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Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The White Tiger and Some Real Frank Talk About Politics

These people were building homes for the rich, but they lived in tents covered with blue tarpaulin sheets, and partitioned into lanes by lines of sewage. It was even worse than Laxmangarh. I picked my way around broken glass, wire, and shattered tube lights. The stench of feces was replaced by the stronger stench of industrial sewage. The slum ended in an open sewer - a small river of black water went sluggishly past me, bubbles sparkling in it and little circles spreading on its surface. Two children were splashing about in the black water. - Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger

Several times in the last few days I have asked myself if I'm depressed or if I just have a cold. I don't imagine these things need to be mutually exclusive, but maybe the one thing has a lot to do with the other. No idea. Anyway, when I get a cold I'm that guy in all of the memes who is a big baby about it. I have reactive airway disorder, which is another word (well, several) for asthma. What it means is that I'm fine unless something messes with my breathing and then things get weird. When I was diagnosed, the doctor literally said "So when your wife thinks you're being a baby for having a cold, tell her in your case it really is bad." Long-time readers will be thinking at this point that I have a bad body which is true.

I have a nice wife who has always been very patient when I have a cold even before the diagnosis, but I still feel useless and awful. Well, I mean more than usual. Also I'm legitimately breathing bad and sleeping bad and coughing so much that I feel like I've bruised a rib. It would be reasonable to be a little grumpy about it.

I don't think that's it, though. This morning I woke up to headlines so crazy and bad that I had to capture them in the popular digital photo format and share it to various social media networks. Come along on this journey with me, dear reader.

All of these headlines are jokes, but only one is there intentionally as such
I have many friends and family members who are conservative. And you might not believe this if you've been reading my blog, but I identify with many conservative values. Just thinking that I had to say that is crazy to me, by the way. If memory serves, here are topics I've had the guts to come out against: racism, the holocaust, sexual assault, domestic violence, and the end of our planet as somewhere livable in the near future. I'm not talking about taxes, you guys. Or the size of the government, or like unions or whatever. I'm saying that women shouldn't be hit by men and if they are there should be a safe place for them to get back on their feet. Since when is this politics?

Anyway, I don't know if any of you are reading this, but conservatives: y'all party's gone off the ever-loving rails. I'm not talking about all the stuff liberals always talk about, I'm talking about a very specific aspect that is happening more in the GOP than anywhere else, and it's troubling.

I'm sorry to be the one to tell you but I think you know it deep down. You have to. I assume that there is still enough there for you to hang on to and I get that, too. Contrary to everyone everywhere's assumption, I'm not a registered anything. I've leaned Democrat recently not because I think the left has the only path to some utopian future, it's because of how flippin' nuts the right has gotten.

Listen. If you're still reading this and you're a die-hard Republican oh my gosh, you are a saint. I have nothing but praise for you to stick with this when our society is currently so obsessed with just plugging our ears when someone has something to say that you disagree with. It's easy! So seriously, give yourself a pat on the back and let's engage in some real talk.

Here we go. Every advancement we've enjoyed as a society has come from scientific consensus. Whatever surgeries you've had or diagnoses you've gotten or medicine you've taken or the technology that makes your life fun and useful all came from lots of data being collected and many experts trained to analyze the data. Then we go with what the most of those experts agree about. Have there been times when scientific consensus was wrong? Good heavens yes. Do they persist for long? No. There are flaws with the way "science" currently works right now and I could write a whole blog about it, but the reason we have extended our lives past an average of 45 is because it's the best we have.

If you belong and espouse a political party that currently is shutting down scientific advancement because it doesn't fit with the business models of certain industries, I don't care how much you loved Ronald Reagan, you will be on the wrong side of history. For decades the lead industry outright lied about the damages of lead poisoning, and they did this while children were convulsing and dying. Paint companies blamed the parents of the children for not teaching them to keep their fingers out of their mouths. We saw it again with the tobacco industry. Then the NFL in regards to concussions. Now soda. In each of these cases the majority of scientists said the thing was bad, and a handful of scientists who just happened to be paid for by the embattled industries just happen to say "nah, it's fine." Then, with tons and tons of money, they buy off politicians who were elected to represent the people who voted for them and they sign laws that kill their constituents.

