Monday, December 28, 2009

Aphorisms and Provocations - Part Two

By Tom Kando

Two weeks ago I treated you to some provocative aphorisms. I explained that such concise statements generally contain both truth and falsehood, and that they are meant to rile up the reader, to make him/her think. Several of you sent me back humorous examples, for example this:

“To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism; to steal from many is research.” That’s a good one.
I now offer you some additional provocations. These are about the social “sciences” and the helping professions. That has been my world for the past 40 years, a world about which I had plenty of opportunity to become cynical. Here are some aphorisms I came up with:

1) The result of Psychiatry is mental illness, which requires more psychiatric services.

2) The result of medical intervention is illness - which necessitates further medical intervention. (This is what some of my friends, sociology professor Howard Becker and radical believers in holistic medicine believe)

3 ) The result of Marriage Counseling is Divorce.

4) The function of the legal system is to protect white-collar criminals and the elite’s privileges. (This is the radical/Marxist criminological perspective).

5) The role of the police is to brutalize and to intimidate harmless citizens. (This is the perspective of some African Americans)

6) The result of formal education is to subtract from understanding, especially in such higher education programs as Women’s Studies, Ethnic Studies and other so-called Social Sciences. (This paraphrases a 5/21/02 syndicated column by George Will)

7) Schools destroy students’ minds. (This paraphrases sociologist Howard Becker, and child psychologists such as Bruno Bettelheim and Benjamin Spock).

8) Most professors hate teaching and they despise their students.

9) Most doctors hate sick people.

One of the big subjects within sociology is gender and sex roles. Here are some of the man-hating and family-hating thoughts I sometimes heard from my ardently feminist colleagues:

1) Men are rabid dogs. They should be either muzzled or destroyed.

2) All heterosexual sex is rape.

3) All married women are whores.

4) Parenthood is torture.

5) Frankenstein is a metaphor for having children: You create life, but it grows into a monster and turns against you.

But let’s give equal time to the opposite perspective - that of the misogynist. I have heard some men say, for instance after a painful divorce, things like:

1) Man needs woman because he is a masochist.

2) There are only two kinds of women - those who need help and those who cannot be helped.

I’ll stop for now. Something for everybody. I bet you everyone among you agrees with at least one/some of these, while being outraged by many. As Terrence said, veritas odium parit (truth engenders hatred). leave comment here

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Milly The Wug

by Madeleine Kando

Milly the wug was very ordinary looking. She wasn’t one of those fancy wugs, with curly cues int their hair and stiff collars to hold up their necks. No, Milly was unpretentious. True, she had a tendency towards being snappy sometimes. Especially when her father came into her room without knocking. Her parents often couldn’t tell where her wugging started and theirs ended. But on the whole, she was a well-adjusted, soft-spoken, cuddly little wug that most other wugs her age liked.

On Tuesday she received a letter from her aunt Mildred (she was named after her as you might have guessed). This is what the letter said: ‘Dear Milly. This is your aunt Mildred. I wanted to come over to visit you on Friday to give you a present. Please respond a.s.a.p, as I am waitressing all week at the ‘Wugger’s delight’ and need to ask my boss if I can take the evening off. Yours sincerely, Aunt Mildred’.

Milly liked presents so she replied in an email. ‘Dear aunt Mildred. Yes, please come over. I will be waiting in my room. The secret knock on the door is the following: ‘two short taps followed by one long one’.

Milly could hardly wait for Friday to come. She had received presents before. They all had had cards on them: ‘to Milly-the-wug’. Just so they wouldn’t be given to whom exactly? ‘Milly-the-bee’? ‘Milly-the-bear?’ No-one else was named Milly in her neighborhood, so it was somewhat superfluous in her opinion. But as I said before, Milly was ordinary and unpretentious, so she kept her criticism to herself.

On Wednesday, on her way to school, she met up with Barnaby. Barnaby secretly liked Milly. That’s why he sometimes pushed her and punched her on the shoulder. So Milly crossed the street so she wouldn’t have to talk to him. In school they learnt about the famous twelfth century ‘Batlle of the Wugs’ when Wug the Magnificent had defeated his enemies.

On Thursday, after she had done her chores and her homework, she took Poodles for a walk. She saw a crawn stuck in the tree where Poodles was doing his business. She carefully untangled his right leg and placed him on the ground. Crawns are unpredictable you see, so Milly quickly stepped back before the crawn would have a chance to take a bite out of her helping hand.

Finally it was Friday. Milly had put out chips and lemonade, crackers and napkins. And now she was waiting for the secret knock. And sure enough: she heard the two short taps followed by one long one. ‘Please come in’ said Milly.

