America: Meaning and Challenge

We all have anxiety about coronavirus and the related instability in the financial system.  These are serious concerns.  But, let’s not take our eyes off the ball.  We have more fundamental issues to deal with – challenges that will continue and deepen with each oncoming crisis.

In my view our greatest concern should be our difficulty dealing with crises, in problem-solving, especially in our local communities.  Because this is where trust, dependability, and survival count most in our lives.

Americans have always been a contentious lot, yet we are capable of showing fierce allegiance to America.  How, I asked in the previous post, have our national attributes led to strength?

I quoted from James Surowiecki’s book, The Wisdom of Crowds, where he described how unexpected solutions can be found when independent thinking and a diversity of viewpoints are aggregated in a decision-making process.

I have suggested that such wisdom can be found in small groups, intentionally and intelligently, when we are committed to meeting local needs and resolving local problems.

A decision-making process that seeks common purpose among diverse participants can be managed as a learned skill.  Anyone can learn how to facilitate such a process.

Effective solutions depend on a group’s ability to generate new ideas that go beyond consensus.

This is only possible when we rise above our differences to leverage our diversity in knowledge, experience, and problem-solving skills – and take an inquisitive interest in the input.

All available information is needed on the table.  Unexpected insight might prove invaluable.

With an attitude of patience and civility toward one another we can make an ongoing effort to seek effective solutions.  A degree of uncertainty is natural and healthy.  We can always make course corrections.

However, we must each see with our own eyes and think with our own minds.  We must never be certain of another person’s certainty!

Unity is not sameness.  Unity can only come into being with the embrace of differences.  Living with diversity presents us with the necessity for learning how to engage with one another in practical ways.

In the first chapter of my coming book, which is posted on the blog’s homepage under the heading American Crucible (www.freedomstruth.net), I quote conservative columnist Peggy Noonan, who makes a heartfelt call to the American people in her little book, Patriotic Grace, What It Is and Why We Need It Now.

In it she urges us to rise above our differences, however significant they may be, to reaffirm “what it is to be an American.”

Peggy Noonan writes:

“Politics is a great fight and must be a fight; that is its purpose. We are a great democratic republic, and we struggle with great questions. One group believes A must be law, the other Z. Each side must battle it through, and the answer will not always be in the middle.  The answer is not always M.

“But we can approach things in a new way, see in a new way, speak in a new way.  We can fight honorably and in good faith, while—and this is the hard one—both summoning and assuming good faith on the other side.

“To me it is not quite a matter of ‘rising above partisanship,’ though that can be a very good thing.  It’s more a matter of remembering our responsibilities and reaffirming what it is to be an American.

“…And so I came to think this: What we need most right now, at this moment, is a kind of patriotic grace—a grace that takes the long view, apprehends the moment we are in, comes up with ways of dealing with it, and eschews the politically cheap and manipulative.  That admits affection and respect.”

Does she have a point?  I think so.  We can acknowledge the things that divide us, address them in a manner that allows practical solutions, and unite to protect a civil order that allows us to preserve or recover the freedoms we cherish.

Or, we can let it all come to naught.

I never said it would be easy.  I have said that if we are to recover the integrity of the nation we wish to honor and respect – we have no choice.

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about March 25.

Note to new readers: A project description, introduction to the coming book, and several chapters in draft can be found at the top of the blog’s homepage.

Unexpected Wisdom

How has the American identity formed itself during the past 200 years – from amidst an immense diversity of conflicting ideas and beliefs?  Why has the clash of differing opinions led to patriotism and strength?

What is going on?

The idea that unity is strengthened by diversity may seem counter-intuitive at first, yet we have many examples of how this works.

In his book, The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki describes compelling evidence that large groups of people possess an extraordinary power to solve problems when their judgment is aggregated.  And he shows that the more diverse the crowd, the more efficient the solutions.

Citing many examples Surowiecki describes the conditions in which democratic decision-making does and does not work.

He tells us of the surprise of scientist Francis Galton when 787 participants in a raffle at a county fair submitted guesses at what the weight of a large ox would be after it had been slaughtered and dressed.

“The analogy to a democracy, in which people of radically different abilities and interests each get one vote, had suggested itself to Galton immediately. ‘The average competitor was probably as well fitted for making a just estimate of the dressed weight of an ox, as an average voter is of judging the merits of most political issues on which he votes,’ he wrote.”

