Wednesday, October 20, 2010

An Electoral Moral Imperative

Houston we have a problem, a national moral problem. I’m reminded of the Apostle Paul’s admonition, But do not let immorality or any impurity or greed even be named among you, as is proper for saints [Ephesians 5:3].”  We live in a culture in which unbridled greed has been shamelessly promoted as morally defensible.  A current consequence is that few employers feel any committment to their fellow Americans who are out of work, many in desperate straights.  Few employers seem to accept the notion that they share responsibility for their nation’s economic recovery.  The mantra has become simple, “Short-term profit for me and my stockholders, American workers and economy be damned.”
A recent article in the Christian Science Monitor by Mark Trumbull points out that employers are unwilling to hire because health insurance companies are jacking up health-care costs faster than inflation which cuts into their profits (Remember why we need health care reform so badly?).  It has also become easier to outsource jobs overseas than in the past. Lastly, the return on investment in workers takes longer to realize the return on investment in a machine.  Why hire American workers when they can buy a machine or send a job to India, Korea or China and rake in money with minimal delay?   
Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO President recently said, “Companies are sitting on $837 billion without creating jobs. Banks are clutching a trillion dollars in profits without lending to small businesses consumers.”   It has become clear that if we wait for private employers and bankers to do the right thing, we’ll be waiting a very long time, while middle income and other out of work Americans suffer, some severely.  It has become a national disgrace. 
In last week’s radio address, Barrack Obama proposed realistic plans that would help. “We’ll create nearly half a million jobs by investing in clean energy–by committing to double the production of alternative energy in the next three years, and by modernizing more than 75 percent of federal buildings and improving the energy efficiency of two million American homes. These made-in-America jobs building solar panels and wind turbines, developing fuel-efficient cars and new energy technologies pay well, and they can’t be outsourced.”  Obama says he will “Work to achieve bipartisan extensions of unemployment insurance and health care coverage; a $1,000 tax cut for 95 percent of working families; and assistance to help states avoid harmful budget cuts in essential services like police, fire, education and health care.”
Barrack Obama’s plans would truly help, IF, and I repeat, IF the Senate’s Filibuster Machine allowed any of his proposals to see the light of day. After the upcoming election, that may prove to be even more problematic. The Republicans have vowed to oppose every measure Barrack Obama proposes, no matter how rational, and how important it may be for helping American workers and hence the economic recovery. Even proposals that Republicans have favored in the past will be filibustered merely to prevent the President from receiving credit from solving a critical national problem. Republicans have one goal. Prevent Barrack Obama’s re-election in 2012 at all costs. The nation’s economy is being held hostage by the Republican party for its political gain. The American people will have suffered for four years of economic blight, so the Republicans have a chance of replacing Barrack Obama by electing one of their own president in 2012. It is a sorry state of affairs.
Many Americans have no idea the consequences of the Senate filibusters over the past two years.  The embedded chart shows the drastic increase in use of the filibuster by Senate Republicans in the 110th Congress.  Republicans filibustered over twice as many bills as during the preceding Congress, and over 4 times as many as during the 101st Congress, which tells us a lot about why more progress on critical issues wasn’t made. It has been next to impossible for any of the Presidents’ proposals to make it through the Senate. 
Good luck with bipartisanship to solve the country’s economic problems, Mr. President. Perhaps after the election Barrack Obama will abandon his delusional notion that bipartisanship with newly elected Tea Party Republicans or with the old guard Republicans like Mitch McConnell is possible. When two sides are involved, capitulation of one party to all of the other’s demands, is not bipartisanship, it is appeasement.  True bipartisanship is never going to happen during Mr. Obama’s term in office. Mr. Obama made the mistake of being elected president while being Black (EPWBB). Republicans can’t forgive him for that.  Do we really think those Tea Party rally signs depicting Barrack Obama as an African Witch Doctor with a bone in his nose, or as Hitler or Stalin, or  accusing him of “White Slavery” and comparing his health care plan with the Holocaust, were because he was literate, well educated moderate Democrat with moderate policy proposals?
Barrack Obama and Senator Harry Reid (if he survives) have several choices.  (1) Make as many administrative changes as possible to improve jobs and the economy via Executive Orders, Presidential Determinations and Presidential Notices.  These methods are limited to administrative actions requiring no new appropriations, but they could help solve some problems.  The Republicans will howl.  Let them bay at the moon. (2) The Democratic Senate Majority Leader (if there still is one) should return to the tried and tested procedure in which Senators on the minority side who choose to filibuster would actually have to stand before the Senate and speak ad infinitum on any topic they choose, unless "three-fifths of the Senators duly chosen and sworn,” vote to close the debate by cloture.   I’d like to see Jim DeMint reading the DC yellow pages before an empty Senate chamber at 3am long about day three of a Republican filibuster against a jobs bill. The Republicans will complain to high heaven.  Let them complain.  (3) The final choice is the so-called “nuclear option,” in which the 2/3rds majority rule about filibusters could be set aside by simple majority vote of the members of the Senate.  This would be difficult, but not impossible to accomplish, because though some of the Senate’s Chartreuse Dog Republicrats (Ben Nelson, Landrieu, Lincoln, Bayh, Conrad and Lieberman) would likely vote against their own President, and with the DeMint and McConnell, some may find the courage to do the right thing, but don’t hold your breath. It will be an up-hill battle.  Holding onto as many seats as possible will help. 
If Republicans achieve a majority after the upcoming election, they have promised an Orwellian transformation, in which most of what the majority of American people voted for in the previous presidential election will be abandoned in favor of the just the opposite. They have promised to block health care reform that includes coverage for children with pre-existing conditions (like autism) and would provide coverage for all Americans when all of its provisions kick in, block credit card and other Wall Street reforms that prevent most Americans from being cheated by banks, block reform of home loan procedures to protect consumers, block reimbursement of the American government by oil companies like BP, for oil disasters resulting from lack of safety on oil drilling rigs, and lastly, they have promised to bring articles of impeachment against President Obama. Those are not ways most Americans want to see their elected representatives carry out their legislative responsibilities on behalf of the nation.
Every vote counts this election, which is likely to be close in many races. We need to stop behaving as though we are dealing with honorable people and lying to ourselves about the nature of the opposition.  If we are going to see more Americans back at work and the home foreclosure crisis solved, and many of the other pressing issues facing the nation seriously addressed, we need help from a Congress that will work with President Obama rather than undermine his every effort to solve our economic woes. Every House and Senate seat matters.  The President can’t do it alone.  That’s why your vote is a response to the moral imperative we all face in two weeks.  