The door opened slowly and Milly, who hadn’t seen her aunt Mildred for quite some time, was surprised to see a beautiful, tall and slender wug stand in the doorway. ‘Hello Milly’ said Mildred with a beautiful, melodious voice, unlike any other wug voice Milly had every heard. ‘I have come to give you a present. Would you like to open it?’

Millly was very curious but also very polite, so she first offered Mildred some lemonade and crackers. As the tension built inside her, she inched her way closer to the box and finally couldn’t resist. ‘May I?’ she said. The box was easily opened. A flat, square looking object was wrapped in tissue paper. She had never seen anything like it before. Inside a dark brown looking frame was a shiny silver colored glass surface with the letters ‘U’ and ‘G’ on it. As Milly slowly turned it towards her she saw buttons with letters, like a telephone pad on the side of the frame. She pressed the letter ‘W’. Whoosh! An odd looking creature was looking back at her. It had eyes, ears, a nose.. ‘what is that?’ asked Milly. It looks like a picture of someone familiar. I sort of like it. Who is it?’

Mildred leaned towards her and as she caressed her cheeks with an ever so tender touch, she said: ‘that is YOU, my darling. A wug. Why don’t you press the letter ‘B’?’ Instantly she was transformed into a B-U-G inside the frame. As she started to press the different letters, her reflection metamorphosed into a M-U-G, then a R-U-G and also a SL-U-G. ‘What a wonderful present’, said Milly. I can be anything I want!’

So from that day on, when she didn’t feel like doing her homework she changed herself into a bug. And when her father got upset she could become a ‘hug’ and make him feel better. And when her feet were cold she could become a ‘rug’.

I bet you can think of many other things Milly could change herself into. Wouldn’t it be great to be a wug? leave comment here

Monday, December 14, 2009

Aphorisms and Provocations

By Tom Kando

An aphorism is a "a concise statement containing a subjective truth or observation cleverly and pithily written." (Wikipedia). A provocation is a statement meant to rile up the reader, to make him/her think. For example the well-know statement (attributed to George Bernard Shaw ?): "Those who can, do, and those can’t, teach." Or French Utopian Socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon's famous dictum: "Property is Theft."Perhaps the key characteristic of a provocative aphorism is that it is both true and false. How true it is, depends on its degree of generalization. But the beauty of such zingers is precisely that they are terse and categorical. The sophomoric reply, "well, it depends" is silly. No duh! Of course, everything depends. Are some teachers incompetent? Yes, some are and some aren’t. Is some property stolen? Yes, and some isn’t.

But "it depends" isn’t the point of provocative aphorisms. They have a different value. A provocateur can be largely wrong, but his insight can be an eye opener. He is expressing a perspective. You may not share that perspective, but to him, based on his experience, that is how things look.

Here are some examples - some are mine (at least the formulations), some are not: Take bureaucracy for instance. The last person to praise bureaucracy was probably Max Weber. Today, the word has a bad connotation, right? Here are two aphorisms which capture the badness of bureaucracy succinctly and wittily. The well-known Parkinson’s Law, and Peter Principle:

1) The function of bureaucracies is to create useless work so as to fill employees’ time.

2) Bureaucracies maximize inefficiency and incompetence: Employees who excel are promoted, while those who do not are maintained in their positions. Thus, everyone is promoted until they reach their level of mediocrity/incompetence.

I have some of my own aphorisms about bureaucracies. Obviously, these are not original thoughts. I just wrote them down:

3) The goal of bureaucracies is to fail, for only then will their budgets be augmented.

4) Failure leads to reward and success leads to punishment, for failure is interpreted as the result of under-funding.

6) An important budgetary goal is to waste money: Unless you spend the maximum budgeted for a given year, the next year’s base-line budget gets reduced.

Or how about the helping professions and the social sciences? Here are some of the things I have said to my criminology students at one time or another, so as to provoke them (again, these are obviously not my ideas):

1) Society needs its deviants

2) Psychiatrists need their patients more than the patients need their psychiatrists.

3) the more laws there are, the higher the crime rate is.

4) The result of prisons is to increase criminality.

5) The function of the criminal justice system is to create jobs in corrections, in the courts and in law enforcement.

6) The result of social services (Child Protective Services, Social Work, Probation, Parole, Counseling, Juvenile Reformatories, Rehabilitative Services, etc.) is an increase in family dysfunction, delinquency and maladjustment, which increases the need for those services.

Well, you get my drift. What most of these aphorisms have in common is that they reverse the conventional wisdom. And each is both true and false. For example, do prisons protect society against criminals? Of course they do. Do they also criminalize people? Absolutely.