Galton, who expected to confirm his view that “the average voter” was capable of very little good judgment, borrowed the tickets from the organizers following the competition.

He added up all the contestants’ estimates and calculated the average.

The crowd had guessed that the ox, after it had been slaughtered and dressed, would weigh 1,197 pounds. In fact, it weighed 1,198 pounds.

Another example described by Surowiecki is the story of the 1968 loss of the US Navy submarine Scorpion, which disappeared in the Atlantic Ocean. The Navy had no idea what happened to the vessel, where it was or how fast it had been traveling.

Mr. Surowiecki recounts the story as told by Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew in their book Blind Man’s Bluff, about how a naval officer named John Craven assembled a diverse group of people – mathematicians, submarine specialists, and salvage men – provided them with a number of varied scenarios, and asked them to offer their best guesses without benefit of contact with each other.

All they knew was the sub’s last reported location.

The group laid wagers on why the submarine ran into trouble, on its speed as it headed for the ocean floor and the steepness of descent, among other things.

Craven built a composite picture of what happened and calculated the group’s collective estimate of where the submarine was. The location he identified was not a location specifically suggested by any members of the group.

But that is where it was.

The Navy found the wreck 220 yards from where Craven’s group said it would be.

Mr. Surowiecki proceeds to demonstrate the surprising consistency of this outcome in widely varied circumstances. And, he explains how groups work well in some circumstances better than others.

As we all know, there are times when aggregating individual judgments produces a collective decision that is disastrous; a riot, for example, or a stock market bubble.

Interestingly, he writes: “Diversity and independence are important because the best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus or compromise.

“An intelligent group, especially when confronted with cognition problems, does not ask its members to modify their positions in order to let the group reach a decision everyone can be happy with.  

“Instead, it figures out how to use mechanisms – like market prices, or intelligent voting systems – to aggregate and produce collective judgments that represent not what any one person in the group thinks but rather, in some sense, what they all think.

“Paradoxically, the best way for a group to be smart is for each person in it to think and act as independently as possible.”

My coming book will offer practical guidance for local communities to utilize diversity to engage in effective problem-solving and decision-making.

Stability in a crisis and the survival of freedom will require this wisdom.

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about March 10.

A note to new readers:  A description of this project, an introduction to the coming book, and several chapter drafts can be found at the top of the homepage.

Deeper and More Dangerous

We live in extraordinary times. Having entered a period of current and impending crises, Americans are challenged to pull together as a people, to safeguard the constitutional order of the nation, and to find our way together to a future we can depend on.

We face a broad range of crises, all emerging into view at virtually the same time.  We have discussed several here briefly, and others at greater depth.

Some, like the continuing debt crisis, have major current implications.  Others, like the unrecognized instability of complexity in today’s digitized world, remain hidden, but may well provide the trigger that sends everything into a tailspin.

I have placed emphasis on the coming financial storm because it hangs over us now, waiting for a trigger.

The too-big-to-fail banks are now bigger than they were before they helped bring down the economy in 2008.  Federal and corporate debt have expanded enormously since that time, further devaluing the US dollar.

Millions who lost their jobs and homes in the 2008 crisis remain mired in poverty.

Respectable higher-paying employment has been lost overseas or to robotics and mechanized production.  Experts predict that 30% of current jobs will disappear in the next 10 years.

The stock market has shot upward with no foundation in economic reality.  It has now reached irrational valuations not seen since just before the 1929 panic and the dotcom crash of 2000.

The Bank for International Settlements (BIS), which is the central banker to the world’s central banks, has stated openly that central bankers will be out of options when the next crisis hits.

The BIS suggests that the major central banks have mismanaged the situation to a large extent because they don’t understand it.  Previously “unthinkable risks,” the BIS said, are coming to be “perceived as the new normal.”

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) also released a report stating that “key fault lines” are growing across the US financial landscape, and that “new pockets of vulnerabilities have emerged.” The largest and most interconnected banks “dominate the system even more than before.”

As imposing as the financial drama appears, in my view there is a deeper and more dangerous crisis.  And, it is clearly visible behind all the others.

I have written here of the profound loss of personal integrity – honesty, trustworthiness, responsibility – we have witnessed in recent years.

A profound collapse of moral standards has taken place on a societal scale.  It has infected many personal relationships and virtually all institutions.

This is the deeper crisis, and it may ultimately be responsible for the general deterioration that appears to be dragging civilization to its knees.