Friday, October 15, 2010

Meltdown Test Dummy

Ninety-six years ago this week, Samuel W. Alderson, an American physicist and engineer was born.  He invented the crash-test dummy used to test the safety of cars. In 1968, he produced a dummy (called the V.I.P.) for automotive testing with built-in instruments for collecting data, and which had articulated joints and simulations such as synthetic wounds that oozed mock blood.

Parents of children with autism who have frequent severe meltdowns and behavioral outbursts might wonder why a “crash-test dummy” hasn’t been developed to simulate how an average parent would react to the emotional assault of enduring sometimes hours of their child’s behavioral outbursts, complete with aggression, property destruction and self injury. Maybe the data collected could help make the meltdown crashes less devastating or prevent them altogether. 

Engineers would design the meltdown test-mannequin so it would be able to secrete cortisol and other stress hormones, increase its simulated heart rate and blood pressure, secrete stomach acid and develop bowel cramps.  After the “crash” was over, the meltdown mannequin would have the ability to develop a pounding migraine headache, complete with scintillating scotoma, the zig zag flashing lights one sees as the dreaded headache unfolds.  

Unlike the automobile crash test dummy, the meltdown test mannequins would have the option of coming in pairs, a father and a mother.  After the meltdown crash is over, sensors would measure how much arguing ensued about whose fault it was and how they should have handled it differently.  Finally, the test mannequins would go to bed wondering what they had done wrong and how they could better help their child. 

Automotive engineers know a lot about how to build safety features into cars to minimize damage to passengers.  Children with autism have already been engineered when they come to us.  For whatever reason, some of their usual social safety features are missing.  As a result, we need to do a great deal of post-production tinkering to reduce emotional crashes.  Behavior therapists, speech and language pathologists, special educators and pediatricians can work with parents to minimize, and sometimes eliminate those devastating emotional and behavioral wrecks that rend the family fabric with devastating consequences.

Each time I sit with a family as their child sobs, screams and bangs her head, or scratches his face or bites his mother’s arm, as parents struggle to try to contain the situation, my heart aches for them and their child.  We don’t, and shouldn’t think like automotive engineers, but we do need to do our best to think clearly about the reasons it necessary for this very lovely child to do these extremely destructive things to him or herself and their family.

Maybe we don’t need a meltdown test mannequin after all.  Maybe we can take concrete steps to do what is necessary to reverse the pattern which is so destructive to families, which requires enormous patience and perseverance, for these behavior patterns have typically emerged over many months and sometimes years, and will not go away quietly in the night.  Standing side by side, we can do this, really we can. 

Friday, October 8, 2010

One Reader's Reflections: Post-Vietnam to Now

In the first part of this commentary, I discussed my plodding start as a reader, and reading life while a university student.  In the post-Vietnam war era, highlighted by the assassinations of John F. and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr, like most other Americans I developed a distinctively darker world-view, much like the angst gripping the nation today.  My reading reflected that gloomy mood. That was when I happened onto Jerzy Kozinski’s The Painted Bird, the autobiographical short novel of wanderings of a young boy in Central Europe during WWII, in a horrific struggle to survive.  That stimulated my interest in a Penguin’s series edited by Phillip Roth, Writers from the Other Europe. Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting had the most influence on my thinking. In Kundera’s work, magical elements were blended into a realistic atmosphere in order to access a deeper understanding of reality. Remarkable dream-like elements are explained as though they are normal occurrences that are presented in a straightforward manner, allowing the "real" and the "fantastic" to be accepted in the same stream of thought. These works were infused with a sense of powerlessness, rooted in growing up in Communist Eastern Europe where the individual was nothing.  Others in that series that especially appealed to me were Bohumil Hrabal’s Closely Watched Trains and Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles. Both explored themes of futility at the hands of mindless but at times ruthless bureaucrats. Today’s ruthless bureaucratic oligarchs who control our lives have names like Koch (Koch Industries) and Walton (Wallmart) or companies like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley rather than the Politburo or Communist Party.  Aynn Rand’s vision in Atlas Shrugged is becoming a startlingly bleak nightmarish reality in America, in which the top 1 percent of the most wealthy people controlling 42% of the wealth. 

