The Extremis Virus: Modern Annoyances of the Political Ninja

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“Our age knows nothing but reaction, and leaps from one extreme to another.” ~ Reinhold Niebuhr

I should clarify this not a nerdy post about the Iron Man 3 movie or the comic arc it spawns from. Rather my focus is on the absolutist filter so many of us choose to view the world through. This isn’t the first time I’ve commented on my particular qualms with those who refuse to see the world in its various shades of gray and instead try to boil everything down to a simple black and white, right and wrong conclusion. This fallacious narrow view of the world permeates every level of our society and the reasons for why this is unwise are just as common. So instead of rehashing the complexity of life and going to great detail on why I think we need to avoid tacking to either extreme I will instead delve into a few areas where this extreme ideology is most disturbing.

Societal norms, most notably the idea that everyone needs to progress into the next stage of life by the same path is an example of a monolithic point of view that fails to recognize alternative points of view (Say that ten times fast). I find this most prevalent when it comes to the idea of marriage and family. Once you get to a certain age, it’s almost impossible to avoid the question of when are you getting married. My problems with this stems from the fact, marriage should be something entered into after a great deal of thought and reflection. Not something just assumed as a necessary part of one’s life. Every relationship and individual is different and in some cases maybe marriage is not an ideal fit. Maybe instead of viewing marriage as definitive step into adulthood, we should view it as merely one of many option one can take on their quest to a complete life.

Political discourse is poisoned by a view un-open to compromise. Listening to a debate on any policy issue and you would think each side came from different realities. I can find definitive statements with a simple google search that swear Barack Obama is a secret muslim bent on destroying the country, and in the same search uncover a claim that he is the second-coming of Christ and will lead us to World Peace. Obviously, this is an extreme example, but the debates happening on our televisions, over the internet and in the halls of Congress can border on this level of extreme rhetoric. There are many things according to hard facts are true, but most often solutions require taking ideas from both sides of the debate and finding the middle solution. The one that doesn’t suggest dramatic adherence to the left or the right, but rather sees that most often the gray areas that exist in the world often require equally gray proposals is probably the right one.

Personal disagreements always seem to devolve into “always” and “never” scenarios.  I’m just as guilty of this as anyone else. We find ourselves in an emotional argument and we start throwing out statements like, “George Lucas always ruins movies” and “I’m never going to another Star Wars movie again.” Well, maybe that specific example just applies to me. The point is, we make definitive statements when we are emotionally charged that are not true, and only serve to create further discord. This becomes exceptionally problematic in cases where the individuals throwing these words out refuse to acknowledge when they are wrong. So next time before you find yourself saying always or never, stop and take a moment to remember that Mr. Lucas made a number of quality movies before he started ruining them.

So there you have it, a few specific example of when the notorious extremis virus infects the world we live in. Will this rampant definitive approach to life continue? Probably. However, if we all try to listen to each other’s points of view and recognize there may be some validity there, we can go a long way in limiting its existence. Or at the very least harness it into liquid form and create the world’s next big energy drink sensation: Extremis.

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The Modern Progressive: Striving to Make Big Things Happen

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There are no constraints on the human mind, no walls around the human spirit, no barriers to our progress except those we ourselves erect.  ~Ronald Reagan 

In the constant partisan bickering that is the constant focus of the 24-hour news networks, what actually defines the two sides of the arguments gets lost. Instead, we either get a partisan-dominated view that appeals to a certain audience (I’m looking at you Fox News) or a an attempt to avoid all controversy and give credence to all ideas, even if they are blatantly false. It’s no secret I hold to a certain set of ideals ( I’m still dealing with criticism over a blog post I did comparing Republicans to the Sith). However, I like to think that coming from a background where I was free to make my own judgments on what ideology best fit my world view has given me a certain level of understanding of what motivates both sides and why I believe progressivism is a worthwhile movement.

Before I get into the nuts of bolts of why I believe progressive, liberal policymaking is good for this country I feel I should say a few things about conservatism. First, and foremost, conservative thought is not an inherently evil set of ideals bent on destroying the world. I hate to use the trite car analogy, but if the world was a car conservatism would serve as the brake. And we all need to use brakes from time to time (some more than others). Does that mean we should ride the brakes and prevent any kind of giant, monumental change? No. In fact, when entrenched conservative interests resist all change government ceases to be an effective vehicle for positive policy.

