Friday, December 31, 2010

When will China become Number One? And Funny Prognostications

By Tom Kando

The question as to when China will overtake the US has intrigued me for a long time. Maybe it’s because I am still an American chauvinist, who has always been proud to be a citizen of the “Number One” country. Maybe it’s just intellectual curiosity.

So I did two quick series on my calculator:

1. I assumed that the US economy will grow at an average rate of 2.8% per year, and that the Chinese economy will grow by 10% a year. In this scenario, China will surpass the US in 2028 - 18 years from now.

2. Assume that the US economy will grow at an average rate of 2.8% per year, and that the Chinese economy will grow by 10% per year for another 6 years, but only 5% from 2017 on. In this case, China will overtake the US in 2053 - 42 years from now.

But forecasts are often wrong. “Futurologists” like Alvin Toffler, John Naisbitt and Jeremy Rifkin have been more often wrong than right. For example, the Soviet Union went “poof” and no one saw it coming...

Extrapolations from current conditions can be really funny. Here are some which I hope you enjoy:

! In the 1870s, someone predicted that by 1930 the streets of all US cities would be covered with a 35-foot thick layer of horse manure due to the exponential increase in horse carriages.

! Someone also predicted that there would be a sharp increase in the number of heart attacks in the 20th century, as the human heart would not be able to withstand train speeds over 30 mph.

! And here is another good one: If the world’s population kept growing at 2% or 3% per year, as it has over the past century, guess what the earth would look like in the year 5000?
Well, it would be covered by a solid mass of flesh, which would be expanding out into space at the speed of light.

So my bet is that all predictions about when China will overtake the US are wrong, including my own. China could become Number One earlier, later, or never. Unforeseen things could (and will!) happen in both countries. Good things and bad things. Political changes, etc.

I am just tossing this your way as food for thought.

P.S. If you know of funny prognostications, send them to us.leave comment here

Who is in Charge?

by Madeleine Kando

I wish I was like my daughter Aniko. She still believes that everything in life can be'fixed', if you only put in the effort. It is a wonderful way to look at the world. Armed with her rock solid belief in the power of the rational mind, she goes through life like Athena, the Goddess of war. There is this slight feeling of cold toughness about her view of life, but war goddesses, after all, need a hard, metal armor to be efficient.

Yes, she is convinced that in the boxing ring of life her intellect is ample protection against the punches that come her way. With her strong, graceful and humorous personality, she approaches problems as if they were pets with behavior problems.

Granted, some breeds are tougher than others, but a rational approach will surmount any obstacle. You just need to observe, analyze, break apart if necessary and put pets back together the 'right' way.

What's the mystery about that!? Why would you have to put up with unhappiness, torment, ambivalence, uncertainty, contradiction, doubt, indecision or vacillation? Those words do not mean anything to my daughter. She swats them away like bothersome flies when the need arises.

You see, part of me takes pleasure in conflict. It gives the web of my life some tension. I don't really enjoy smooth sailing ALL the time. I would'nt want to have chronic stress, but a healthy daily dose of trouble gives spice to my days. Besides, I have had enough time to graduate from the school of hard knocks to know that my daughter's enviable illusion is far off the mark.

Someone up there must have been paying attention when they assembled her. She was handed a straight flush, right from birth. She is charming, balanced, pretty, considerate and oh so sociable. The envy of neurotic individuals like myself.

But what's going to happen to her when the shit hits the fan? Is she going to be prepared? How is she going to react when one of the millions of bad things that can happen to good people is going to come her way?

Or is it true that bad things only happen to people who 'attract' bad luck? Does she have built-in anti-shit protection? Up to now (she is already in her thirties) facts bear out this hypothesis. Shit, in any significant amount, has not come her way yet.

It's not like she leads a protected life: she takes risks. She travels around the world with just a backpack and her confidence and charm as her only weapons. But she also has an extremely sharp sense of self-preservation. When she has to choose between what's good for her and not so good for someone else, there is no hesitation. That's what leaves me breathless: her ability to remove this oh so familiar feeling of being pulled in two directions from her list of options.

Is there such a thing as 'self fulfilling prophecy'? Some people, who don't like to take risks, who do not travel, do not meet new people for fear of rejection, always find themselves holding the short end of the stick. Bad things come their way all the time. Their attempts at insulation does not prevent trouble from piling up on them.

When my oldest visits from far away California, I prepare myself. I don my rational coat and tell myself: 'Ok, Madeleine, for the next few days, put all that sentimental crap on the backburner, Aniko is coming. You better behave yourself.'

Here I am, writing about her, wondering how she will react when she reads this post. I am conflicted, ambivalent, not sure if I should remove her from my list of recipients. You see? There it is: insecurity! That's another word that doesn't fit in my daughter's world view.

Soon she will be gone. I will look back on her visit and our conversations about how to 'fix' the problems that have piled up in my life. But how do you 'fix' an overwhelming feeling of helplessness when you watch someone you deeply love self-destruct? How do you 'fix' the paralyzing feeling you get when you discover that injustice is hardwired in the fabric of life? How do you 'fix' loosing someone to war, to accidents, to neglect?

I learned a long time ago that I am not in the driver's seat of many aspects of my own life. Yes, in small things, like deciding what to eat for breakfast or what color shirt to wear, but even that is doubtful. leave comment here

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Fracking America

by Madeleine Kando

If you are as naive as I am about where the heat in your house comes from, then the expression 'ignorance is bliss' applies to you. I, too, was blissfully ignorant until I spoke to my friend Jan. She has a little thirty acre farm right on Cayuga Lake in upstate New York, where she tries to make ends meet with her new husband Michael. I visit her sometimes and the ride from Boston is long enough to remind me, once again, how BIG this country is. Big and beautiful. Read more...

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Upping The Antlers

by Madeleine Kando

From a very early age I was taught that money cannot buy you happiness, In fact, in my family we categorically looked down on money and the pursuit of it. We were ‘artistes’ with a disdain for anything that reeked of materialism.

In hindsight, I realize that much of this indoctrination was an attempt to justify our extreme poverty. Even with this view of the world under my belt, I still felt ashamed of my salvation army issued shoes held together with staples. The wooden soles made me walk with a spastic gait, like Forest Gump.

Our low opinion of monetary matters fit our bohemian lifestyle quite well. Our friends called us colorful and free, the opposite of ‘bourgeois’. My twin sister has never betrayed this world view: to this day she is an avid supporter of the ‘less is more’ philosophy of life.

I, on the other hand, had a painful awareness that others always had more and we had less, colorful and free as we were. Children see what’s important: all that matters to them is the pecking order and my wooden-soled shoes did not exactly help me rank very high.

I wasn't too unhappy however. Most of our friends were poor ‘artistes’ and we liked to make fun of the establishment together, feeling very superior. It wasn’t until I moved to the States that I realized that my views were based on an illusion and they burst like soap bubbles in the turbulence of the new ‘dog eat dog’ world that I found myself in.

Even so, it took many decades to undo the brainwashing that I had undergone. But I was a good mother, and a good citizen: I followed the rules, I moved my family from town to town, trying to find a good school, going from renting to buying a house, working hard to keep up with the Joneses.

Yes, America is a lot more honest about the Darwinian struggle for survival. There is a very interesting analogy put forward by Robert Frank, an economist at Cornell University, who says that Darwin, rather than Adam Smith as the real father of economic theory. Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ applies directly to economic principles in a free-market economy.

There is a catch, though: in the animal kingdom, the ‘fittest’ applies to the fittest individual, not the group. Frank, in his article 'The Invisible Hand, Trumped by Darwin?' gives the example of bull elephant seals who grow so big and fat that they are very good at fighting each other, but very bad at escaping predators. Or the elk with antlers that are so large that they can kill another male but get tangled in the forest when they try to run from a pack of wolves. In other words, what is good for an individual is not always good for the group. What is good for one millionaire is not always good for society. The trickle down effect, in this case, works to the detriment of the group.

Growing more fat blubber or growing bigger antlers forces other seals and other elks to do the same, so who is gaining by that? Not only is the individual seal loosing out by having to lug himself around and the elk becoming so top heavy that he looses his balance, but everyone else in the group has now inherited those traits. It’s like everyone standing up in a movie theatre to see better. The movie theatre, as a group, is worse off with this one action, they just get cramps in their legs from standing.

