Powdered-Sugar Doughnuts

“If you encounter a new kind of pleasure-if, say, you’ve somehow gone your whole life without eating a powdered-sugar doughnut, and somebody hands you one and suggests you try it – you’ll get a big blast of dopamine after the taste of the doughnut sinks in.  But later once you’re a confirmed powdered-sugar doughnut eater, the lion’s share of the dopamine spike comes before you actually bite into the doughnut, as you’re staring longingly at it; the amount that comes after the bite is much less than the amount you got after the first, blissful bite into a powdered-sugar doughnut.  The pre-bite dopamine blast you’re now getting is the promise of more bliss, and the post-bite drop in dopamine is, in a way, the breaking of the promise – or, at least, it’s a kind of biochemical acknowledgment that there was some overpromising.  To the extent that you bought the promise – anticipated greater pleasure than would be delivered by the consumption itself – you have been, if not deluded in the strong sense of that term, at least misled.”

-Robert Wright from his book, “Why Buddhism is True”

As I read these words I started thinking about our current political climate.  Scott Adams, writer of the Dilbert cartoon, who is oddly a fan of Donald Trump because of his brilliant powers of persuasion talks about the reason people love Trump is because he speaks emotional truth.  I hate to see the word truth get used so badly, and if you want to argue that emotional truth isn’t truth with a capital ‘T’, then I would say I hate to see the word emotional used so badly.  Because let’s face it.  If Trump is tapping into some sort of emotional truth of millions of Americans, there are some pretty emotionally unhealthy people out there.  But there is some truth to Adams words in general, and this passage from Robert Wright’s book made me think of this.  People wonder why so many would vote against their own best interest.  I have wondered that too.  I wondered why so many could vote for someone who is so obviously a charlatan?  Of course charlatans have been fooling people for as long as civilization has existed likely, but when it happens in the 10s of millions it seems strange.  Of course if every snake oil salesmen from history could reach the same number of people on a daily basis who knows?   Like every good charlatan what they are selling is the promise, and not the actual goods themselves.  People’s own interests have become secondary to the promise.  I would also add that Trump promises some mostly terrible things which again is why I shudder to think he is speaking some sort of emotional truth that people are responding to.  The fact still remains that the dopamine is high for the anticipation, the broken promise matters little as long as enough powdered-sugar doughnuts are waved in front of the voters faces.

I will pause to say that even I am guilty of that when Obama was elected.  I know many democrats feel the same way.  The promise of change we thought Obama could bring was definitely a contrast to what actually happened.  Many of us sat down.  We weren’t active, we expected it to happen all by itself instead of recognizing that a good democracy requires continual effort.  Although I still reject the idea that our own delusion of how change happens is the sole reason how someone like Trump got elected.  Republicans have been priming their base for years with fearmongering and misinformation.  They’ve convinced their base how much they like powdered-sugar doughnuts and convinced them that the left is the one that has taken all your powdered-sugar doughnuts.  Trump came on to the scene packing oodles of them (a lot of them in his waistline) and tossed them out to the masses like paper towels being thrown to displaced masses on a hurricane ravaged tropical island.

Every time we think we’ve hit rock bottom with Trump there seems to be another.  What it seems like we are seeing is the diminishing returns of the dopamine hit and so the ante is always being upped.  And make no mistake the dopamine here seems less about the promises that Trump is making but more about how miserable he is making his detractors.  Liberals were an easy mark after all those years of GOP priming and honestly it seems like the promises of Trump are long gone in most of their minds and most of his base just enjoy watching others squirm.  There is perhaps some wisdom to the philosophy of not reacting at all to Trump as this seems to be the dopamine hit they keep craving.  We may not be snowflakes, but our outrage might just be another white powdery substance.   I am not sure though I have much hope to give, because it feels more and more like we have a large group of Americans who have an addiction problem, and I’m not talking about opioids.  As long as Trump keeps increasing the dosage, dopamine levels will stay high in his voters.