Positive change. The number one reason progressives exist. We look to make the world better by spending money on massive projects. Whether it be massive infrastructure projects to stimulate economic growth and bring our roads and sewer systems into the next century or investment in research and development that will allow us to move to a fuel and energy source that stops polluting our environment and slows down the inevitable march towards catastrophic climate change. We look to make big things happen above all else. Of course, this can lead to trouble if the consequences of this change have not been weighed or the opposition to such an act has not been properly considered.

Not only is progressivism about creating large, grandiose developments, it’s also about ensuring everyone is treated equal. Take the recent marriage equality victory in Minnesota. This is a cause that was championed by the political left, not out of some hidden agenda to undermine tradition, but to move society forward so that all people are allowed the same legal rights. In this fight, we saw that sometimes progressive thought is not just limited to those on the left, but can find champions on the other side of the aisle as well. Moving forward, even if when it’s not the politically expedient thing to do, embodies the core of this ideology.

Does this mean we all need to be progressive? Probably not. Any situation where there is only one point of view presented is wrought with the opportunity for stagnation. The conservative counter point is vital to vetting the big ideas presented by the progressive movement. However, this does not mean the currently situation in Washington and around the United States is acceptable. Opposition for the sake of discrediting someone you disagree with is irresponsible. As is looking to starve the government to a point where it only able to perform the most basic of public services. This is where I believe modern republicans have lost their way. We need to focus on proposing bold solutions to the real challenges humanity faces and stop looking to the next election cycle.

Why is Higher Education so Expensive?

Tuition is Too Damn High

“We have a responsibility to ensure that every individual has the opportunity to receive a high-quality education, from prekindergarten to elementary and secondary, to special education, to technical and higher education and beyond.” ~Jim Jeffords

Higher Education has become quite the flash point in recent years. Students of all stripes (myself included) have been subject to constant increases in the cost of their college education. Of course, they could always decide to skip college and just enter the workforce, thus saving tens of thousands of dollars. Oh wait, never mind, they really can’t. As the cost of higher education has continued to rise, it has only become more of a necessity. Don’t believe me?  Ask all those insurance agents if a bachelor’s degree was really necessary to do the work they do.  Or the companies who need employees trained in highly specialized fields like computer science if they’ll hire someone straight out of high school. Though the more important question is how did we get here?

Problem 1: State Higher Education funding has not matched the need nor the demand of this generation. While funding for education has generally risen for higher ed over the past decade, it has not come close to meeting demand. In fact, most public state institutions have actually seen funding decrease dramatically in relation to the amount the student pays in tuition. In Minnesota, this has accounted for a state college and university system that once was two-thirds state funding, one-third tuition to shift to the opposite ratio. As we continue to see more students pursuing a higher-education, the lack of legislative will to match that increase with a proportionate amount of funding is placing the financial burden solely on the back of the students.

Problem 2: Educating a student simply costs more. One thing I never understood about Star Wars, was how they afforded to build those technological marvels like the Death Star and lightsaber. It couldn’t have been cheap.  Similarly, as the world makes rapid technological advances, the education required to utilize that technology in the work force increases as well. In order to stay on the cutting edge, college and universities must invest thousands of dollars into the latest teaching tools. Whether this is a state-of-the-art science lab or an effective Learning Management System the cost of education increases with every new innovation. Unfortunately, that cost gets passed on directly to the student in the form of increased fees and tuition.

Problem 3: Companies that use to train their employees, now rely on the higher education institutions to do it for them. There was a time when you could get an entry-level job doing something as simple as working in a mail room. From there you could work your way up with the help of in-house training. In many ways, those days are behind us. Instead, employers expect you to attend college for a very specific field, get the requisite experience through what is many times an unpaid internship, and then fill a very specific need. This  has forced anyone who would like a well-paying, stable job to first invest a great deal of resources in a college education. This of course leads to further financial stress on the colleges and universities around the country. Well at least until we can upload information directly into our brains ala The Matrix.

Getting a higher education degree is unlikely going to get cheaper in the near future thanks to the combination of the increasing cost to educate students, a lack of state funding, and the simple reality corporations expect more out of higher education. However, there are things we as a society can do to reverse the trend before the costs begin to affect our ability to maintain a competitive workforce. First, we can begin  to prioritize higher-education funding as a priority when we head to the ballot box by supporting politicians who are serious about addressing the issue. Secondly, we can encourage the use of cheaper technological solutions to old problems (e.g. open source textbooks) to reduce the cost of educating our college students. Lastly, while its unlikely businesses will return to an era where they trained their employees from the bottom to the top, we can encourage partnerships between the private sector and the colleges and universities in order to find creative solutions to drive down the cost of higher education. Or we can always just assign everyone a career chip and cut out the middle man.