But to get back to my own story: My original attitude towards (too much) money also has to do with the fact that I grew up in Europe. You might disagree with me, but I personally think that Europeans have a better quality of life. Could it be because their governments have made rules that prevents individuals from going overboard in trying to up the ante?

The antlers on the individuals are a lot smaller over there, but since everyone’s antlers are smaller they don’t feel deprived. Their tax code discourages an individual from becoming so rich, from their antlers becoming so big, that everyone else in society benefits. The ‘norm’ is smaller antlers, less work to lug those around, more vacation time, more money for health care and better schools. Yes, all that energy that now goes into creating fat and antlers, could be siphoned off into creating happier seals without orthopedic problems, faster, happier elks who could avoid being devoured by wolves. Instead of spending the wealth of this nation on bigger yachts, bigger mansions and bigger garages to store Oprah’s dollar bills, we could spend it on creating a system of high speed trains and fixing our infrastructure.

So, maybe my mother was right after all, by inculcating in her children the notion that money is relative. I, for one, am all for smaller antlers. Maybe my twin sister has known the secret to fixing our economy all along: less IS more. leave comment here

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Private or Public?

By Tom Kando

At the risk is saying the obvious, I want to talk about private versus public - again.

There is so much bs going on in politics about the alleged evils of “socialism.” There is a total consensus, at least in America, that the only way to make economic progress is to CUT taxes, to unleash the productivity of the free enterprise system, to stifle government, which is wasteful and inefficient, etc, etc. On these things, everyone agrees. Republicans, Democrats, President Obama, governor-elect Jerry Brown, everyone. “Private” reigns supreme. “Public” is an evil word.

Back when I went to college, most reasonable people knew that some of society’s functions properly belong in the private sphere, and some not.

Except for Communists, most of us agreed that the means of production should not be nationalized, i.e. owned and run by the government. We agreed that Capitalism was the right way, as far as industry was concerned.

However, we also knew that society requires many essential services which could not and should not be provided for profit. These include public safety, education, health care, retirement benefits, unemployment compensation, arts and recreation, defense, infrastructure, among others.

Now, there is a push to privatize nearly everything.

Since the 1980s, private prisons and juvenile facilities have multiplied in California, Arizona and other states. This is an abomination.

In education, public schools and universities are being starved for funds. Obviously there should be a place for both private and public schools. But what is developing is an incredibly unfair two-tier system. Those who can afford to send their children to elite, private schools (the two words are synonymous) perpetuate their privilege, while public schools are descending into mediocrity. In Higher Education, even public colleges are becoming prohibitively expensive for many, and increasingly subject to the vagaries of the marketplace, as state funding declines year after year.

Health care: Don’t even get me going on this. The superiority of single-payer, public health care which exists in every other Western country, from Canada to Europe, is a fact.

Old age: When America passed Social Security in 1935 and Medicare in 1965, it joined the ranks of the civilized world. Now, Republicans are clamoring for its privatization. Everywhere defined benefits plans are being replaced by defined contributions. Now the retired and the elderly can gamble with their meager old-age safety net!

Arts and Recreation: During the last election, Californians didn’t even have the foresight to vote for an ANNUAL $17.00 (!) fee to save the state park system. What sort of a nation are we becoming? Shall we let Yellowstone, Yosemite and all our other great national treasures perish? Today the budget of the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities is a fraction of what it was 20 years ago. 1.5% (!) of National Public Radio’s budget is public money, yet the know-nothing Right is clamoring to “defund” it.

Even defense is becoming privatized: There are MORE private DOD contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq than troops! Our wars are becoming mercenary affairs.

Transportation: To what extent transportation should be for-profit is debatable. We have all learned to live with the airline companies, Greyhound, Amtrak, etc. I personally favor public train systems such as the magnificent French SNCF. But one thing we should all agree on is that the INFRASTRUCTURE is a governmental responsibility. Surely roads, bridges, railroads and airports should be built and maintained at the taxpayer’s expense, no? They are part of the commonweal. Or do you want Interstate 80 and US 50 to become private roads, only accessible for fees?

I suppose this is the culture. We have always been a business culture. And now, with a vengeance. leave comment here

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


by Madeleine Kando

The meaning of ‘mismatch is when two objects or people do not go together. A “mismatch” is when something fits like ‘a square peg in a round hole’. In French you say ‘like a fish out of water’ (comme un poisson hors de l’eau). The Spanish say: ‘to feel like a chicken in a strange farmyard’ (sentirse como gallina en corral ajeno).

This applies to many aspects of my own life. Take my physical body for instance. I live in New England where temperatures go way down in the winter. My brain fits right into this cold, harsh climate: I think better when it’s cold. But my body is the one that protests. Trying to keep my fingers from turning blue is a daily struggle, not to mention the amount of time it takes to get dressed in the morning. I lived in Spain for a while where the climate is like a gift from God. The olives, tomatoes and avocadoes like living there too: they just taste so much better there. But in Spain my brain cells slowed down to a crawl. It was as if they had lost the need to try to keep warm and just mulled along, doing the least amount of work possible.

Yes, I am lucky to live in a cold climate. The price I pay are purple lips and frozen toes.

The ‘Anglo-Saxon culture’ I both grew up in and have emigrated to also fits my temperament. My hands and feet yearn for more circulation and they would be happier in a mediterranean environment, but being surrounded by happy-go-lucky, warm-hearted people, singing and dancing all the time, not to mention wasting the most important part of the day by taking a siesta, did not appeal to my brain.

Mismatches can take on many forms, you know. I am quite tall for a woman, but my dog is a midget, even in dog terms. During our daily walk in the local forest, I always feel self-conscious, realizing that we do not quite fit, me and my miniature dog. Especially when she wears her fur coat (it being New England and all). She, looking like Zaza Gabor, me looking like a lumberjack.

A guaranteed way to invite ‘mismatch trouble’ is to move away from the place where you were born. Luckily I was small enough to fit practically anywhere when we left Hungary. So onwards I hurled, from France to Holland, from Holland to England via Spain, eventually landing in the United States. By then I had grown big enough to withstand the inevitable bounces one experiences every time one lands on foreign soil.

Sometime I fantasize living in another era. I look at the faded photographs of my grandmother, her hair all done up like an elaborate puff pastry, her dress accentuating the bosom and the derriere and I think to myself: ‘Am I living in the wrong century? I could have been her, a suffragette, fighting for a clear, self-evident cause.’

Marriage is another area where mismatches are often more the rule than the exception. It is not surprising, because marrying the right person is like trying to fit a multi-dimensional square in a multi-dimensional hole. After all, humans are incredibly complex and if one of their dimensions fits, another one is sure to be mismatched.

What about being mismatched as a species? Would I be happier as a fish? Or a horse? I look at my miniature dog, blissfully sleeping on my couch most of the day; the birds outside my window, and wonder if maybe I missed the boat at birth. Who decided that I would become a human? Not me.

Should I have become a Republican? Would I be happier if not even a hundred ton tank could dislodge my conviction that my political views are right?

What about countries? Most of them evolve organically and have no choice in where they are located. But every once in a while a nation is created and decides where it will settle. Did the Zionist founding fathers make a mistake by choosing to settle Israel in the Middle East? It sure feels like Israel fits in its environment like a square peg in a round hole.

What about the way I look? Maybe I should have been a better match looking like Tom Brokaw or Bruce Springsteen. I wouldn't be a woman then, but hey, not everyone is perfect. leave comment here

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Is America in Danger of Becoming like Europe, God Forbid?

By Tom Kando

No day goes by without some article quoting an asinine politician who says something like this: “America is in danger of becoming a socialized welfare state, like those awful European countries such as Sweden, France, Germany or the Netherlands. ”

Shouldn’t informed opinions about Europe be based on having been there, and having been there fairly recently, and having done more than just a cruise down the Mediterranean? Most of these statements come from people who don’t know what they are talking about.

It reminds me of an old World War Two veteran who told me once that Europe was just one big slum. He knew, because he had been stationed there in the late 1940s. Or Rush Limbaugh who announced that the American lower class enjoys a higher standard of living than the European middle class.
The truth is that Sweden, the rest of Scandinavia, The Benelux, France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, the UK and other parts of Western Europe which American conservatives demonize, are doing BETTER than we are.