I invite you to send me some of your favorite aphorisms. If we get a bunch, maybe we can compare them, and even recognize and acknowledge the best one(s)... leave comment here

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Bird’s Eye View

by Madeleine Kando

I woke up this morning all refreshed and glad to be alive. It was a gorgeous sunny day and I got ready for my customary morning flight. Where should I go today I pondered. Should I go my usual route: over the little houses that form a circle, or should I go more west, towards the town forest? I liked the little houses so I decided to fly that way today. As I was breathing the fresh air and feeling the breeze on my wings, I looked down and watched a human walk down the street.

He was dragging himself slowly down the road. I sometimes wondered what it would be like to always be in contact with the earth. Would it feel safer? Smaller?

As I watched him struggle trying to fight gravity with each step he took, there appeared another person in front of him. They both stopped. Oh, they are going to sing to each other I thought for a brief moment.

Suddenly the smaller person’s nose came in contact with the other man’s knee and they touched briefly. I could see that his nose started to drip a dark red fluid. Now the man’s chin came in contact with the larger man’s curled up hand and I heard a faint cracking noise, as if a branch was breaking. He tipped backwards, and lay down. The larger man approached him and his foot quickly came in contact with the man’s stomach after which the tall man walked away. What a strange way these creatures communicate with each other, I thought.

I veered towards the town forest. I usually encounter other early risers in this area. Yellow throated warblers, little chickedees and an occasional woodpecker. I flew over a large open area covered with what looked like long golden colored stalks. As I watched the wind dance over the stalks, moving them to and fro, a human appeared with a long instrument in his hand. He started to pull out large tufts of these stalks and fed them into a container, its gaping mouth wide open waiting for nourishment.

He must be preparing a nest, I thought. Where is his female? He hasn’t called out to her. Ah, there she is, all dolled up with a colorful wrapping around her waist. The human tilted the loaded container and pushed it in front of him, towards his mate.

They faced each other and it looked like they were going to do a mating dance. And sure enough, she put her hands on her hips, pushed out her chest and opened her beak. Is she going to sing? The sound was not pleasant, high pitched and very loud. The man lifted his open hand quickly and touched her cheek. Little dew droplets fell from her eyes.

A little befuddled I continued my morning flight over the busier section of town. I was maneuvering my way through the tall buildings when I saw a group of humans gathered together seemingly preparing for some event. ‘Ah! I bet they are ready to migrate’, I thought. Many of them carried stones in their hands, others long branches, probably to build a shelter on their way south. I watched their slow progress along the street as they gathered speed. For a moment I thought they might take flight, but then remembered that these unfortunate creatures don’t possess wings.

They abruptly stopped. Suddenly stones and branches were flying through the air. One of the building’s see-through front broke into a million pieces. The group dispersed in an instant.

I returned to the comfort of my nest and watched my brood still sleeping peacefully. I opened my beak and started my morning song. All I could feel was immense gratitude that I had been born as a bird. I felt great pity for those wingless creatures that act so mysteriously and sing so badly. leave comment here

Thursday, December 3, 2009

My Little Corner of the World

by Madeleine Kando

One of my favorite places to visit around Thanksgiving time is an obscure little town called Colebrook in New Hampshire. It is buried in the northern most corner of the state, only 10 miles from the Canadian border. You know you are approaching Canada because suddenly the radio sounds ‘foreign’ and the names of the stores all have a ‘le’ or ‘la’: ‘La Perle’, ‘La Verderie’..
The radio is picking up French rock music, which is not exactly the best in the world and the announcer is now talking in French. If you can call it that. Personally I am of the opinion that French Canadian should never have been allowed to exist. If you want to hear a language being butchered, listen to French Canadian. It literally gives me goose pimples, like someone scraping their nails over a blackboard.

But the countryside up there in the ‘North Country’ more than makes up for these small irritations. It is a blend of pasture and pine forest, of manicured hayfields and dark ominous trees. The occasional moose adds to the sense that there is still hope in the world. There is such a place where moose and bear can roam in peace.

As always we were hoping for snow during our visit. Snow makes everything beautiful. It is like taking a bath in milk after a long year of mud, heat and rain. And my friend Janice, who lives up there on 300 acres of this beautiful countryside always prays for snow at that time of year.