Reflecting on 2012

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“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.” ~Robert Frost

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted. Partly, because the holidays are meant for laziness. And partly because of the dreaded creature of the black lagoon: writers block. It happens to the best of writers and I can safely say I fall somewhere in the middle of the pack. Besides, posting weekly without a break inevitably leads to repetition and before you know it one ends up writing the same story about how extremist Republicans are out to destroy the world and its up to the forces of logic and reason to stop them. Is the point to this reflective rambling? Not sure, but I suppose now is as good as time as any to throw in a quick segue about how taking time off from blogging should lead to plenty of topics to write about (for next couple of weeks anyway). So without a further ado, time to recap some important lessons (political and otherwise) I took away from 2012.

Despite all beliefs to the contrary the world is unlikely to end in our lifetimes. While 2012 brought plenty of calamities, (Hurricane Sandy, a rash of mass shootings, and mass animal suicides to name a few) last time I checked we are all still here. There were plenty of changes of course. The revolutions of the Arab Spring continuing in nations like Syria has led many to question the stability of the region. Climate change is definitely having its effect as 2012 was the hottest year in recorded history. And perhaps most importantly of all, George Lucas sold the legendary Star Wars property to Disney ensuring the force will be with us well into the future. Despite all of this, the fabled end of the world predicted by the misinterpretation of the Mayan calendar did not materialize. Also, there are no zombies shambling around so that apocalypse has probably been staved off for at least another year or so (Though with this year’s flu season, I’m not convinced it’s too far off). Moral of the story? As long as you are still alive the world hasn’t ended. And if you’re not alive, than you probably aren’t really worried about it anyways.

Tell yourself a lie enough times and you start to believe it. Defining truth is tricky business. There are so few definitive truths out there. Even the one’s that do exist can be questioned and argued against convincingly (For example, death and taxes may be certain, but there are still plenty of people who would tell you taxes are criminal and would like them eliminated and death is only certain until we find a technological solution for it). So it probably should have come as no surprise that telling ourselves lies more in line with what we want to see happen can easily become our version of the truth.  This was no more prevalent than during the 2012 presidential election. Despite the facts predicting a solid, albeit narrow reelection for President Obama, many of the talking heads on the other side of the debate refused to believe it. Some going as far as to claim a landslide victory for Mitt Romney. While others continued to deny the results of the election after every major news outlet had called it in favor of Mr. Obama. Sadly, as our ability to pick and choose what information we consume increases we are able to ignore everything but what we want to hear. Which leads to a culture where we can convince ourselves to believe anything, no matter how crazy it may be.

Widely believed narratives are not always true. Narratives, whether they be concocted by the media or created through historical context, tend to shape many aspects of our life. This is equally true in the political realm. While I first noticed this during the early months of the Obama campaign back in 2007, the debate over Voter Identification in Minnesota definitively drove the point home. All the experts, the polls and the media believed this fight was lost once the proposed amendment was added to the ballot. Voter ID was such common sense that it would likely pass with little effort. However, as history ultimately showed all it took was education on the realities behind the bill to break that support down and send the poorly worded amendment to the showers. So while we probably shouldn’t completely ignore the preconceived notions held about a situation, its important we do not allow them to discourage us from taking action. So basically, what I’m saying is don’t count out the new Star Wars movie yet,  it might just surprise us.

While there are plenty of other lessons I’m sure one can take from the anti-climatic year 2012 turned out to be, these we’re a few that stuck out in my mind. They may have been peppered with plenty of biased political observations and random asides, but with any luck there are some nuggets of wisdom hidden within that can help prepare for an equally non-earth shattering 2013.  Will I learn greater lessons in the coming years? Maybe. Will writers block prevent me from recounting them? Probably. Either way, I’ll probably keep polluting the web with this nonsense until a zombie or other world calamity extinguishes my existential ramblings once and for all.

Big Change is a Work in Progress

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“Always remember that the future comes one day at a time.” ~Dean Acheson

Many of the most passionate people are also the least patient. Who can blame them? History paints a picture of big moments. Where a single act spurred an avalanche of change. An entire country created by the acts of a tireless general. An entire civil rights movement spurred by the defiance of one brave woman.  Example after example of monumental change, by one individual at a key moment in history. Upon closer inspection however,  for real change to occur one must recognize that it is not the dramatic acts of valor that lead to success, but a series of well-planned, coordinated actions that occur over the course of months, years, or sometimes even decades.