Dependability, trust, and responsibility are the basis for the sound functioning of all human affairs, and lack of them has led to crippling disorientation and disorder.

Why has this happened to such a stunning extent?  Certainly, we have lost the ethical foundations that have contributed to stability in the past.  But, why?  We are intelligent people.  What happened to good judgment?  Where is common sense?

Have we walked away from responsibility believing that honesty and fairness limit our freedom?  Or have we just become thoughtless, undisciplined, sloppy?

Has the daily bludgeoning from mass media stunted our ability to think for ourselves?

Whatever the reasons, we are now reaping the whirlwind.

For a world where many young people have grown up with little or no effective parenting, and where many of their elders have lost any meaningful grounding in values or virtues, there will be no valid guidance available in the chaotic upheavals that lie ahead.

Dealing specifically with impending or potential dangers is very important, but is beyond the scope of this blog.  Rather, I seek to gather Americans around a focus on safety, common needs, and constructive purpose in our local communities.

This is essential regardless of the nature of unpredictable events.

We have entered a time of severe testing.

Such testing requires us to rise to our full personal potential – patiently working together in our communities despite our differences.

This degree of patriotic loyalty is the only antidote to the toxic cocktail of partisan negativity that is poisoning the American soul.

Tom

You may watch for the next post on or about January 15.

Note to regular readers:  Two new drafts have been posted at the top of the home page (see above).  They are Chapter 6: Freedom and Individuality, and Chapter 9: Confronted by the Past.  In addition, Chapter 1: American Crucible has been revised.  I look forward to your feedback.

Disruption and Endurance

The twentieth-century brought an astonishing number of advances to the human world – scientific, technological, and agricultural.  It was also a century of appalling violence, the most destructive in human history.  An estimated 167 million to 188 million people died at the hands of their brothers.

The century that put communism, fascism, and nationalism on the map also saw the invention of highly efficient weaponry and a willingness to direct it against civilian populations on a massive scale.

Do we understand what could happen to us on American soil – tragedies more devastating than anything we have experienced since the Civil War?  How easily we ignore the warnings!

At this historic turning-point we can least afford a repetition of the world’s destructive past. Only a strong America, just and wise and levelheaded, can lead a disrupted world back to stability and peace.

In his book, “The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West”, the historian Niall Ferguson, who I have introduced to you previously, is explicit:

“The hundred years after 1900 were without question the bloodiest century in modern history, far more violent in relative as well as absolute terms than any previous era…. There was not a single year before, between or after the world wars that did not see large-scale violence in one part of the world or another.”

Niall Ferguson’s observations are useful because he departs from the typical explanations that blame weaponry and fascist governments, as significant as these were.  Instead he identifies the true causes as ethnic conflict, economic volatility, and declining empires.

In short, he reminds us of our human vulnerability to fear, emotional insecurity, and tribalism.

The convergence of multiple crises I have been writing about here involve all these things, but also newly emerging threats that most of us have not seen coming.

These include an extremely fragile, interdependent banking system, depleted natural resources, the rapid loss of farmland and collapsing aquifers, and the degradation of critical environmental ecosystems.

Run-away technology is rapidly outpacing the maturity of human moral competence.

In every case, the challenges we face as individuals and families rarely come into focus until we consider their local implications.

And, as Dr. Ferguson points out, it is the anxiety of people under pressure that leads to social deterioration and violence.

Long-time readers know my views.  In the extremes of social and economic stress, it is my belief that local communities are the only place where we have the freedom and opportunity to take control of our lives in a civilized manner.

The difference between a disrupted past and a secure future will depend entirely on the manner in which we address problems with our neighbors and manage our local affairs.

We cannot completely wall-out the chaos of the world, but we can accept personal responsibility for the unity and well-being of our communities.

The distinction between past and future will be determined by dependable relationships, respectful attitudes, and giving a helping hand.

Building trust with neighbors and cooperating to meet shared needs are personal choices that lead to safety.

As we work together shoulder-to-shoulder, we can begin to know, understand, and influence one another.  The lessons of civility and cooperation to be learned here will serve us well as a nation.

Yes, we need to be realistic— Many people remain crippled by dogmatic prejudices.  This is unlikely to change until we are forced to address the essential needs that we face together in a disintegrating social order.

Patience and determination will then make many things possible as never before.  Necessity sharpens the mind and invigorates the will.

Distrust and alienation are diminished as we identify common concerns and work in service to common needs.