But conservatives aren't the only ones denying science, you say. What about the vaccine controversy? Or GMOs? Scientific consensus says vaccines are good and GMOs are solving world hunger, but you lefty liberal hippies (and for some reason Donald Trump) hate those. YOU GUYS I AGREE. I hate that too! For the same reason! I am losing my mind about it every single day. I don't think that GMOs or vaccines are the tobacco or lead of our time because that's not what the evidence says. I had a very liberal coworker one time tell me that if our air was clean, we wouldn't need to eat food, and let me know about the "breatharians" who don't eat at all and live on light. The majority of studies, including this meta-study of 201 published papers, show that essential oils don't help with any of the things you've been told, either. Sorry. What's the harm of bad science? Well, if you read the link about the breatharians, the harm is death after "She lost the use of her legs, became incontinent and began coughing up a black, sticky fluid." With oils it's more harmless; it just means bothering your neighbors while not making anywhere near a living wage.

The only way we know what the evidence says, though, is if we keep collecting it. But here's what your party has done: they have blocked the CDC, year after year, from even collecting data about gun violence. If you're confident of your philosophy, then let the numbers show it. They have just now, as I write this, cancelled all of the EPA's grants and contracts. That means grad students and scientists who have been studying the impact of industry on our health suddenly have no more funding. Scientists looking into the effects of bad air quality on lungs just have to stop. Climatologists cataloging the already appearing signs of climate change, stopped for no reason other than a congress full of people dependent on hand outs, and a president's cabinet filled with people who make money from carbon fuels. The problem is this: it doesn't matter if we understand what's going on or not, it's still going on.

You know what would be fun? If I decided this morning that colds don't make it hard for me to breath. I just throw away my inhaler and everything is fine because my life is more convenient if my lungs are good. Ok, maybe I'm coughing so bad that sometimes there's blood, but I'm fine. Or, when my blood-pressure was skyrocketing, I could have just said, "I don't like to think about my kidneys being bad, and as long as I don't check it out, they must be good."

If I did that, I would maybe be dead right now. For reals. If not now, then soon. Because, and this is such a good metaphor, there are no symptoms to kidney disease until it's basically too late. That's why I had an EKG, and a CT scan, and a kidney biopsy. Because if something is wrong you have to figure out what's going on so that it saves your life.

This is repeated over and over and over. The best way to combat abortion is with cheap and readily available birth control. Because duh, you guys. Because obviously. But OK, human beings see the world wrong in some very fundamental ways so let's see what the science says. Oh look. This study shows a reduction of between 62-70%! And there is so much more evidence. Like look at Colorado. Their free birth control program reduced teen pregnancies by 40% That's amazing! So of course when Republicans got a majority they cut the funding for the program, one that had been shown to save Medicaid 5 dollars for every 1 spent.

I get that you hate abortion. I understand that at the beginning of this post, maybe you said "I could never be a Democrat because of abortions." But, oh my gosh. By cutting this money, you are guaranteeing that there will be more in your state. If you make them illegal, they will get them illegally. That's what the number say and there is no other way around it. I don't care what you think about sex or morality. This is just sheer numbers. This year, four blessed Colorado Republicans who actually looked at the numbers were able to get it back, and the program is funded. But all of the rest of them voted against it. And they slept at night.

I've read the science about soda and sugar. It's bad. Soda is bad. But I'm also drinking a mountain dew right now, and it's not my first of the day. We make decisions based on a lot of things, and sometimes we accept drawbacks. Pretending it's not so does not make it not so. Soda is bad for me, but it's yummy, so I try to limit it. Burning fossil fuels is bad for the earth, but we need it, so maybe let's try to REDACTED, NOT INTERESTED, GOVERNMENT CONSPIRACY.