This is especially true in our professional lives. An average day in the life of a professional involves a number of seemingly insignificant activities and tasks. Be it the creation of pesky training programs to for future advocates of a non-profits work on a cause or the meticulous work of stripping rust and old paint from a bridge needing a face lift, there are a number of activities that while may seem unimportant at the time, are vital to making any last change. The training program is a necessary element to build the groundswell needed to make progress on any issue based advocacy. In order to improve the integrity of the bridge it is vitally important the rust and old paint be removed so that a new layer of protection can be applied. These outcomes are helpful to remember when works seems to be going nowhere.

As many of us are discouraged by the incremental steps it takes to succeed at work, it’s no wonder there is so much impatience in our political discourse. When President Barack Obama was elected in 2008 he inherited the worst economy in decades. Yet after only a couple of years there were many individuals claiming his presidency had failed. This was despite the steady progress the economy was beginning to make, the gains in healthcare accessibility not thought possible in the 8 years prior, and the elimination of the highly discriminatory Don’t Ask Don’t Tell military policy. Fortunately, enough people were willing to give him a chance in 2012 despite this impatience. The biggest problem with the public policy debate however, has less to do with the support of our politicians and more to do with the impatience of the populace to see lasting change.

Something it would be beneficial for people to realize, especially for those on the extreme ends of the spectrum, is political victory and progress takes baby steps. For example, when Social Security was first imagined and passed under Franklin D. Roosevelt it was a shade of what it is today. Furthermore, it was not the most popular of proposals. Thanks to the work of many individuals working together throughout history is has become a program many seniors and other disadvantaged groups rely on to live better, longer lives. The same can be said about today’s policy objectives. Be it expanding healthcare access for all, or moving our country to a sustainable, secure energy future. It important that we allow our elected officials and leaders the time to make these changes and continue to do our part to make these changes possible. One action at a time.

No matter what aspect of life you are looking to make progress in, whether it be your more localized professional life or the larger societal picture, recognizing the slow and steady, incremental nature of life is key. These steps are filled with details and careful planning that many of us forget about when we get fired up and ready to go. Even the most epic of plots involve numerous unexciting elements (e.g. the construction of a lightsaber or a massive orc army). While not every action will inevitably lead to something greater, there is always the possibility. Therefore, we must not allow our impatience to get the best of us, but rather put our energy into building to the great moments that history will ultimately remember.

 

Lessons from the 2012 Election

“If you give the people enough time, they usually will do the right thing.” ~Frank Wright

Another election season has come and gone. As usual there were losers and winners. This cycle saw a correction from the sweeping conservative wave of the 2010 midterms. President Obama won reelection in what turned out to be a more decisive victory than anyone was predicting. The Democrats made modest gains in Congress. In Minnesota the two discriminatory ballot questions: one that would have limited the potential rights of same-sex couples to marry and the another that would have prevented countless at-risk voters from voting were both rejected by a majority of the electorate. And for the first time since the early nineties the Democratic Farmer Labor party has majority control of all statewide offices. While I could spend the rest of this post, basking in progressive glory, I think I’ll take the more prudent route and discuss a few things this election has taught me.

When turnout is at its highest the United States has a slight progressive bend to it. There’s been a great deal of lamenting by some of the more extreme elements on the Right regarding how this election proves traditional America no longer exists. Mr. O’Reilly’s apocalyptic exaggerations aside, this country has changed in the last ten years. That is it changed from a center right country to a center left nation that believes we need to move forward rather than try to take things back to the “way they were.” The problems the conservatives have is rather than adapt to a changing nation by appealing to the young, women and minority voters making up this new progressive majority, they instead try to limit the rights to vote to those more favorable to their points of view. A strategy that did not pay dividends this time around.

An educated populace usually makes the right decision.When the Voter Identification amendment was first placed on the ballot, many opponents to the bill were talking like its passage was forgone conclusion. And who could blame them? Support for such a measure was polling at 80 percent at the time. Getting that number below 50 seemed almost impossible. However, thanks to the overwhelmingly successful education campaign embarked upon by many of the oppositional groups including the coalition Our Vote Our Future, support began to fade. All it took was simple one-on-one conversations explaining all the potential problems such an amendment could cause for those seeking to exercise their right to vote. By the time Minnesotan’s made their voice heard in November, the amendment was struck down by almost 54 percent of voters. Furthermore thanks to a similar campaign by Minnesotan United for All Families Minnesota became the first state in the country to strike down the discriminatory marriage amendment. Proving, when given all the information, people will usually make the morally sound decision.

