory lenders make monkeys out of us all.

 

*Maybe this could be an extension of TANF.

Shocking News

Some scientists get to have a lot of fun. “Hey, let’s do an experiment where we get to shock people – there are endless possibilities here. Oh, and maybe we’ll learn some stuff.” These scientists determined that people would sacrifice a certain amount of pay not to be shocked (no surprise there), but they would sacrifice twice that pay to avoid shocking an anonymous other. This is another indication that altruism is part of human nature. No word on whether the scientists enjoyed themselves immensely.

Passenger Pigeons: Why Extinction Matters

Passenger Pigeons by John James Audubon

Passenger Pigeons by John James Audubon

I had a dream last night that I was keeping dodo birds the way one might keep chickens. They had been resurrected, phoenix-style, through DNA lab work. I was excited to tell my stepmom – this would be a great bird to add to her life list.

In the category of birds that have run afoul of man’s voraciousness, perhaps only the passenger pigeon occupies a place in the public’s consciousness equal to its relative the dodo. It’s been 100 years since the last passenger pigeon died.

In college I wrote about the ecological implications of the extinction of the passenger pigeon (the paper was creatively titled Ecological Implications of the Extinction of the Passenger Pigeon). During the course of the 19th century, the passenger pigeon population plummeted from about 3 billion birds to virtually none, killed for food, for animal feed, for sport, and to protect crops. This was exacerbated by loss of habitat as forests were cleared. I focused on three areas where the loss of passenger pigeons likely affected the ecosystem.

1. Passenger pigeons ate a variety of nuts, fruits, insects, worms, and grains. During certain seasons, beechnuts made up a large part of the passenger pigeon diet. Imagine a billion or so passenger pigeons descending on a beech forest to gorge themselves on beechnuts and other food. The pigeons helped maintain healthy forests by dispersing nuts, keeping potentially harmful insect outbreaks in check, fertilizing the forest floor, and even occasionally destroying individual trees, which would clear the way for younger trees. Might the presence of passenger pigeons have been enough to minimize the effects of beech bark disease, caused by scale insects imported from Europe in the late 1800s?

2. Passenger pigeons ate a lot of food, but they also were food. In addition to providing a tasty meal for numerous mammalian predators, many raptors would have feasted on the cornucopia of pigeons. In particular, peregrine falcons, famously affected by DDT, may have been more susceptible given that an important food source was no longer available.

3. And passenger pigeons didn’t just provide food for larger animals. The American burying beetle uses small bird and mammal carcasses to rear its young. The historical range of the burying beetle was similar to that of passenger pigeons. Today this beetle is found in only a few small areas, and is critically endangered.

Of course there are innumerable ecological functions that changed with the loss of passenger pigeons, given that there had been around 3 billion passenger pigeons prior to their eradication.* We often look at the ecological implications of human interference with nature, but this is generally presented based on how it affects humans, whether environmentally or economically.

Do we really care about the American burying beetle, beech trees, peregrine falcons, or passenger pigeons aside from the services they may provide for us? By discussing the “ecosystem services” that species provide for humans, well-meaning environmental and other groups are attempting to tap into our natural self-interest. These services include resources like food, water, and wood, as well as processes like carbon sequestration and air purification. And there are cultural and aesthetic services – we value the serenity of nature, the beauty of tigers.

It’s OK to value organisms and ecosystems based on their benefit to us. It’s important to have a metric by which we can assess ecosystems’ values. If we were more rigorous about this, then we might have a better handle on the true cost of fossil fuels, meat, and Nikes.

But there are many species whose loss doesn’t mean much to us in an ecological, economic, or even aesthetic sense. If our ethic were to stop with the economic and environmental benefits to us, where would this leave critters like the desert pupfish? Why should we care? Because, beyond any value organisms may provide to us, they have intrinsic value, a right to exist. These creatures have evolved over hundreds of millions of years, and to just snuff them out in a blink just ain’t right. Each is an incredibly detailed, intricate, refined creation of evolution.**

But extinction is a natural part of life on Earth, you say. Yes, but humans have brought a chainsaw to this delicate natural surgery, with species loss probably over a thousand times higher than the natural rate of extinction (and with climate change underway, this will likely accelerate). By many accounts, we are in the midst of the sixth major extinction event on Earth, and it’s our fault.*** We need an ethic that goes beyond human self-interest, a refined ethic, a return to a greater appreciation of nature.

Aldo Leopold argued for a land ethic:

“The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land…. [A] land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.”

Understanding that we are part of the greater whole, and valuing all its parts for their intrinsic worth, not only redounds to our economic and environmental benefit, it reconnects us, as humans, to the natural world. This is an essential component of living a fulfilled life.

On this centennial anniversary of the death of the last of one of nature’s spectacular creations, perhaps we should reflect on what we’ve wrought, and what kind of future we want to leave for posterity. In the words of Aldo Leopold, memorializing the passenger pigeon:

“We grieve because no living man will see again the onrushing phalanx of victorious birds, sweeping a path for spring across the March skies, chasing the defeated winter from all the woods and prairies of Wisconsin. …[A] few decades hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.”****

 

 

*Here are a few more, from Science.

**Of course, there are certain beings that I – selfishly, from a human point of view – wouldn’t mind seeing fully eradicated (the Ebola and AIDS viruses come to mind). And I wouldn’t go as far as Tolstoy, who apparently wouldn’t even kill a fly. Although it’s worth something to reflect upon what an amazing creature a fly is as we swat the crap out of it for waking us with its annoying buzzing.

***See the recent book by Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction, or The Sixth Extinction by Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin, or The Sixth Extinction by Terry Glavin.

****What if we could bring things like the passenger pigeon back from the dead? Here’s a paper discussing the ethics of de-extinction.

Update: For those interested in the idea that an accounting of ecosystem services may not be the best way to preserve biodiversity, a new paper in Science by W. M. Adams discusses some of the costs and benefits of this approach, concluding: “ecosystem service values are just one argument for the conservation of nature.”