Granted, comparing the US and Europe is hazardous. Europe’s Southern underbelly (the P.I.G. countries - Portugal, Italy, Greece, etc.) and now Ireland, are in trouble. Not to mention the former Communist countries (where I grew up). Countries like Rumania are economic basket cases.

BUT: American conservatives are specifically telling us to never, ever emulate countries such as Sweden, France, Germany or the Netherlands. This is absurd. Economically, these countries could teach us a thing or two, to put it mildly!

They are doing better in every conceivable way. Their public health is better, they live longer, there is less poverty, their schools are better, their diet is better, their infrastructure is better, their transportation system is better.

Why? Because they enjoy a hybrid system which combines the benefits of the free market with those of “socialism.”

On the other hand, America is ruled by “marketism,” unfettered Capitalism. As a result, we are falling further and further behind. See what Thomas Friedman has to say about that in his New York Times syndicated column on December 2. We can’t even build a bullet train, something which Japan, France, Germany, China and even Poland already have.

So when someone warns me that “America is in danger of becoming a socialized welfare state, just like those awful European countries such as Sweden...”, I guffaw and say, sarcastically, “oh, not that!”

Dozens of millions of Americans have been brainwashed into believing that pure capitalism works better than a mixed economy. As a result, we have the worst rates of poverty and economic disparity in the Western World. What this country needs is PRECISELY a strong dose of the social and economic policies that still prevail in much of Western Europe. We should be so LUCKY as to become more like Sweden - or Canada, for that matter.

Go check it out. Without facts, opinion is meaningless.

Americans who read this might say, “okay, you treacherous immigrant. America has given you everything, and now you criticize it, every chance you get. Go back to your beloved Europe, you ingrate!”

My European friends and relatives might also ask me why I don’t return. Their reasoning would be somewhat different: Many of them believe that I am living in a hellish country, which is also a mistake.

But things aren’t that simple. My life is here. My family, friends, career are here. I am an American. I love American culture, the American people, American freedom and space. I cry for America, but I don’t abandon America. leave comment here

Friday, December 3, 2010

Democracy is Not Dead (yet)

by Madeleline Kando

My husband and I are typical of many millions of American families whom we used to call ‘middle class’. Not rich, not poor, just in the middle. We have a small house in the suburbs, two cars, two kids and two tv sets.

If I didn’t have all these years to look back on and a natural tendency to compare the present with the past, I would call myself fortunate and blessed.

Have we progressed as a family from, let’s say, twenty years ago? We already had a house then. We already had two kids, two cars and two tv sets. It’s just that they were newer then.

The difference is that we didn’t have two computers, we didn’t have ipods, cell phones, blueray dvd players, electronic devices to open the skylights, the refrigerator or flush the toilet remotely.

I did a tour of our house to count how many ‘gadgets’ we have. I stopped at thirty-two, because I realized how obscene it is to have your house filled with ‘things’, most of them substitutes for what you can do with a pair of reasonably well-functioning hands.

The other thing we didn’t have twenty years ago, was the need to choose between countless companies that basically offer identical services or products. Installing a phone or internet service is a major source of stress, at least for me – what if I don’t choose the best deal?

Our local supermarket has expanded in those twenty years. During construction I was envisioning an abundant cornucopia of fresh, colorful, aromatic products. But the only thing that has changed is that there are now four junk food isles instead of one. Selecting a soft drink, breakfast cereal or a bag of cookies has now become a major undertaking.

So, are we better off as a family than twenty years ago? The answer is: well, it depends what you mean by ‘better off’.

I wouldn’t be able to live without my computer, my cell phone or my ipod. But would I be better off with a little less ‘choice’? Let’s take the cell phone, for example. There are over a thousand different cell phone models on the market. Are we better off than if there were, let’s say, just fifty?

What about soft drinks? Pepsi, for example, makes Pepsi, Caffeine-Free Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, Caffeine-Free Diet Pepsi, Wild Cherry Pepsi, Pepsi Lime, Pepsi Max, Pepsi Twist, Pepsi ONE, Mountain Dew, Crush, Mug Root Beer, Sierra Mist, Tropicana Twister Soda and7 Up. WHY?!

‘There must be a demand for it’ you might argue, ‘or they wouldn’t invest in making these products’. But some of these products make no money at all. They are offered so people won’t switch brands.

The truth is, we have become the victims of a mad competitive race. Would the world be a lot worse off without an automatic toilet flusher? Probably not. But it makes a big difference for the bottom line of company x if only THEY provide it, and not their competition.

Lost in this wrestling match, this elbowing for attention, this fighting for more consumers, is the real question: are we leading a happier life? Are our parks and our roads better, our air cleaner?

Who has brainwashed us into thinking that what matters is being able to choose which cell phone we buy? Wouldn’t we be better off focusing on improving our schools, our bridges? It doesn’t really matter which cell phone you use while your car plunges into the river as you happily chat away.

This obsession with consumerism has left us without defenses when something really bad happens, like an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Why should we be at the mercy of an oil company’s ‘good will’ to clean up the mess? If we had voted for stricter laws and penalties for causing environmental damage you can be damned sure oil companies would be a lot more careful.

We have turned into model consumers. We are very good at finding the perfect soft drink, the perfect cell phone, the perfect remote controlled toilet flusher. But we have forgotten how to be good citizens. We have voluntarily surrendered our voting power which would get us what we REALLY need: clean air, an environment that we can enjoy, safe food and good health care. leave comment here

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Marketism and Marxism

By Tom Kando

Abram De Swaan, professor of sociology at the University of Amsterdam, has an interview-article in the Nov-Dec. Issue of the Dutch magazine Hollands Diep, in which he discusses Marketism. A great word.

Europe, like America, is in the throes of a general attack of what De Swaan calls Marketism at all levels of the government, the economy and society. As in America, more and more people believe that pure market economics - the Adam Smith-Milton Friedman model if you will - can solve ALL problems.

De Swaan’s word “Marketism” is very apt, if for no other reason than because it is so similar to Marxism - that OPPOSITE paradigm which for 70 years dogmatically ruled and destroyed a huge chunk of the world, including the Soviet Union and my own country of birth - Hungary.

De Swaan wonders how it is possible that “in an open society, one paradigm - call it Marketism - has gotten such a hold of the people, even though one should know that it is in many ways an illusion.”

This statement strikes me the way lightning would. Something which one already knows to be true, but which is stated with such clarity that its truth becomes even more inescapable.

....only, sadly, it is even more true in America than it is in Western Europe. Here, the Sarah Palins, Glenn Becks, Rush Limbaughs, Fox News, and their millions of Tea Party and many Republican followers not only share a conservative economic ideology - they are nothing less than fanatic zealots in their advocacy of absolute and pure market economics.

To them, Marketism has become a religion, a blind faith, unconnected to empirical facts. In this, they differ from scholars such as Adam Smith, Milton Friedman, or even Alan Greenspan, who had the decency to admit that he was wrong, after the banking system which he had de-regulated collapsed.

In America, we have people, ranging from know-nothing ignoramuses to powerful governors (e.g. Rick Perry in Texas) who would abolish all taxes.

De Swaan may not like the trend in Holland, but I can assure him that the disease of Marketism is not nearly as virulent over there as it is here.

De Swaan goes on to explain the obvious: “I am a strong supporter of the idea of the free market. But I differ from Marketists in that I also support all sorts of other ideas.... Marketism says nothing about its own boundaries. It says nothing about what is outside the marketplace, for instance the arts, foreign policy, issues of war and peace, the environment, public safety, law and punishment, and so forth. It says nothing about the bonds which people develop in the context of family, neighborhood, friendship groups and profession. It says nothing about associations, about civil society. For that, one needs other perspectives, also in order to prevent the free market idea from spilling over into societal sectors where it does not belong..”

Quite so. And again, I like the juxtaposition of these two words, these two “-isms”: Marketism and Marxism: Both launched by serious scholars, both with merit, then both perverted into religions, into excesses which do violence to reality, hurt millions of people, and eventually collapse. leave comment here

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Dear Oprah

by Madeleine Kando

You don’t know me but I know you of course. My name is Sabrina and I am a big fan of your show.

I have heard that you have difficulty finding enough room in your house for the $315 million dollars that you make each year. That you would need a space the size of a 35 car garage to keep all those dollar bills.