In the past, when travelling by airplane, I often read John LeCarre spy novels to distract myself from that uncomfortable and at times intolerable form of transportation.  I consumed LeCarre novels with enthusiasm while shoe horned into gawd-awful postures masquerading as airplane seating. Those novels featured British MI-5 spy, George Smiley, who never disappointed the reader. LeCarre’s plots were complex and characters had equally complex lives and motives.  My current travel reading, or rather I should say, listening, has been digitally narrated espionage books by Daniel Silva, a series featuring the Israeli Mossad spymaster Gabriel Allon.  In the series, Allon had been originally trained as a professional art restorer before joining the Mossad.  His profession provided cover in many of Sliva’s espionage stories. My favorite Silva book is The Messenger, with an incredibly convoluted plot, including a Saudi billionaire and art collector named Abdul Aziz al-Bakari and a brilliant young academically trained American art curator, Sarah Bancroft, who is recruited by the CIA and Israeli Intelligence to set a trap for Mr. al Bakari using a previously unknown van Gogh painting as bait.  Sarah is a well-educated and more sophisticated version of Isabel Archer, a bright young American woman, stubborn, opinionated and vulnerable in the hands of men from other cultures whom she fails to understand.  Silva does a remarkable job of creating multilayered characters with complex motives and personalities.  I’m currently half way through Silva’s Rembrandt Affair, which is living up to its promise.

Biography and autobiography have generally failed to interest me.  The main exceptions have been Bertrand Russell’s two-volume autobiography and B. F Skinner’s, The Shaping of a Behaviorist and Particulars of My Life, and Sidney Salkow’s biography of Chief Joseph, the life of one of America’s great statesmen.  Over the past decade my reading has gravitated increasingly toward essays, short stories and poetry.  Essay reading necessarily begins with Montaigne and Emerson, but has included John McPhee, one of the modern masters of the medium, and the hyper-abstract, intellectual linguistic essays of Umberto Eco (e.g. Serendipities).  Lewis Thomas’s The Lives of a Cell and Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, rank high on the list of favorite essays.  Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table remains with me after all these years, and Bernard Cooper’s fanciful Maps to Anywhere, again a mixture of magical realism and realism.  The protagonist, a rather mousey Mr. Stone, decides to shop for a globe on his lunch hour.  He wants a simple Replogle globe, the kind that was in our classrooms in elementary school.  The proprietess of the shop “Maps to Anywhere,” Miss Mazel, insists that Stone must have “the Dexter Special,” none other will be adequate to meet his needs.  Poor Mr. Stone was unware he had cartographic needs that must be met. What had begun as a simple purchase of a simple familiar globe has become an existential experience replete with ethereal meaning, as Miss Mazel is adamant that the hapless man purchase the Dexter Special Map to Anywhere, which will reveal far more to him than he wants to know about the world, far more.  None other will do Mss Mazel insists.

Among poets, my continuing favorite is Polish Nobel Laureate, Wislawa Szymborska.  Now 77 years old, Zymborska uses irony, paradox, contradiction and understatement to illuminate themes and obsessions. Szymborska's compressed writing style pose existential puzzles, such as wryly commenting on the choice of content of one’s resume,’ and reflecting on the condition of people both as individuals and as members of society. Her style is succinct, introspective and witty.  I find myself constantly quoting her works.  I understand she is painfully shy, so such public deference would likely be embarrassing to her, so don’t let on to her that you know.

In “Born” Szymborska began,

“So this is his mother/This small woman/This gray-haired procreator.
The boat in which, years ago/ he sailed to shore.”

And another of my favorites, “Nothing’s a Gift,”

“Nothing’s a gift, it’s all on loan/ I’m drowning in debts up to my ears.? I’ll have to pay for myself/ with myself/ give up my life for my life.

I can’t remember/ where, when and why/ I let someone open/ this account in my name./ We call the protest against this/ the soul./ And it’s the only item/not included on the list.”

We can talk more about the soul another day when we discuss Bennet and Hacker's Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience. 

There were numerous other reading discursions along the way, like Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle and Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, and E. O. Wilson’s remarkable non-fiction book, Consilience, but the foregoing have been some of the main perambulatory streams of my reading life.   Unlike Pat Conroy who reports that his mother believed that by reading, he and his siblings would be elevated from poverty, my family did not view reading a vehicle serving a higher purpose. My parents seemed to assume reading was as an end in itself, and that I would find my own reading pathway, which I suppose I have, in my own disorderly but fulfilling way.