We are probably not long away from Stormy Daniels telling her story publicly.  As I read about how she is going to do this now because of Trump’s lawyer saying that it was his own personal money basically violated their “hush” deal about the affair.  I started thinking that this will finally sink this “upside-down world” Titanic.  A covered-up affair, while his 3rd wife is pregnant with their child.  Not someone he had any romantic attachment to, but a porn star, who during the election tried to silence with money.  There are few acts that I can think of more bereft of any morality for a candidate running on the ticket for the party who is supposedly pro-family, and pro-God.  There are few things less corrupt than a politician bribing people who could bring truthful facts about his character to light either.  For a party that is supposedly pro-American values which should include democracy and not corrupting that process I am dubious that this will be taken seriously.  Just as Russian interference in the election, sexual assault, and overt racism, was not taken seriously.

I see little hope at all that this ship will sink.  I see those that will discredit this woman because she makes adult films.  We will have the deluded evangelicals still claiming Trump is an instrument of God.  We will have the hyper-masculine crowded thinking, “well she has big knockers he had to fuck her because he’s a rich powerful man, and such men can fuck anybody they want”.  And some portion of all those people will just be selfish, rich, pricks who really don’t care and just pick whatever defense looks best in their social circle, because in the end, they are making tons of cash and that’s all that matters.  As an aside the only criticism I can think of for Stormy Daniels is that it only took $130,000 dollars to convince her to keep quiet about something that might have affected who the leader was of a nation of 300 million people, and the world’s most powerful economy and imperialistic force.  But perhaps like the rest of us, she thought he couldn’t win anyway and just decided to make a little cash.  Also, I would have thought that as a porn star you are already having a lot of sex with people you don’t choose on-camera, so there would be a stronger impetus to be more choosy with who you have sex with off-camera.  🙂 Apparently, that’s an incorrect assumption.  (Trump…really?  Trump?)

I do think there are also a lot of people who regret voting for Trump.  They regretted it probably within the first 6 months of him being elected, so I’m not trying to pretend that some people haven’t accepted they were duped, or that they knew they probably were but were so desperate for some help they figured why not see what the other side of the aisle can do.  There is good reason for people to feel frustrated by a government that is rife with corruption from big business.  I hope we can turn a corner here for those people in the future.  As I write this we have young people ignited by the recent gun shooting trying to fight for change.  We have more women entering politics.  We have the #MeToo movement.  I also hope we can turn a corner for those whose mouth waters for powdered-sugar doughnuts, because a government that is actually interested in making things better for people, softens the zealotry.  The best way to recover from addiction is to remove the environment in which that addiction flourishes.  I hope we can find away to wash away the toxicity in our society that harms us all.

Tuition Free

One of Bernie Sanders big talking points during his Primary campaign run is free college tuition and public colleges and institutions.  Something so grand is easy to get behind and while I in principle support equality in access to education I think it’s worth looking at a little more carefully in terms of costs and benefits.

A couple of years ago The Atlantic published an article that showed that the cost to giving free public higher education in the U.S. would cost $62.6 billion dollars.  Now this is tuition alone, it may not include some student fees, and does not include room and board which can also be a big expense for parents.  Nobody could argue though that life would get a lot easier for families or those students only having to pay living costs.  So where should this money come from.  We could, as a society, just decide to pay for it.  It would be roughly $630 a year for the average taxpayer (approx. 100 million taxpayers in the U.S.), which means the average person’s taxes would increase to a little over $50 a month.  While I could certainly afford something like that, I don’t think everyone could, nor would such a tax increase go over well.

Now Bernie Sanders has a plan to get that $75 billion through a Wall Street speculation tax.  There seems to be some disagreement as to whether this is a good or bad thing, but even if he was able to cut college tuition costs by half this might be a good thing.  Of course the tuition costs are only one of the things he wants to change.  He wants to stop the government from profiting off of student loans, and he also wants to allow students to be able to refinance their loans at lower interest rates.  Overall I would say that he wants to make some sensible changes.  Educating your people is an investment, one that pays off, and you don’t need to profit off their loans as well.