My brother and sister and I all have to share a bedroom, so I know what it’s like to have a space problem. I have read that you have given $52 million to charity. That’s awesome. (I asked my daddy why we don’t give a third of our $30,000 income to charity, like you. But he said that if we did that, we wouldn’t have enough money left over for food. That’s pretty stingy, don’t you think?)

So here is my suggestion: Why don’t you do the reverse? Why don’t you keep only the dollar bills that fit in a 2 car garage? That’s still a lot of bills, my dad told me. It would be so much, in fact that it could feed OUR family of four for the next 20 years.

You see, this way your space problem would be solved and you wouldn’t have to build a 35 car garage.

You could mention this brilliant idea to some of your celebrity friends. I am sure they have similar space issues. Will Smith, (I know, I have real a crush on him too), makes $80 million. He would have to build a 9-car garage. And Johnny Depp, who makes $72 million, would have to build an 8-car garage, poor man.

This idea would be very useful for some of my favorite actresses too, like Cameron Diaz, who makes $50 million and Jennifer Aniston who makes $27 million. So you see, they would save so much space by giving up anything that doesn’t fit in their standard 2-car garage.

In fact, if you and your celebrity friends sent that extra money to Haiti (they have lots of room there for dollar bills, and I am sure they would take it off your hands without charging you for storage), they could buy food for every single one of their 10 million inhabitants for quite a while. Wouldn’t that be awesome?

I think you should seriously consider my proposal, Oprah. This way, you would still end up with about 600 times more money than my dad. Granted, he doesn’t have your space problem, having only ONE old beat up car, but hey, you cannot have it all in life, can you?



leave comment here

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Class Warfare

By Tom Kando

Recently, Madeleine posted a piece “Why do we Never Learn?” and a commentator wrote back: “Gramsci nailed the answer to the question: Why don’t those who are exploited act on the basis of their exploitation? Because the ideas of any age are the ideas of the ruling class. In America we can’t even use the word “class.”

Let’s talk about class, and other invidious distinctions: There are two ways in which people can be set up against each other through invidious distinctions: (1) The “horizontal” or “side-by-side” separation of groups from each other, for example religion against religion, ethnicity against ethnicity, region against region, gay against hetero, American against immigrant, Republican against Democrat, etc.

(2)“Vertical” or hierarchical rankings, for example social classes.

Invidious distinctions cause conflict and the vilification of religious, racial, sexual and other groups. Some groups become protected. After a while it becomes taboo to pick on certain ethnic, sexual and other categories. So new punching bags are found.
A few years ago, because the French didn’t support our Iraq folly, late night comedians like Jay Leno and Dennis Miller became popular ridiculing the French (they called them dirty, cowardly and lazy, haha).
Now, the public employees (and their unions) have become a popular target - they are called lazy, unproductive, they get fat pensions, etc.
“Commies” are no longer available, but attacking “socialists” works well.

But there is one invidious distinction for which Americans have ALWAYS had a blind spot: Social classes. Anonymous is so right!

The horizontal separations which pit group against group are destructive, divisive, immoral, and they serve no useful purpose. It is tempting to say that they are a divide-and-rule strategy for the ruling plutocracy, but that’s a bit simplistic.

But one thing is clear: the hierarchical distinction between social classes is incredibly important and real. It is about, injustice, oppression, concentration of power and wealth, exploitation, superiority and inferiority.

And yet, there is hardly any real awareness of social class in America. Oh sure, everyone knows that there is a middle class. But real class consciousness? Zero. And an appreciation of the enormous extent to which your life chances are determined by your social class? Or how social class is reproduced from one generation to the next? Maybe a few Sociology students who took Social Stratification know this.

But most of us continue to believe, blindly, that there are no social classes here. Because in the land of opportunity, anyone can become rich, if he works hard enough. This is called American Exceptionalism. And anyone who dares to talk about social class is said to be engaging in class warfare - positively un-American!

Take a look at the recently released report of the bipartisan deficit reduction commission appointed by Obama: Guiding principle #1: Keep government spending below 21% of GDP. Guiding principle #2: reduce corporate taxes. Guiding principle #3: increase taxes for the middle class, for example by reducing the home mortgage interest deduction. It’s shameless. They don’t even try to hide their agenda any more: reduce the taxes of the rich and increase the taxes of the working class.

Well, there is at least one group which possesses class consciousness, maintains class solidarity, acts upon its self-interest and engages in effective class warfare: the plutocracy. leave comment here

Sunday, November 14, 2010


by Madeleine Kando

Once upon a time there was a father and a mother who had ten children. They were all beautiful and smart. But one of the children was not only beautiful and smart, he was also big, strong and very wicked. He always wanted more than his fair share.

The children were very fond of apples (they were lucky, they lived in New England, so apples were aplenty). They each got one beautiful, red, shiny apple for their birthday. The beautiful, smart AND wicked boy was’nt happy with this arrangement. He really felt that he should get more. He eyed the other children’s apples and thought: ‘Why don’t I get all of them? I am smarter, more beautiful AND I am wicked!!’

Since he was extremely clever and manipulative, he convinced the father and mother that he really deserved more than one apple. He managed to get them to give him five of the apples! What with being so big and all, he really needed to eat a lot more than the other children, he said.

The other nine children were upset but they had to make do with the remaining five apples. They just had to cut them and got half an apple each.

The children grew bigger what with all the apples they had been eating on their birthday, especially the handsome, smart AND wicket boy. But one day, the mother and the father said: ‘Children, we have no money left. We cannot buy food. You need to give us five apples or we will starve.’

The beautiful, smart AND wicked boy was so clever! He said: ‘I will give you two apples because I love you so much.’ The other nine children had to chip in to make up the remaining three apples. They each gave a third of the half apple they had, which didn’t leave much, to be sure.

The father and the mother were so impressed with the generosity of the beautiful, smart AND wicked boy! He had given two apples, not just a measly sliver of an apple. (They all had forgotten that he still had three shiny, red apples left!) They gave him special privileges, and when their birthday came around and it was time for apples again, he didn’t not hesitate to take five of the ten birthday apples for himself once more.

The wicked boy had now eight apples, the three from his last birthday and the five that he took, all for himself. Since there were only ten apples total, the other nine children only got half an apple each. That and the sliver of an apple left from their last birthday didn’t even add up to one whole apple for each one of them!

The brothers and sisters realized that if things continued like this, the wicked boy would end up with all the apples in the world and there wouldn’t be any left for anyone else. They decided to finally take matters in their own hands.

They took the axe that they used to cut apple wood, went up to the beautiful, smart AND wicked boy’s room and, without hesitation chopped off his head. They cut up his body in many pieces, just like they had had to do with the few apples that he he had left them.

The deluge of apples they found in his room were devided amongst all of them, their children and grandchildren and they buried the apple cores in the orchard where soon new apple trees grew. They buried the beautiful, smart AND wicked boy under one of the apple trees and wrote on his tombstone: ‘Here lies the smart, beautiful AND wicked boy. He made the fatal mistake of wanting too much. May he rest in pieces. leave comment here

Thursday, November 11, 2010

...and Private Business is NOT inefficient?

By Tom Kando

We are incessantly reminded that much of the government consists of inefficient, featherbedding, useless job-retention programs. And you mean to tell me that the private sector is different? Ha! Go tell that to someone dealing with an insurance company.

I recently had a minor fender bender. So I first called my insurance broker, who had signed me up with my insurance company. I don’t know why I need a broker. The first and last thing Roberta, one of the broker’s assistants, told me when I called, was to get in touch with the insurance company directly.

Which I did. I called them, in Seattle or in Dallas, or some other far away place.

Okay, so I file the minor claim (for a repair of a few hundred dollars). Debbie in Dallas tells me that my claim will be forwarded to the adjuster in the San Francisco office - Susie so-and-so. She is the one with whom I will have to deal.

So for the next couple of days I exchange e-mails with Susie in San Francisco.

Then, I get a call from Bill, a local Sacramento adjuster. He is the one handling my claim, wanting to look at my car, etc. Again, we talk on the phone and e-mail each other for a while.

Today, I get an e-mail from Susie that my case is now in the hands of Mary, another gal in the San Francisco office. So I call and e-mail Mary. But her answering machine tells me that if she doesn’t get back to me within a day, I should talk to the head of her team, Linda.