One of the programs earmarked by Donald Trump and the Republican Congress is The Office of Violence Against Women. This is your party. This is the party that you put in place. This is the entity that you spend hours on Facebook defending. The party that is taking money away from domestic violence shelters -- including in my town -- who provide help for families who are escaping their abusers as they move from a shelter to transitional housing. This allows them to get a fresh start while looking for work. But what about all of the discredited numbers about sexual assault? Again. Go with the preponderance of data, not cherry picking.

Let's say that somehow you're OK with all of that. As someone said to me on Facebook recently when I brought up this point, "As for the budget stuff, they should donate to appropriate charities rather than wanting the government to steal my money for their purposes." (I assume said person will be the first in line to donate, of course.) There's more.

Are you OK with the National Parks being told that they can't tweet anymore? Because one of them tweeted a picture of their own park in which it looks like your crowd is small? Let's put politics aside. If that was your boss you'd say this, you'd say: dude.

Here's what you do when it's obvious that fewer people showed up for your inauguration than the last guy. You say, "Who gives a crap. I don't represent east-coast liberal elites. I represent the folks who can't afford a plane ticket because times have been hard. By 2021 you'll all be able to afford to fly and swear me in next time."

That rules. I took me ten seconds. It doesn't make the speaker look weak. He looks like a badass. Somebody hire me.

I'm sorry if this feels like a personal attack. I'm sorry if my posts and facebook stuff have alienated you so bad that you don't even read this. I know there's stuff we disagree on fundamentally. I don't know if we could ever get to the bottom of issues like gay marriage, or welfare. There probably is some happy medium when it comes to how many refugees we can assimilate or what to do about immigrants who commit crimes or how to make sure that the majority of Americans have access to affordable health care. We can disagree about that stuff and look at the numbers and crunch them and in a lot of cases there isn't a clear answer. There is so much to argue about! Crowd size is not one of them. Climate change is not one of them. Addressing climate change? Sure, let's talk about that. There's some meat there for sure. But saying that it doesn't exist ignores the preponderance of data. It's this same preponderance of data that leads to your dad's life being saved by a heart transplant. Or the little girl I've been following on Instagram who just beat liver cancer.

What I'm talking about is spending somewhere between $8 and 25$ BILLION dollars on a wall that even Texas Republicans, the state with the most border in the country, don't think will work, just because it made voters excited. These are the same guys who are telling us that the $0.46 we each spend a year on The National Endowment for the Arts is wasteful spending. The arts, you guys.
Iqbal, that great poet, was so right. The moment you recognize what is beautiful in this world, you stop being a slave. To hell with the Naxals and their guns shipped from China. If you taught every poor boy how to paint, that would be the end of the rich in India. -Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger
The Economist Intelligence Unit is a company that provides international data to businesses seeking intelligence for global expansion. It's a non-governmental for-profit business that has been around for 70 years. For the last ten years, they've been creating the Democracy Index, which ranks how democratic a country is. This year they dropped the ranking from "full democracy" to "flawed democracy." For context, that puts us even with Italy, South Korea, Singapore, and India.
"Trust in political institutions is an essential component of well-functioning democracies. Yet surveys by Pew, Gallup and other polling agencies have confirmed that public confidence in government has slumped to historic lows in the U.S. This has had a corrosive effect on the quality of democracy." - "Democracy Index 2016," Economist Intelligence Unit
That headline hit me in the gut and I've been sick about it ever since, and I don't think it's the cold. I had just finished The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga, and its portrayal of India just gutted me. The thought I constantly had was this: what is keeping the United States from this kind of corruption? And the more I thought about it the more I realized that nothing is. In India the bribery is up front where here we call them campaign donations. Unqualified people are put in charge of education because the position was up for bid where here, well, that totally happened. Luxury apartments are built right next to slums, instead of big cities here where the slums are a 1-2 hour drive.
Go to Old Delhi,and look at the way they keep chickens there in the market. Hundred of pale hens and brightly colored roosters, stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages. They see the organs of their brothers lying around them.They know they are next, yet they cannot rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop. The very same thing is done with humans in this country.
According to campaign disclosures, the legislature for the state in which I live received 3% of their donations from people who live in their districts, while 92% came from entities that fall under the umbrella of special interest groups. I'm not calling it outright bribery because I don't think that's what it is. It's transparent, at least. But the money gets those folks an audience with lawmakers that I don't get. And there's a larger incentive to make them happy than there is to make me happy, even though I ostensibly have a part in deciding who wins. I don't think this is a Republican or Democrat thing, by the way. But I think it only happens when a party has a political stranglehold on a state that still has people telling them at church that there is only one party you can be a member of with a clear conscience. I'm not saying that Democrats are great. I'm saying that at least at the moment they have a better track record of following the best available science.