Thomas Jefferson believed that an educated public was one of the most important parts of having a successful democracy and he is quite right.  So there is some big support for making college accessible to everyone.  My biggest concern though is that free tuition doesn’t necessarily support this aim, and so much larger shift needs to happen.

  1. With free tuition my hope is that universities will shift away from the expectation of simply producing job ready individuals. My hope is that we can allow many more students who simply want to go through and learn more about philosophy, the humanities, ethics, and how science works. More of that liberal arts centered education which has shown to be very beneficial in the market place even if it doesn’t directly seem to qualify one for a particular job.  With public higher education not being run under a business model anymore, then perhaps we can shift away from students being seen as products that have to yield immediate results or a directly translatable degree to a job.  My university actually has a degree in Professional Golf Management.  Yes I still can’t believe this is a thing.  I’m not saying that such people don’t need to be educated, but the fact that you need to create a specific degree to do that job seems surprising.
  2. As a professor it is clear to me there are many students who don’t want to be there. I don’t see free tuition as the thing that sparks students into working hard to learn and become better people.  Now may be classes could become more fun when everything isn’t so outcome based as it must be in order to meet certain performance indicators for funding, but in order for college to be of the most use to us as society several other things need to happen.  The first is K-12 reform in also getting away from a business model through those compulsory years.  By promoting critical thinking better, students may be able to handle college better.  I feel a lot of problems I see with students today are a result of being raised in a school system that focuses on rote memorization of facts and testing, over critical thinking skills.  A system in which getting the grade is more important than how you get there.  We also need to promote the value of education in general.  Perhaps it’s a bit of a chicken and egg since running schools like a business tends to put people in the mindset that knowledge is only valuable when it is directly applicable to a job, but we all need to be better in promoting how a broader knowledge base has benefits beyond just our job, since being in a democracy and being part of a pluralistic society requires us to be multidimensional in the knowledge we are proficient in.

    We also need to stop promoting college education as the be all and end all of being valuable in society.  In many countries with free tuition students much choose a track at the age of 16 as to whether they want to go to college or take a vocational track and learn a trade.  And while I don’t want to shut students off so early to the possibility of going to college, trade skills are of such an important value to society that it makes me sad here that we still are under this paradigm that everybody should go to college to be valuable in a society.

  1. I do think free tuition a higher education institutions is not necessarily a right. I do think it is a privilege.  A privilege that I think our country can afford.  And I think free tuition allows university to maintain higher levels of academic rigor.  Currently universities don’t want you to fail people, pushes you to graduate students to keep numbers higher, to make it look like your program or universities has a high graduation rate, all because it brings in more students and brings in more funding.  So I think free or lower cost tuitions gives more institutions freedom to keep standards high and thus those that do graduate are of a higher quality.

Of course there are even more secondary positive impacts.  More informed voters should lead to more responsible politicians, and less government waste.  The last episode of Jon Oliver’s Last Week Tonight was an excellent example how making the decision to eliminate lead from homes would actually be a benefit instead of a cost in the long run.  We need voters who not only understand issues but understand economics well enough to realize good investments from bad.  Then there is also the stimulation to the economy as many more graduates who would no longer be burdened by massive student loan debt would be able to spend more.

People complain about the idea of free tuition, often because they say they don’t want to pay for someone else’s education.  But you already pay a lot more for people’s ignorance.  You pay a lot more because our generation of college graduates are deeply in debt and can’t spend money.  You pay a lot when our best and brightest can’t go to college and only our richest can.  You pay a lot more when someone remains in poverty instead of being able to get out of it through a college degree.

Minimum wage vs. College Tuition costs

Whether you feel like tuition should be free or not, the problem remains.  Students are in massive debt.  College tuition prices have increased faster than wages, and we are no longer able to give an equal opportunity to students who want to get college degrees.  Something has to change.