And what of our common purpose?

Ultimately, in my view, our first priority must be the survival of the United States as a constitutional republic.  The future depends on this.

Let us seek a strengthening respect for the Constitution and the cooperative form of governance it requires.

It is the Constitution that has allowed us gradual progress, an advancing strength toward unity, justice and inclusive fairness for more than 200 years

Tom

Dear readers:  I will be taking a short break— Please watch for the next post on or about December 17.  New readers will find a project description, an introduction to the coming book, and several working drafts of early chapters linked at the top of this page.

An Unexpected Threat

In recent decades a profound and unexpected threat has been growing exponentially.  The densely interconnected world of digital networks, instant communication, and global markets have presented a seductively attractive frontier.  Yet, we find ourselves awakening now to the danger embedded in this complexity.

Hidden within this new reality is a menace that is difficult to comprehend.  A new and unpredictable world, it hides hazards of barely imaginable magnitude.

We are confronted with impenetrable complexity.

Exponential population growth and digital connectivity, along with warfare, fragile commercial distribution systems, and the global transmission of deadly diseases, are all contributing to rapidly intensifying complexity.

However, it is the immensity and density of digital networks that is most difficult to grasp.  It is here where we are learning that complexity can behave in very strange and disturbing ways.

Complex systems are capable of spiraling out of control suddenly and inexplicably.  Living as we do with the instability of today’s world, I think it important that we understand this.

In his book, “Ubiquity”, science writer Mark Buchanan writes that a natural structure of instability is in fact woven into the fabric of the world.

He writes that complex structures and processes – in geology, in rush-hour traffic, in financial markets, and in the many intricate networks of human society – have a natural tendency to organize themselves into what is called a “critical state.”

When this happens they are poised on what he describes as the “knife-edge of instability.”

A critical state occurs when a system is poised for sudden change.  Some mathematicians and scientists now believe that a pervasive instability is a fundamental feature in nature – and in the structures of human societies.

Any event, even a small one, can have an effect that seems far out of proportion to its cause.

A single grain of sand, for example, will cause a sand pile to avalanche. But it is impossible for us to know which grain of sand, which individual maneuver in heavy traffic, or which specific circumstance in the financial markets will trigger an inevitable catastrophe.

What is the difference between something that is complicated and something that is complex?

James Rickards, who I have introduced to you in the past, answers this question in his book, “The Death of Money: The Coming Collapse of the International Monetary System”.

Rickards explains: “Many analysts use the words ‘complex’ and ‘complicated’ interchangeably, but that is inexact. A complicated mechanism, like the clockworks on St. Mark’s Square in Venice, may have many moving parts, but it can be assembled and disassembled in straightforward ways.

“The parts do not adapt to one another, and the clock cannot suddenly turn into a sparrow and fly away. In contrast, complex systems sometimes do morph and fly away, or slide down mountains, or ruin nations….

“Complex systems include moving parts, called autonomous agents, but they do more than move. The agents are diverse, connected, interactive, and adaptive. Their diversity and connectivity can be modeled to a limited extent, but interaction and adaptation quickly branch into a seeming infinity of outcomes that can be modeled in theory but not in practice.

“To put it another way, one can know that bad things might happen yet never know exactly why.”

James Rickards goes on to expound on the instability of today’s financial markets and global economy.  He writes: “Bankers’ parasitic behavior, the result of a cultural phase transition, is entirely characteristic of a society nearing collapse.

“Wealth is no longer created; it is taken from others. Parasitic behavior is not confined to bankers; it also infects high government officials, corporate executives, and the elite societal stratum.”

Today the financial markets and monetary system are again poised “on the knife’s edge of criticality.”

My message here is the importance of resisting panic when confronted with frightening and unexpected shocks.  We must remain steady on our feet when others are ready to stampede.

Only with a commitment to justice and steady self-discipline will we hold our communities together.

The road to freedom requires courage, and getting there through a dark night will depend on the strength of local cooperation and moral responsibility.

Tom

Note to readers:  Watch for the next post on or about November 19.  New readers can find a project description, a draft introduction to the forthcoming book, and several chapter drafts at the top of this page.

Yes, Americans Do Have Differences

I wrote recently of the value of teamwork in meeting local needs and making our communities safe (January 15).  I argued that faced with oncoming crises we would do well to respond in a constructive spirit – yet prepare for frustrations.