That's it. I've got no problem with you identifying as Republican. I'm actually delighted that you are one, because I think our country needs at least two vibrant parties who are hell-bent on making the world a better place, and if you got this far you are thoughtful and open to ideas then the party needs you. And I hope the parties disagree, because if you're ever in a room (or Facebook feed) where everyone agrees with each other, you're already in trouble. Business schools (including Harvard Business School) regularly use the example of John F. Kennedy's solution to the groupthink that got the country into a very bad situation.
Eighteen months earlier, he’d made arguably the worst decision he ever made, to support an ill-conceived covert operation to unseat Fidel Castro, known today as the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Yale psychologist Irving Janis used the debacle to coin the term “groupthink,” which refers to a psychological drive for consensus at any cost that suppresses dissent and appraisal of alternatives. Historian Arthur Schlesinger, who took part in that decision process, later wrote that “our meetings were taking place in a curious atmosphere of assumed consensus, [and] not one spoke against it.”
And yet, as I write in more detail in Collaboration, after the Bay of Pigs Kennedy brilliantly retooled his group decision-making process. He ordered a review (keep in mind that not even the military was doing formal after-action reviews at the time) and subsequently instituted four changes to how his top team would make critical decisions:
- Each participant should function as a “skeptical generalist,” focusing on the problem as a whole rather than approaching it from his or her department’s standpoint.
 - To stimulate freewheeling discussions, the group should use informal settings, with no formal agenda and protocol, so as to avoid the status-laden meetings in the White House.
- The team should be broken into sub-groups that would work on alternatives and then reconvene.
- The team should sometimes meet without Kennedy present, so as to avoid people simply following his views.
The whole idea was to solicit diverse viewpoints, stimulate debate, explore options, probe assumptions, and let the best plan win on its merits. - "How John F. Kennedy Changed Decision Making for Us All," Harvard Business Review
Kennedy needed people to actively come up with other ideas besides his. People who disagreed with him and would dig in. Here's the thing. We need you. We need you to be that voice. The skeptical generalist. As the ranting liberal you hate to see pop up on Facebook, we need you. Check our bullcrap. Tell us when we've lost the way or are missing something key. For example, it's pretty worthwhile when people bring up the hypocrisy of us losing our minds about a refugee ban when President Obama did the same thing, just maybe a little smarter.

Your party needs you even more. The only people who can stop this are Republicans in Congress, but they have to find their courage. You can be their courage. But please, don't just fall in line. It's already scary enough out there.
He read me another poem, and another one - and he explained the true history of poetry, which is a kind of secret, a magic known only to wise men. Mr. Premier, I won't be saying anything new if I say that the history of the world is the history of a ten-thousand-year war of brains between the rich and the poor. Each side is eternally trying to hoodwink the other side: and it has been this way since the start of time. The poor win a few battles (the peeing in the potted plants, the kicking of the pet dogs, etc.) but of course the rich have won the war for ten thousand years. That's why, one day, some wise men, out of compassion for the poor, left them signs and symbols in poems, which appear to be about roses and pretty girls and things like that, but when understood correctly spill out secrets that allow the poorest man on earth to conclude the ten-thousand-year-old brain-war on terms favorable to himself.