The Cost of War

I was reading a little note in history this morning that sparked my thinking.  It was the story of how Washington D.C. was born; a place that didn’t belong to any state, and was federally controlled.  Apparently it all started because of unpaid bills; particularly because a large majority of the soldiers in the revolutionary war never got paid.  In one military camp in 1777

From http://house.gov

George Washington (a general at the time) wrote that more than a quarter of the 10,000 men stationed there were suffering from malnutrition and did not even have shoes.  Not surprisingly they died.  The stories of how much the soldiers from the revolutionary war suffered are startling really.  Many of them used their own money initially because they weren’t getting paid and by the end of the war many were destitute and sometimes in debt themselves.  Once discharged from the army many of them faced debtors prison.  So a group of soldiers from Pennsylvania mutinied and marched to Philadelphia to demand their wages from congress.  The state of Pennsylvania refused to use the state militia to defend congress and sided with the mutineers.  The mutineers joined with troops in Philadelphia and surrounded Independence Hall 400 strong demanding their wages.  Though angry they never opened fire or killed anyone.  Congress refused to submit to them, considered them dishonorable and instead congress simply fled.  Eventually they decided that they wanted congress to convene in a place that did not have to depend on the states for their safety.  Thus Washington, D.C. was born.

In addition to finding this historical fact interesting, it made me realize that we haven’t changed a whole lot in regards to our attitude towards those who fight for us.  Although I am a pacifist, I am also compassionate.  I wrote a blog post before about how I don’t really understand why anyone would choose to have someone else tell them who they should kill, that doesn’t mean I think soldiers deserve to be treated inhumanely.  And the fight for independence from an oppressive state is a just cause to fight.  But I look at the 40 years of history and see how soldiers were treated after Vietnam and after our most recent and ongoing conflicts and it is clear that there is a fundamental disregard towards the soldiery who do make great sacrifices.  And don’t get me wrong, I am not one to believe that all military are heroes or that there aren’t people who aren’t heroic in other walks of life.  This disregard I speak of is not the rhetoric of clueless hippies who would spit on a veteran or jeer at them and call them killers, but I am talking about the disregard from those who would get them to fight and yet not suffer the same fate that many of the soldiers go through.   Soldiers going without proper nutrition, proper equipment, proper medical care after or during their service should be the shame of any civilized nation (and don’t worry I’m sure the U.S. is not alone in the treatment of soldiers).

Although not a shocker it really hit home, that with but a few exceptions, politicians are the true cowards.  Whether the conflict be just or not, they move the soldiery like pawns to where they want and then, fight the battles that they deem important (whether supported by the general public, or sometimes they lie to the general public to justify the conflict) while never depriving themselves of any of their needs.  I think back to those congressmen fleeing Philadelphia, never having to worry about their pay, their nutritional needs, despite the debt they had racked up for the fledgling country.  And nothing has changed since the country’s inception, including the fact that we still rack up massive amounts of debt for these military ventures.  John Fogerty’s song “Fortunate Son” is an excellent reminder about how even the children of those in congress were protected from going to war, while those that are poor are considered expendable and cannot get out of the draft.  I will never understand how

PTSD just one of the many injuries sustained by veterans during war, and one that is most often ignored historically.

those we elected to serve the people enjoy so many more privileges than those who they send to fight the wars that they deem necessary.  Maybe that’s why I have such a hard time understanding why someone would join the military because who wants to fight for a group of politicians, who for the most part demonstrate less honor and nobility than they expect you to have as you kill for your country?  Why should one sacrifice their one existence on this Earth for somebody who is unwilling to do the same, but is happy enough to send you to fight their battle?  Either way it seems to me that we should be taking care of our veterans properly.  Those politicians who treat the soldiers like pawns are easily replaced.  In fact that’s kind of the point of democracy is that politicians can and eventually will be replaced for one reason or another and the country will go on.  Thus there is no additional value to their life than is there is to the soldiers and vets.  And on a final note, let’s do something about the large amount of poverty, income inequality, weakening education system and deteriorating infrastructure so that those soldiers can at the very least feel like they fought for something.  I am not taking sides politically, I think the issue of taking care of those who need it the most is one that crosses party lines.  I am exhausted watching politicians speak rhetoric, distort the truth, outright lie, and play games while the world burns around them only to see them get pay raises, most of their expenses paid, receive kickbacks from lobbying groups and essentially walk away from Washington far richer than when they walked in.  So you can be mad at the Michael Moores or the Seth Rogens for their comments about the military (of course those comments are misinterpreted) but the ones that truly don’t really care about those that fight their battles for them are in Washington, D.C.  – the city built to absolve themselves of responsibility to their military.