See what I mean?

People say that, unlike government, private business has an incentive to be efficient, because it must make a profit.

American business has been working on improving its productivity for years. We have all experienced the massive job outsourcing, each time we talk to someone in New Delhi or in Manilla when we call customer service. Such outsourcing has caused a great deterioration in the quality of service. Getting to talk to a human being on the phone has become difficult, and when you are dealing with someone on the other side of the globe, you can’t drive to the customer service counter to air your complaint.

Do the seemingly unnecessary and bureaucratic duplications which I just described mean that even more American employees should be laid off?

I don’t think so. The problem is not “featherbedding.” It is inefficiency. Companies already fire people at will. Unions have lost 90% of the clout they enjoyed half a century ago.

Efficiency is not a prerequisite for profits and fat CEO compensations: Those can be achieved by (1) jacking up premiums (or the price of whatever you sell), (2) denying claims (or treatment, or whatever your product is), and (3) outsourcing jobs, i.e. making things more inconvenient for the customer. Efficiency, my foot! leave comment here

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Why Do We Never Learn?

by Madeleine Kando

I come from a pampered country, a country that I call a ‘flopsy bunny’ nation. Many countries in Northern Europe are 'flopsy bunny' nations. We saw the French protest not too long ago, because their government wanted to raise their retirement age to 62! I do admire the French tradition of taking their demands to the street, but many of us here in the US were scratching our heads and wondering on which planet the French thought they lived.

Americans, you see, are hardworking, no-nonsense, pragmatic individuals. Their history is one of survival. Words like ‘pampered’, ‘lazy’, ‘spoiled’, don’t come to mind when I think of ‘Americans’. The reason they are like that is complex, but I suppose one of the reasons they work hard is that they think they can get ahead. They can improve their lives.

Unfortunately, this has turned into an illusion. The American Dream is dead. This simple expression, ‘The American Dream”, was alive and well for decades, when millions of foreigners came here in order to pursue it. But the definition of the American Dream is that "life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone”, not just for the few.

The American Dream has turned into a nightmare. Americans work harder than ever. Women and wives work, not by choice but by necessity. Since there is no paid maternity leave in America, women barely have time to plop out their babies before they have to go back to work.

So what happened? What changed? If you work hard, spend energy doing something, like assembling a car, writing software, cleaning a restaurant.. aren’t you producing something? Who benefits from the value of that product? Shouldn’t it benefit the person that spends all that energy producing it by giving him money for his labor so that he can buy some of those products?

The American Dream turned into a nightmare when hard working Americans started to get paid less and less. They produced more because they worked harder, but they got paid less.

Since Americans are humans, they need shelter and food to live. They need a car to go to work. So the only thing they can do to just live, is borrow money. That’s fine and dandy as long as you are able to pay back the expensive money you borrow. But then the housing market collapses and your collateral vanishes overnight.

People get frustrated. You feel cheated. You see the government bail out the banks who lent you that expensive money while you have to foreclose on your house. No wonder you get angry. You get angry at the government. You don’t realize that you are barking up the wrong tree. Because, after all, if your salary had been adequate, had been a true reflection of what your labor is worth in a free market, you wouldn’t have had to borrow money in the first place.

That is what I call ‘The Amerian Nightmare’. Slowly the earnings of Americans went down, even though the economy grew. It grew, but only for a small portion of the population. The super rich got richer. Like a balloon with a blockage: all the air got stuck in a tiny part of the balloon while the rest is being asphixiated.

Gone are the days when the hardworking American had bargaining power. Gone are the unions. The idea that one of the jobs of the Government is to protect citizens against the excesses of capitalism never gets talked about. Let’s be honest, Government SHOULD redistribute some of the wealth in a capitalist society. Redistribute it by offering affordable education, affordable health care, affordable housing.

All we hear is ‘Government is too big’. The Government is blamed for everything. After the latest mid-term elections, things have gone from bad to worse. With this new Republican majority in the House and so many seats gained in the Senate, we will see even more inequality in this nation. What blows my mind is that it is the hardworking American that I so admire that has voted to put the very people in power that will tighten the noose around their necks even more. leave comment here

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Million, Billion, Schmillion...what’s the difference?

By Tom Kando

The political flap du jour is the accusation that President Obama is spending $200 million a day to visit India, and that the administration has ordered the navy to deploy 34 ships for the event, i.e. one tenth of the entire US Navy (See Sacramento Bee, Nov. 6, 2010). The source of this outlandish accusation is an obscure Indian agency, and American conservatives eagerly ran with it, and magnified it. Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Backmann, the frightening candidate for House Majority Leader, has repeated these allegations as facts. Glenn Beck has multiplied the number by ten, to arrive at a total price tag of $2 billion for Obama’s entire trip. The problem, once again, is stupidity: We live in a culture which is increasingly illiterate and innumerate.

Most people - and this apparently includes radio and TV demagogues with millions of followers, and congress people who represent millions of people - barely understand the difference between words such as “million” and “billion.” After all, it’s only a one-letter difference.

In her blockbuster movie “Contact,” Jodie Foster says that “she traveled billions and billions of light years away,” or something to that effect. Of course she meant millions, since the total size of the Universe is only about 10 to 13 billion light years.

But what the heck, a million and a billion are both “a lot,” so who cares if one is a thousand times larger than the other, right?

It’s the same with the current flap about Obama’s travel expenses. The trip may very well cost over $10 million a day. That’s roughly what President Clinton’s overseas trips cost. It’s a lot. But it’s one twentieth of the accusation.

In my book, even $10 million a day is extravagant. I know, security is very expensive, the President has a huge entourage, setting up such a trip takes months of expensive preparations, etc. Still, the extravagant expenses of today’s heads of state, CEOs and other big wigs will be remembered, centuries from now, the same way that we recall pharaohs, Roman emperors, the French Louis Kings and other despots from the past: squandering grotesquely, while the masses barely get by. But this is another topic.

My topic today is the cacophony of our illiterate and innumerate culture. And what else do you expect, when education is one of our country’s lowest priorities?

I realize that many people struggle valiantly to go to college, and that millions who would desperately want to get an education beyond high school are deprived of it due to circumstances beyond their control. At the same, radio and TV blowhards like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck announce the fact that they never went to college as a badge of honor. Even comedian Jay Leno proudly reminds us of this sometimes. They probably feel that this, somehow, makes them part of “the common people,” as opposed to pointy-headed intellectuals like Obama and all those liberal professors. The insinuation is that being uneducated is cool.

Years ago I read about a stone-age tribe in New Guinea called the “Dani.” They knew three numbers: “One,” “Two,” and “Many.”

But don’t worry, most of my students are way, way better at math than that. leave comment here

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Whose Fault Is It All?

By Tom Kando

The election is a big Republican victory.

The near-consensus among voters was that everything is the fault of (1) politicians and (2) the government. The Right focuses on “Big Government” as the culprit, the Left argues that the government is too timid, and “centrists” say that the right and the left are too polarized, and unwilling to work together.

But EVERYONE agrees that the fault lies with politicians, i.e. with the government. They are all “on the take” (from lobbyists) and we must “throw the rascals out.”  Convenient.

Aren’t YOU and I the ones who ELECT the politicians? For a decade we elected George W. Bush and lots of Republicans, then we elected Obama and many Democrats, and now went back to electing a lot of Republicans.

In California , we recalled Gray Davis 8 years ago and elected Arnold, and now we elected a Democrat again. Have things worked out well for us? The economy, the deficit, unemployment?

People get the government they deserve. Thomas Jefferson’s words, quoted even by intellectuals like Jay Leno (sarcasm here). The cliché is true, as most clichés are. So it’s not the politicians’ fault or “the government’s” fault. It’s OUR fault.

First of all, half of us don’t even vote. Then we gripe about “the rascal” politicians. And most of those who vote are ignorant and brainwashed.

When I see skits like Jay Leno’s “Jaywalk,” I feel like crying. Poor source for my argument, you say. Jay probably selects the dumbest people he can find. True.

But even if the public level of stupidity is only ONE TENTH of what we see on Jay Leno, it’s a disaster. Some recent answers given to Leno: (Young interviewees seem to be the most abysmally ignorant).