The extremes are becoming further out of touch with reality every day. One simply had to tune into Fox News or listen to the more extreme elements on the right to learn this lesson first hand. Be it Karl Rove’s inability to accept that Mitt Romney did indeed lose to Barack Obama or Donald Trump’s inappropriate, borderline treasonous Tweets, those at the extreme ends of the spectrum continue to become more and more out of touch with the average voter. Not to mention the nomination of many unelectable candidates during the primary season due to increasing extremism by the fringe of the Republican party. These candidates, espousing outdated views on women’s reproductive rights and many other social issues while failing to focus on the important economic issues of the day enabled Democrats to make gains on both the state and national level. When faced with this reality, rather than accept the people of America are looking for steady leadership, many of these extremists instead chose to blame the electorate for no longer representing traditional American ideals. To paraphrase Mr. Brian Williams, this type of blind refusal to acknowledge the true nature of things put these extreme elements in danger of passing the exit of relevance into something close to irresponsibility.

Every election cycle offers the opportunity for reflection. Many thing are learned. Some, like the realization that an educated, majority of Americans tend to make the right decision give me hope for the future. While others, show that walking too far towards one ideology causes one to lose touch with the finer points of reality. Some are pointing to the recent election as a sign of a deteriorating America, going as far as circulating petitions of secession. However, I believe this election has the potential to be a historical turning point for this country. Where Republicans and Democrats are finally able to break the gridlock caused by their more extreme elements and move towards solving many of the larger issues at hand. At least until the 2016 presidential election anyways.

Fresh Ideas? I Think Not.

“To summarize, then, the true Romney plan is to create an economic boom through the sheer power of Mr. Romney’s personal awesomeness.” ~Paul Krugman

As another presidential election reaches its climax, the polls in the country have tightened up dramatically. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney find themselves in a virtual dead heat in many national polls. This in due in part to what is the dampening of enthusiasm among many former Obama supporters. Add in the tendency by many independents to “throw the bums out” when thing don’t improve quickly and dramatically and it is no wonder Mitt Romney is threatening to end the Obama presidency at one term. However, the idea Romney’s proposed economic policy to reduce tax rates for everyone (including the very rich), reduce the deficit, and eliminate regulations are fresh ideas beyond the failed economic policies of his Republican predecessor just does not add up.

Take the first, and arguably most central tenet to the Romney campaign’s plan for creating jobs: tax cuts. Throughout history, Republican politicians have argued cutting taxes are the key to economic recovery. Furthermore, they have aimed those tax cuts at the higher income earners in some misplaced belief that by reducing taxes on the very rich the economic benefits will trickle down to the rest of society. However, according to a recent study, the increase in GDP from tax cuts on the very rich is statistically insignificant. Furthermore, it was similar economic policy to this that lead the country into the most recent economic recession in the first place. Hardly a fresh idea.

Another cornerstone of the Romney/Ryan proposed economic plan, is the need for deficit reduction. Not only is this not a new idea (deficit reduction has been a part of the federal policy conversation in every election over the past decade or so), the aforementioned tax cuts do nothing to help reduce the deficit. In fact, according to some, these tax cuts could amount to as much as $5 trillion addition to the national debt. While the final number regarding the amount added to the debt is not a certain, no matter how you look at it, cutting taxes will need to be paid for. As one can see, thanks to this handy tool from the New York Times, one can not reduce the deficit significantly through cuts alone without severe ramifications for programs that benefit millions of Americans. Rather than a boon to the economy, this is a merely a recycled proposal to use deficit reduction as a guise to shrink the social safety net. Once again, nothing fresh about that.

The final central, albeit somewhat vague, proposal being put forth by Mitt Romney in order to stimulate the economy is to reduce regulations in order to allow to small business to prosper. There are number of problems with this idea. First, among the regulations he has targeted as needing to be eliminated or reduced are those recently placed on the financial industry by the Dodd-Frank Reform and Consumer Protection Act, a bill meant to prevent another banking crisis. This is a backwards thinking at best and could lead the economy right back to the brink of collapse. Also, treating regulatory agencies as an impediment to economic gain, rather than the protection against irresponsible business practices they are, does our society a disservice and can lead to dire consequences for the environment and health of our communities. Going after regulations, rather than acknowledging their importance in society is hardly a new proposal that will lead to massive benefits to the economy.

While there are many reasons to be dissatisfied with our current president, the reality is things have been getting progressively better. Furthermore, an economic policy focusing on reductions in the tax rate, the deficit and regulations is neither new nor the answer going forward. We must instead invest money in infrastructure, education, and energy. While Obama has not fulfilled all of his promise, I believe he has done enough to deserve another term. One thing is clear, while his vision may not be “fresh” it is the better prescription for what this country needs going forward.