Surrounded by her horses, her dogs and her trees she lives the perfect ‘country’ life. With her husband Marty they have created a little private kingdom. They built a house, soon to be followed by a horsebarn. A loft over the barn has been added as well as a swimming pool and an outdoors hottub. They remind me of the pioneers who went out west. Starting out with nothing, they staked out their territory and began to build and build and build. They carved out a little paradise with their bare hands. It helps somewhat that Marty is a psychiatrist. He is not exactly on a day laborer’s wage and can afford this kind of life style.

This year we all sat around the turkey wishing for snow to fall. And sure enough, the next morning it started to snow. Janice jumped for joy, we all went out and stuck out our tongue to taste the first flakes of the year. And it snowed. And snowed. Until the branches outside their beautiful large windows started to hang ominuously low and move closer and closer to the glass, like in a poltergeist movie.

Not to worry. We were protected from the elements in their warm, cozy house with the smell of a delicious thanksgiving dinner still in the air. Marty started to light candles. Not too soon we found out. A few minutes later everything went dark.

It was a good time for us to take our leave so we walked to our car stepping in snow up to our knees. Snow is a way of life up there. No one was too worried. But as Marty realized how heavy, wet and deep the snow really was he said: ‘uh, we might have a problem. I better go ahead of you in my truck.’

Up in Northern New Hampshire the 3 most important words in winter time are ‘four-wheel-drive'. Which we didn’t have. This is when the fun started. We are very proud of our Camry, but that kind of vehicle doesn’t cut it in a foot of snow. It’s like putting a race horse in front of an overloaded hay cart. You need a Clydesdale for that.

Of course we got stuck on the first 100 yards of their very long drive way. Wheels spinning. Engine revving. Passengers panicking. There is nothing more stressful than the prospect of being stranded in a snow blizzard at night with nothing around except wolves and coyotes and bears and who knows what else watching you from behind those snow covered trees.

We managed a few more yards while we were burning our engine but an oversized branch was blocking the way. Marty is not stupid. He went back for a chain saw and while we were sitting in our car, teeth chattering from angst he cut the branch. He hooked a cable to our car and towed us to the main road. We were all cursing our bad judgement that we didn’t opt to rent a 4-wheel drive.

But we weren’t out of the woods yet (no pun intended). The main road was not plowed and was going up hill. We tried to get the car to go uphill, all making rocking motions as if that would help the car somehow. We must have looked like fools. After many heart stopping attempts we finally made it to the part of the road that was drivable. We let out a collective sigh of relief as a plow truck came our way. Finally! We were saved.

Suddenly a big branch fell out of the dark sky right onto the plow truck’s roof. Boom. Another snapping sound and a black telephone cable slithered right across the road, like a giant anaconda. I was petrified watching all this from my warm car cubicle, afraid of even opening the door. It took the ‘guys’ an hour to cut the cable, saw the branch into pieces and clear the road.

We finally made it to civilization. We left our car in a parking lot and had Marty drive us to our Bed and Breakfast in his truck. Wet, cold and exhausted we didn’t even mind the lack of heat, light or hot water. We groped our way in the dark and were grateful for our beds and a dry place to rest our weary bones.

That kind of excitement will more than carry me over till our next thanksgiving visit. When something else unexpected will happen. Don’t believe it when people tell you that country life is boring. Nothing is further from the truth. leave comment here

Does the Government do Everything Badly?

By Tom Kando

Yesterday, I had to see Glenn Beck again on TV - It was in the locker room of my club, which is full of Republicans, so I had no choice. Beck was at it again: “The government is the problem, not the solution. If you want to solve America’s problems, just unleash free enterprise,” etc., ad nauseam. And I am afraid that the message is taking hold among the American people. Wherever I turn, I hear people repeating the same clich├ęs: “The government can’t do anything right. Washington is the problem. All politicians are crooks,” etc.
What about the perception that most politicians are corrupt? The group Transparency International ranks annually most of the world’s countries in terms of their CPI - the Corruption Perception Index: Out of nearly 200 countries, we are the 19th least corrupt. This is not stellar, but neither is it terrible. We are right behind Japan and England, who are tied for 17th place. France is #24, Italy #63, China: #79, Russia: #146. Most of Eastern Europe, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and the rest of the world is more corrupt than we are. The 18 less corrupt countries are in Northern Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. So we shouldn’t get carried away with the mea culpa that always blames America, or the American government.

Furthermore, America’s Corruption Index would be lower if it didn’t include the private sector practices associated with Wall Street, the trade in junk bonds, hedge funds, derivatives, toxic loans, insider trading and all the other shenanigans which have brought the economy to its knees.