No idea who the Vice President is;
no idea how may Supreme Court Justices there are;
...or how many senators;
no idea which two countries border on the US;
our enemy in World War Two was France;
World War Two was in the 19th century.

With such an electorate, is it a wonder that the country is politically dysfunctional?

I am no beacon of knowledge either. I have a PhD, but even I can’t answer all of Leno’s Jaywalk questions. I recently thought that there were 11 Supreme Court Justices (Oops).
When I went over my election ballot recently, I had no idea who about one third of the candidates were (local school board candidates, etc.). But at least I try.

The problem is that we are lazy (or too busy; good excuse). We vote on the basis of the ads which bombard us, instead of doing our homework. Negative ads influence us the most, and campaigns are bought by the richest corporate contributors. It’s all about $$$.

And another problem: There is no viable populist alternative to the Democratic Party. Our tweedle-tweedledum two-party system is totally unsatisfactory. Proof: the ever-growing number of independents.
When we get angry at the Democratic Party because it is cozy with the plutocracy instead of speaking up for us, our protest vote goes to the Republicans - who are even more corrupt. In a recent telethon, Glenn Beck urged all the little Tea Party people to send their checks to the US Chamber of Commerce. Maybe he should have specified his favorite Fortune 500 recipients. Nuts!

The solution? Education. Without an educated electorate, democracy doesn’t work.

Look at what just happened: We are in a severe economic recession, so we go BACK to the party and the policies which CAUSED the problems in the first place. It’s like picking up smoking again to cure your lung cancer. Good luck with that! leave comment here

Saturday, October 30, 2010

My Doctor

by Madeleine Kando

I commiserate with a friend at my health club about all sorts of things. That’s one of the advantages of relating to someone on a ‘locally specific basis’. You know, someone you only meet at the supermarket, or when you get your coffee at Starbucks every morning at 9 am. It’s a safe way of letting off steam because you know you won’t see that person anywhere else that day.

My locally specific friend talks a lot about her ‘doctor’. She is so enamored with him that her choice of words borders on adoration. ‘He is very very famous, you know, MY doctor. He is in the paper and on t.v. He really likes me.’

I thought of her when I went to see MY doctor yesterday. Of course he is not MY doctor at all. He is so many people’s doctor that his three secretaries have to go through terrible contortions to try to cram the enormous amount of patients’ charts onto the shelves behind their neatly lined up workstations.

One of them was wearing a Micky Mouse hat with a big red ribbon that matched her red sweater stretched tight over her expansive bosom. It was Halloween, you see. As I was waiting, I was watching her step onto a wobbly stool, one hand holding a chart, the other holding onto a cabinet. She was engaging in her daily struggle to squeeze one more patient onto the already overstuffed shelf.

MY doctor is a very famous spine specialist. He doesn’t know my name and I doubt he remembers any of his patients’ names. To him, I am an L5 with a bulging disk.

I have been whisked into one of the many examination rooms, waiting for MY doctor to come in. My ‘friend’ at the club would be proud of me. He only made me wait an hour.

He comes in, shakes my hand without looking up from the sheet that he is holding in his hand. He asks ‘how are you?’ in a tone that does not expect an honest answer. So, when I answer him truthfully that I have seen better days, he looks up, a bit surprised.

He is very laconic, with a flat affect. I recognize this as a trick of the trade, a way to discourage patients from asking too many questions. That would risk extending our meeting and an L4 with narrowing disk space is waiting in the next examination room. I know how she must feel and with a guilty conscience I ask MY doctor to at least look at the expensive MRI that I brought with me.

Ten minutes later I am back in the hall, wondering what happened. I had a shitload of questions, but somehow the person that I was talking to in there did not seem very interested in me. I had the distinct feeling that my condition didn’t pose a special challenge. He was either thinking of his next patient or what he would eat for lunch.

I was really open to the possibility of getting to know him. I could have told my ‘friend’ at the club, that I too had a nice, famous doctor. But I think there is a point in some doctors’ career where the patient load reaches a critical mass, where there are just too many patients squeezed on a shelf. They must start blending together, like pureed potatoes.

I don’t feel terribly sorry for MY doctor. He has chosen the path of least resistance to fame and glory. But his secretaries… well, that’s different. I have a suspicion that my chart will start gathering dust. I can already hear the sigh of relief when, instead of stepping onto her wobbly stool, the big bosomed secretary will toss my chart in the wastebasket. Phew! One less potatoe to worry about. leave comment here

Friday, October 29, 2010


By Tom Kando

After our recent return from Europe, a friend asked, “Weren’t you afraid of terrorists?” My first impulse was to guffaw, but instead I explained patiently to the dear old woman that she was actually in greater danger driving to the supermarket than we were flying to Europe.

The irrationality of fear is all around us. And it is being stoked by the media, by homeland security, by politicians. When we were in Europe last month, the authorities announced a “red alert.” International travelers were supposed to be more vigilant. We were not given any hint as to what we should DO to make ourselves safer. Essentially, we were simply told to be more AFRAID. Read more...

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Geopolitics: Why Aren’t we more with India?

By Tom Kando

I was thinking: We got sucked into a never-ending war in Afghanistan and a costly alliance with a very questionable ally - Pakistan.

But next door to Pakistan is a much bigger, more powerful and more benign country whose interests coincide with ours - India. The logic for an alliance with that country is inescapable:

1. Like America, India is the target of vicious terrorist attacks. The November 2008 Mumbai attacks killed 173 Indians and wounded another 308. This was just one of the many acts of violence that have pitted Indian Hindus against Muslims from India, Kashmir and Pakistan over the years.

2. Some ally, Pakistan! While American boys and girls are dying fighting the Taliban, the Pakistani Intelligence Agency (ISI) is known to actually control the Taliban and its leader Mullah Muhammad Omar (Sacramento Bee, October 20).

3. 27% of Pakistanis believe that the US government perpetrated the 9/11 attack, vs. 2% who believe that it was al Qaeda (most said they don’t know). (see Bret Stephens, European Wall Street Journal, September 29).

4. This is what $3 billion a year of US economic aid to Pakistan buys us! (In addition to the staggering cost of our Afghan war). Our alliance with Pakistan is an obscenity.

5. India is a huge and powerful country. Its culture is peaceful, it is democratic and (largely) capitalistic. It will also become increasingly important as a counterweight to the next superpower - China.

Granted, South Asia is a tinder box. Both India and Pakistan have nukes. The region could be the Balkan of the 21st century. It is where World War Three could be ignited, as World War One was ignited in Serajevo. I am not suggesting rash action by our government. But why we are aligned with a corrupt, weak, ungrateful and nearly failed state (Pakistan) instead of a much more powerful and benign country whose interests coincide with ours (India), is beyond me. leave comment here

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Rightward Ho!

By Tom Kando

There is a race in the Western world today as to who can move to the political right farther and faster. I find it amusing that America can no longer be blamed for being exceptionally right-wing, conservative, racist, capitalist, etc. In other words: All those things which intellectuals and Europeans have so long enjoyed accusing us of.

I returned from Europe a week ago, and I can report that they are (also) moving to the right, big time! Here, we have the Tea Party, and a major right-wing electoral victory coming up. In Europe it’s the same, if not worse:

1. In the UK, of course, the Conservatives won the May election and Prime Minister David Cameron has taken over the government from Gordon Brown and the Labor Party.

2. In the Netherlands, the Balkenende government has fallen, and it is being replaced by a Center-Right coalition cabinet. The Socialists are now in the opposition, while the Christian Democrats and the Business Party rule, with the support of Geert Wilders’ “Freedom” Party. This party is the new kid on the block, a controversial but increasingly popular “anti-Islam” party.

3. In Sweden, the Center-Right Alliance has just won the election, while the far right also gained strength. There, too, immigration played a major role in pushing the electorate to the right. This is quite unprecedented, in a country which has always epitomized the extremely tolerant and liberal European social democracies which American conservatives demonize.

4. In France, President Sarkozy recently began evicting thousands of gypsies, a move which has gained him popularity in his country.

5. Italian authorities are also evicting some gypsies.

6. In Hungary, the right-center Fidesz party has just scored a major electoral victory, and the far-right neo-Nazis are now also in parliament.