Do I have to vote?

Let me start by saying that I think voting in a democracy is important.  I never realized its importance when I was younger but as I’ve grown to learn and care more about the importance of governance (notice I didn’t say politics) the more driven I am to vote.  I am finally eligible for citizenship in the U.S. and will become a citizen before the next Presidential election.

Part of learning more about politics and governance has also left me pretty dissatisfied with the choices I have in our political system.  At the national and for most major positions at the state level you have two

A study by two political scientists at Northwestern University. (From http://media.chicagomag.com)

parties to choose from.  As if two philosophies had a chance of representing over 300 million people.  Washington right now is broken as there is no working together to pass laws that will help people.  A frightening statistic I just recently read said that public opinion has no correlation to the passing of laws right now in this country.  This would seem to be an odd thing to find in a democracy where our vote is supposed to represent the will of the people.  It would seem that the people do not control the government.

The media has also highlighted races between candidates where one seems completely incompetent and idiotic, while the other is a happy combination of bigot and religious that you can’t imagine either candidate being someone you’d want in office.  Is it then okay to not vote in that situation?  Is it always more ethical to vote for the lesser of two evils than to not vote at all?

So let’s say you believe government is broken and/or the two party system is broken, and you have terrible candidates to choose from and you wish to let the powers at be know that this is unacceptable, does not voting said that message?  Now a scholar may look at the level of apathy and say, wow nobody really has faith in our government or political system and so that’s why nobody is voting.  But of course that may be right, but it also may be wrong. There are other possible reasons for apathy.  One is that you are person who thinks everything is just rosy and so you really don’t care who is in power.  Or like many, you can’t afford to miss a day’s work to go an vote with everybody else.  Ultimately those in power though won’t really care as long as they are re-elected they just need at least somebody to vote in order for a candidate to be chosen.  Perhaps if everyone refused to vote that might make a difference, but that’s unlikely to happen.

So “not voting” isn’t really effective.  So what might be effective?  One possibility is that you could run for office yourself.  Of course you are likely to get “out-moneyed” by any of the two established parties, but you could still run.  The Tea Party movement, as misguided as they all are, was grass roots, and grass roots movements can grow into something big.  When they got big enough to try and make an impact in government, they got absorbed by one of the established parties and as a result it’s actually weakened the identity of the Tea Party and the Republican Party.  It should have remained its own party.  Anyway, that’s besides the point. The point is that a difference can be made even if you start from the ground up.  But maybe you’d like some encouragement that your movement might be successful.  This brings us to the second possibility of how you can protest and that’s simply to vote.  You don’t have to vote for Democrat or Republican.  You can vote for another party, you can even write in a candidate.  If the amount of people who seem dissatisfied with congress actually didn’t vote for the established two parties many would realize that there is actual need for some other party to establish themselves and that there are a bunch of people who are not apathetic about the process but actually really care, but think that the current two party system or current set of people we have to choose from are unacceptable.  So the answer is still to vote, but don’t feel like you have to vote D or R.  The right to vote means you have the right to vote for who you want and who represents your views.  You don’t have to always vote for one party, you don’t have to feel like you have to just vote for the other guy, because the current guy wasn’t great.  So your research, get informed, and vote for somebody you think will do the job well and represents your views.

The only true way to waste your vote is by not voting. Because if the current system of government is truly broken, then doing nothing changes nothing.  And remember that voting is only one way in which your voice can be heard, so don’t forget that caring doesn’t need to only happen at election time.