Does the government do everything badly? Here are just some anecdotes to refute this:

(1) When I first traveled across America in the 1960s, I was struck by the contrast between two kinds of tourist spots - public and private: On the one hand, we visited Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and other magnificent national parks. They were all fantastically clean; the environment was pristine, protected, kept inviolate. Services were excellent and cheap. And then there were those dinosaur-land and alligator-farm types of amusement parks in various parts of the Dakotas, Wyoming, Arizona. They offered vulgar, paper mache giant dinosaurs, they were littered with junked cars and rusty farm equipment. The prairie and the desert wore the scars of “free enterprise.” This left an indelible impression on me, strengthening my belief in social democracy, i.e. a system in which the government protects the collective patrimony against plunder motivated by the search for individual profit.

(2) Recently, my wife and I received our H1N1 flu shots. We stood in line with 5000 others. It took us less than two hours. There were volunteers serving coffee and providing chairs for the elderly. The shots were free to everybody. I know, I know, it was the taxpayer who paid the bill, ultimately. But wasn’t this well-spent money?

3) Come to think of it, I can’t think of many programs than are more efficient and work better and more fairly than Medicare and Social Security. The benefits are reasonable and well-deserved by the millions of people who paid in many thousands of dollars over their lifetime.

4) State Universities are frustrating bureaucracies, you say? After years of devastating cutbacks, California’s public universities continue valiantly to provide an excellent education to ten times more students than do the private colleges, which are prohibitively expensive for most people.

5) You don’t like the US Postal Service, or the Department of Motor Vehicles? Well, try to access Intel for information, for assistance, or to find one of their employees. Last time I tried (by phone) they threatened to arrest me. I could go on, and ask you how you like the services of the airlines, or the banks, or any other major corporation, whether you like talking to someone in India every time you need assistance. But you get my drift.

The bottom line is this: Bureaucracy, laziness, corruption and inefficiency are found everywhere. But on balance, the government is no more inefficient - and it may often be more efficient - than private companies.

Of course, if we keep cutting back funding for the public sector, there’ll be a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it will begin to unravel. But the increasingly widespread belief that the public non-profit sector does things more badly and less efficiently than the private for-profit sector is hogwash. leave comment here

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Dual Deficit Problem

By Tom Kando

Nowadays, everyone is raving about “the” deficit, especially conservatives, and the consensus is that the fault lies with Obama’s irresponsible fiscal policies.

Because the conversation about “the” deficit is so poorly informed, I begin with a few basic facts:
“The” deficit problem is a dual problem: (1) There is the federal government’s increasing debt, caused by the fact that it spends more than it takes in through taxes. (2) There is America’s growing debt to the world, caused primarily by our balance of trade deficit. That is, the fact that you, I and the other 310 million Americans spend/buy more than we make/sell.

(1) The federal government’s debt is now 13 trillion, three times larger than it was ten years ago. Next year it will reach 14.5 trillion, up 1.5 trillion in one year. During the Bush years, it grew by nearly half a trillion in some years.

(2) The trade deficit has grown, during the past decade, by 700-800 billion per year. Because of the recession, 2009 is a little bit better: this year, we are only 300 billion short. Warren Buffet has estimated that by 2006, the rest of the world already owned 3 trillion more of America than America owned of the rest of the world. By now, the figure is probably around 5 trillion. Who owns us? China & Co. (Japan, Korea, Singapore. Etc), the Middle East, Europe.

Why is suddenly everyone turning into a fiscal conservative and an economic expert? Nowadays, aunt Mabel knows all about the federal budget deficit, and its dire consequences.

True, the fed deficit is getting huge, and it’s a real problem. But keep in mind that federal spending has been out of control for many years. President Obama didn’t start it. Conservatives were okay with deficit spending under Bush, as long as it was for war and tax cuts for the rich. But now that it’s for health care and jobs, they are against it. Such priorities are warped.

Granted, the deficit has gotten a lot worse recently. But it had to. The Obama administration inherited the worst recession in 70 years. Stimulus spending was essential. We need more of it.

The sudden public awareness of the deficit problem is fed by the conservative propaganda machine. Aunt Mabel and all the other new experts are only mouthing off what they heard from people like Glenn Beck. Proof of this is that very few people worry about the other deficit, the trade deficit. According to Warren Buffet, in the long run the trade deficit is a bigger problem than the government deficit. This deficit has nothing to do with the policies of the Obama administration, which is in fact trying to reduce it.

There is a simple solution to the federal budget deficit: Raise taxes. The mantra that lower taxes increase business activity and therefore tax receipts (the Laffer Curve) is an act of faith and a smokescreen, not science. Germany, Canada and many other countries combine higher tax rates and greater business productivity.

There is no solution to the trade deficit, as long as you and I are determined to spend more than we make. leave comment here