These are just some of the examples which I have recently come across. But there is a silver lining to this: European intellectuals and liberals (of which there are plenty left, fortunately) can no longer wag their finger at evil, capitalist, racist, reactionary America. That would be the pot calling the kettle...leave comment here

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


by Madeleine Kando

Some ideas are so significant that it is impossible to ignore them. They are the bright stars in the vast firmament of ideas and they often affect all of humanity. One of these bright stars is the idea that questions related to morality (what is good and what is bad) can be answered rationally and scientifically. Sam Harris’ recent book “The Moral Landcape” makes an excellent contribution to this subject.

Many thinkers have tried to develop systems of morality that are absolute and not at the whim of individual ‘opinion’. The 16th century Enlightenment was such an effort. In the Constitution Thomas Jefferson says that Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness are “self-evident.”

The concepts of good and evil are usually thought to be the domain of religion, but in his new book ‘The Moral Landscape’, Sam Harris argues that science can, and should approach morality as any other domain of inquiry. Not only should science study morality but it should shape it and contribute to our knowledge of what constitutes a good life.

Certain social systems are morally superior to others (Harris compares the Taliban with an open, democratic society). This is not a matter of opinion, but it is because the former is not as conducive to human well-being as the latter. And if you agree that morality is tied to humanity’s well-being, it is hard to disagree with Harris.

Why would a society believe that it is good for its citizens’ well-being to circumcise young girls? If it can be proven that it makes people happier, so be it. But it is probably closer to the truth that such a society is ignorant on the subject of morality. Just like people in the Middle Ages were ignorant on the subject of cosmology. They thought that the world was the center of the universe. They were wrong.

We are, Harris says, in a historical period of intellectual and moral emergency. We need a set of universal moral truths in order to move forward. Harris’ bold assertion that there are good moral ideas and bad moral ideas (a common sense assertion if you ask me) does not sit well with cultural relativists who are so afraid of being politically incorrect. Why was Ayan Hirshi Ali kicked out of Holland on a technicality? Why is there a lawsuit against Geert Wilders? Doesn’t that go against one of the basic principles of a free society, i.e. the right to free speech?

Harris argues that there is no conflict between facts and values. That a good set of values should withstand scientific factual scrutiny.

In my humble opinion there is a great advantage to opening up the moral landscape to rational investigation: if it does pass the test of rationality, we will add a clear and unambiguous moral code to human knowledge. There won’t be any turning back to barbarism in the name of religious fanaticism.

We have many intuitions about what is right and wrong. A good base for a new Golden Age of morality. Harris is right in saying that we live in an age of moral emergency. There were periods in history when morality created peaks on the moral landscape. One of those peaks was when the Greeks invented democracy. When the Age of Enlightenment invented reason. We saw another peak during the New Deal Era, when compassion mattered more than ‘the bottom line’. New Deal Era policies were more moral than policies advocated by either party today.

So good and bad moral ideas also flourish at certain times in history, not just at certain locations on the globe. What I think is the most important aspect of this new idea is that it removes morality from the clutches of religion. It provides an alternative, much more objective set of moral truths. It may give us a boost in the right direction, a much needed kick in the you know what, so we can step onto the next rung of the ladder towards moral enlightenment. leave comment here

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


by Madeleine Kando

My twin sister lives on the Costa del Sol. She lives in a house the size of the tool shed in my backyard. When I skype with her I can see how beautiful her shed is. All wood, beautifully furnished, immaculately clean. She is a proponent of a minimalist life style and is suspicious of anything extravagant.

My twin sister complements me in every way. She is what I am not. She trusts her instincts, she stays up late when she feels like it, she stays in bed when she wants to and she follows her desires. Because that’s what you are supposed to do with desires. You are supposed to fulfill them. Unless you are a neurotic, masochistic, insecure doubting Thomas like me.

We have been twins for a long time now, my twin sister and I. When I see her on my little skype screen, I realize that, aside from her long braided greying hair, she is still the young, indestructible, adventurous, ambiguous, irrational, tempestuous young woman that she was decades ago. Read more...

Monday, October 18, 2010

Are We Better Off Poor?

By Tom Kando

Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke has announced his intention to increase the money supply. This is called “quantitative easing.” Basically it means printing more money. The Fed is expected to pump $500 billion more into the financial system, on top of the $1.75 trillion already spent, trying to lift the economy (Sacramento Bee, Oct. 16, 2010).

The logic is simple, and well-known: (1) This will stimulate the economy. (2) It will continue to devalue the dollar, which people say is good, because it will improve our exports. (3) And it will bring bring back a “healthy” level of inflation, which is better than deflation.

But I agree with Yale historian Paul Kennedy that The dollar’s decline has been disastrous (See “Don’t’ Surrender U.S. Influence to Beijing” - New York Times, Sept. 29). When I came to this country in 1960, the dollar was worth FOUR times as much as the typical European currency, e.g. the Mark, the Dutch Guilder, the Swiss Frank, etc. We were 4 times richer than the Europeans. Now, the dollar can’t even keep up with the Euro. When that currency was introduced in 1999, it was worth less than a dollar. Today, it is worth $1.40, and rising. If a weak dollar benefits us, we should be real happy when the dollar declines to the value of the Mexican Peso.

Railing against the federal budget deficit is the favorite pastime of Republicans, Tea-Partiers, conservatives, and everyone who hates “the government.” It is their chief campaign issue. True, the federal deficit is very large, and very scary.

But few bother to distinguish between the government deficit problem, and the much more intractable TRADE DEFICIT problem. The current federal deficit is temporary, and it is caused by unwarranted tax breaks for the wealthy.

On the other hand, the trade deficit is long-term, intractable, huge, and growing. Currently, America imports $600 billion more every year than it exports. This has been going on for DECADES. China has accumulated $2.65 trillion so far. Add to that what we owe to Middle-eastern sheikdoms, to Germany and to our other creditors.

While the two deficits are intertwined, I am flabbergasted that hardly anyone ever distinguishes between them, or recognizes that the trade deficit problem is the more serious of the two. Most of those brave “fiscal conservatives” aren’t even aware of the distinction! One of the few exceptions is economist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman. See his "Killer Trade Deficits," (New York Times, August 16).

What happens if you earn $100,000 and spends $120,000 every year, for 40 years? You end up devoting ever more of your income to financing your growing debt. There comes a point when you spend 100% of your money on finance charges, and 0% on groceries. You starve, or you borrow more and more. You are trapped in a vicious cycle. You have become a slave to your creditors. This is what America has become. We are owned.

The solution? Simple. Same as what any bankrupt household must do: work away the debt.
1. Tighten the belt. Consume less.
2. Sell more goods, import less.
3. Raise taxes - temporarily.

1. Tighten the Belt: When Greeks and other Europeans default, they tighten their belt. But for some reason, Americans are expected to consume MORE, not less, even though our debt-to-GDP ratio is approaching that of Greece’s (nearly 100%).

When Japan and Europe suffer heavy government deficits, they raise taxes, at least temporarily. But for some reason, our politicians advocate LOWERING taxes, under the mantra of job creation.

2. Export more, import less: This evokes the antique concept of “Mercantilism” and the loathed concept of “Protectionism.” I favor both: Historically, societies have become rich and powerful by exporting more and importing less. Louis XIV’s finance minister Colbert and the British Imperial government understood this. It is imperative that America resume producing and selling goods. If this takes tariffs, so be it. When a Honda costs twice what a Chevrolet costs, I’ll go back to buying Chevrolets.

3. Raise taxes for 10-15 years. Whittle away the government debt. Presently, the government spends $300 billion a year on financing its debt. As the debt declines, money will be freed up for other budget items, and taxes can be reduced - a virtuous cycle. leave comment here

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Clash of Civilizations, or Clash of Barbarians?

By Tom Kando

A recent article by Bret Stephens (European Wall Street Journal, September 29) contains some frightening information about the state of public opinion in the Middle East and elsewhere.

We all witnessed Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s UN speech, in which he aired three “theories” about the 9/11 attacks, essentially arguing that they were an inside job mounted by the US government.

Oh well, he is just a nutcase, you say, along with a few other extremists. Most of the world doesn’t listen to such idiocy.

Unfortunately, conspiracy lunacy has become a very widespread disease. According to the University of Maryland’s World Public opinion surveys, only 2% of Pakistan’s 200 million people believe that 9/11 was perpetrated by al Qaeda, while 27% believe that it was the US government (most said they don’t know).
Among Egyptians, 43% say that Israel was responsible, while 12% blame the US, and only 16% think that al Qaeda did it. In Turkey, 39% blame al Qaeda and 39% blame Israel and the US.
Even in Europe, 15% of Italians and 23% of Germans finger the US for the attack.

I just returned from Berlin, where I met a very nice and intelligent French lady. She tried to convince me that the 9/11 attack was a CIA operation.

Earlier, Ahmadinejad had already frequently advocated another “theory” - the denial of the Holocaust. More recently, other interesting theories have surfaced:

- The recent floods in Pakistan were caused by a secret US military project called HAARP, based in Alaska, which controls the weather through electromagnetic waves. HAARP is also responsible for recent tsunamis and earthquakes.

- The US invaded Iraq not only for its oil, but to harvest the organs of dead Iraqis.

- Faisal Shazad was not the perpetrator of the May 1 Times Square bombing. It was orchestrated by an American think tank.

We also have our share of conspiracy buffs, stateside: The birthers, for one, who continue to believe that President Obama is not US-born, that he is a Muslim, and/or that he is a plant to make America non-American (Socialist, Muslim, full of illegal immigrants, take your pick). What is worrisome here, again, is not the existence of such beliefs, but their astonishing popularity: Between one fourth and one third of all Republicans subscribe to them.

I do not believe that the two sides are mirror images of each other. I am sure that the irrationality of the other guys greatly exceeds that of such misguided Americans as the “birthers.”
But irrationality it is! And the scary part is that it cannot be blamed on lack of education. In the Middle East and elsewhere, these theories are spread primarily by the media and by religious and educational elites.

In recent years, the world’s economic problems have occupied center stage. No doubt, economic conditions influence people’s ideas. It was largely because the German economy went down the toilet during the 1920s and 1930s, that the German people went berserk - half of them becoming Nazis and the other half Communists. Whatever its cause may be, the current global retreat from reason is frightening. leave comment here

Friday, October 8, 2010


by Madeleine Kando

I went to see my doctor today. I made sure to dress in my best suit, put on my most expensive perfume and, in general, look expensive and important. Why, you may ask. Who would want to dress up to go see a doctor?

Well, I always want to look good when I have an encounter with someone who has the upper hand in a face to face meeting. Someone that I want something from and who does not necessarily want something from me. When I go for a job interview, I want someone to give me a job. So I dress up. What the interviewer gets out of it is a potential employee, but during that initial interview, the parties involved are not on an equal footing.

The interviewer has the upper hand. That is also the case when I go to the doctor. What I want is successful treatment for my ailment. What the doctor wants, (aside from getting paid), is potential healing of my body. I am not even sure if all doctors want this, because that means that you won’t have to come back.

Come to think of it, I can find this one-upmanship in places that, at first sight, look very egalitarian. I have a twin sister with whom I have had a one-upmanship relationship ever since we were born. When there is more than one of you, people’s energy is spent on trying to figure out who they are talking to. By the time they think they know, they already forgot what the were going to say. Competing with a doppleganger might have colored the glasses with which I view social relationships.

What about friendships? My brother Tom likes to point out that friendships are very much subject to the one-upmanship rule. He talks about his ‘I have a bigger car, so I am better than you’ kind of friends. Or the type of friend that insists on picking up the tab, not because they are generous, but because they want to show they are better off.

Celebrities and politicians love to play the one-upmanship game. It is as if they have gone through ‘upmanship’ training school. The semi-condescending pat on the shoulder. The subtle ‘I am not looking you in the eye while I talk to you’ trick. The ‘I am asking the questions here, not you’ technique. Asking questions is a very effective way of showing you are superior. You put your opponent in the position of giving up information, while you are on the receiving end. Who wants to be interrogated, anyway?

I don’t know if there is any area of human interaction that is completely devoid of one-upmanship. Maybe the mother-child relationship comes closest to being a purely altruistic, egalitarian relationship. Although many mothers compete with their daughters once the daughters have reached a critical mass of beauty and womanhood. Then, they have metamorphosed from daughter into female competitors.

Do we compete with pets? You bet your sweet bottom we do. We assume that, just because we are human, we automatically have the upper hand. Not so. My dog’s life revolves daily around gaining control of our ‘pack’. He blocks doorways by sprawling his big furry body out so we have to step over him. He paws my arm so I will pet him. He leans his heavy body against my legs until I have to move to the side. I could go on and on.

Do we compete with our spouses? One of my husband’s idiosyncrasies is that he likes to be ‘self-sufficient’ when it comes to his health. Going to see a doctor would be a sign of weakness and poor health, so he plays the one-upmanship game with me every time I have to see a doctor.

I won’t even start on the job front. Thank God I am self-employed, but I am sure the work place is one of the most fertile grounds for the one-upmanship game.

Do we compete with plants? I have tried to stare down my hibiscus the other day, to see if it would retreat or lower its leaves in submission, but nothing happened. I think I can safely say that plants have no need to feel superior OR inferior. They just are. So I never dress up when I go out into my garden.

In ancient China doctors only got paid as long as their patients were healthy, not when they got sick. That would be one sure way of leveling the playing field in our system. It would also allow me to save money of my wardrobe. leave comment here

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The More You Know the Less You Know

by Madeleine Kando

We often hear the term ‘the haves and the have-nots’ used in the context of economic welfare. It is less common to hear the term applied to ‘knowledge’. One area of knowledge where the discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots is extremely wide is physics. I belong to the group of the have-nots.

It is not for want of trying. I have many books on ‘popular’ physics on my book shelf.

The most recent acquisition is a book called ‘The Grand Design’, by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow. The thing I like the most about the book is that it doesn’t contain one single mathematical equation.

In this book the authors ask three basic questions:

1) why is there something instead of nothing?
2) why do we exist?
3) why does this particular set of laws govern our universe and not some other set?

They answer the first question ‘why is there something instead of nothing’, by saying that it is possible that something comes into existence out of nothing because of quantum fluctuations.

I think a quantum fluctuation is when a particle and an anti-particle find each other and then immediately knock each other out of existence. Except, once in a while, there is no time for that process and poof, something appears instead of gets annihilated. So there you go, a new something. And because of the inflation theory, it grows into an entire universe.

It sounds pretty weird to me, but who am I to argue? The thing I find almost more puzzling than this revelation (that the universe has created itself), is the reaction to this new hypothesis.

Although Hawking’s book contains many incredibly important and fascinating chapters, 99% of the reviews of the book focus on this one particular statement. It is as if the world at large can not accept the possibility that the universe has no creator. The God debate overshadows everything related to this new masterpiece and it is easy to get sucked into it. I, for one, am totally happy with the notion that the universe created itself. It sounds a lot simpler than trying to prove the existence of a creator.

He also says that philosophy is dead, that it has been replaced by science. That I find hard to swallow. It means that only physicists are able to understand the world. Philosophers and the rest of us, whose nature it is to speculate, philosophize, ask ‘what if’ questions, we are all doomed to stupidity and ignorance.

We don’t need a God, we don’t need philosophy… all we need is gravity, according to Hawking. ‘Given the existence of gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason why the universe and humanity exist.'

‘Why DO we exist?’ Well, we just happen to live in one of an infinite number of universes where the laws of the cosmos allow the appearance of life. Not only that, but we also happen to live in the Goldilocks zone of OUR universe, a small band where the conditions are ‘just right’, so that life can develop.

There is also the possibility, according to John Gribbin, that our universe was created in a particle accelerator by a more advanced civilization in another universe. Universes are not hard to jump-start, he says, since the required mass-energy is equal to zero. So we might just be the result of an extraterrestrial’s high-school science project.

The bottom line is that no-one knows the answer to these questions. Still, we have progressed. When people thought the world was flat the question of the day was: ‘what is at the edge of the flat world?’ Then it was discovered that the world was round, so the question became irrelevant.

Now we ask the question: what was before the Big Bang? What if there was no ‘before’? Hawking says that you can compare the history of the universe to a ball, like the earth. If you go down from the equator, back in time, towards the south pole, you eventually reach a point. That’s the Big Bang. The question ‘what is south of the south pole’ becomes meaningless: there is nothing south of the south pole. leave comment here