Working with neighbors can make a big difference in security and comfort. Agreement about practical needs and a willingness to focus on common purpose will make it easier to make things work.

This means rising above our differences to connect as allies and collaborators.  But, it will not be necessary to compromise our personal views and beliefs.  It is essential that we maintain our personal dignity and self-respect.

As we take on local problem-solving the challenge is to be both self-confident within ourselves – and respectful of others.

It can certainly be difficult to work with people.  Some difficulties are easier to overcome than others.  We can often make interpersonal connections with thoughtfulness and sensitivity, but sometimes it takes great patience and determination.

Why should we make this effort?

The coming days and years will redefine the meaning of crisis for everyone.  Safety will require that we can depend on our neighbors.  Learning how to listen well and understand one another will become an important part of learning how to survive and prevail in the face of great challenges.

The science fiction writer, Robert A. Heinlein once commented, “I never learned from a man who agreed with me.”

Coming to understand the personality and perspective of another person can be useful in itself, even if no possibility of agreement exists.

This can be the means for crystallizing our own thinking and beliefs.  And, if we approach it as a learning experience we will have much to gain, including knowledge, skills, and perspective.

Aristotle is believed to have said that “it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.

Well, Aristotle did not attend high school, and neither have some of us.  But, it is our job to figure out what he meant and learn how to do it.

Aggravation aside, we are all capable of respecting the sincerity and intrinsic integrity of every human being, allowing our differences to exist freely in their own space, distinct from the roles of community-member, teammate, or friend.

Suppose we find ourselves dealing with a person who presents us with special challenges – perhaps someone who does not believe effective community is possible, or who values their privacy to an extreme, or is just unreceptive?

It is almost always possible to work with someone who we find difficult if we are determined to find a way.

It is prudent to remember, however, that in such circumstances we cannot allow ourselves be emotionally needy or easily disheartened.  Such an effort calls for backbone as well as a positive attitude and a generous spirit.

The wise do not impose themselves until they obtain a hearing.

If, however, we are able to plant the seeds of community in the fertile soil of the human heart, and water them gently with compassion and kindness, we may not have to wait long before the green shoots spring forth.

Often it is impossible to know why someone remains unresponsive despite our best efforts.  Pain is often hidden there, whether or not it is conscious.  And, caring will always give solace, however silently it is received.

When we make ourselves present in the life of another without expectation or demand, healing can take place even without our knowing – until the dam breaks and the words flow.

It might take days, weeks, or years.  But it will come.

In a little book called “The Miracle of Dialogue” (1963), the Christian theologian Dr. Reuel L. Howe wrote that “every man is a potential adversary, even those whom we love.  Only through dialogue are we saved from this enmity toward one another. Dialogue is to love what blood is to the body…. When dialogue stops, love dies and resentment and hate are born.

Tom

Note to readers: Watch for the next post on or about February 28.

A new chapter (in draft), “Confronted by the Past,” was posted on this page last weekend.  A project description and introduction to the coming book can also be found with the links above.  Please see especially Chapter One: American Crucible.

The Price of Freedom

Living or working with other people may be the most difficult thing we ever do.  Even a marriage can be hard work.  And yet, if we choose to rebuild the foundations of the American Republic this is our core mission.

To regain the free and fully engaged civil society of the American past, and renew the strength of America that sustains both vision and spirit, we must find common purpose.  Without dependable communities there can be no real safety or security.  And, without trust nothing is dependable.

These are prizes to be fought for and gained through consistent and determined effort.  Where do we start?  How can we navigate the inevitable bumps and bruises of working relationships in a time of crisis?

When we are working with someone who is emotionally mature and relatively open-minded it might not be hard to develop an understanding.  If, however, we need to work with someone who is anxious or has wounds from the past, (or is convinced they already know everything), then building a constructive relationship will take time and patience.

Rising above our differences is almost always possible, if we have the patience and will to persist.

There are two basic requirements.  The first is to get our motives straight – to have a positive attitude and clearly formed intentions.  The second is to gain practical interpersonal skills.  Both will be addressed in the coming book.

When in any potentially sensitive interpersonal relationship it is wise to look beyond superficial impressions.  We need to recognize the free personhood and integrity of other individuals, regardless of their experience or perceptions.

Relatively new acquaintances may not seem attractive at first, or might actually seem more attractive than they deserve.  We must try patiently to discover who they really are.

Each of us is a complex mystery.  We can only come to genuinely know one another if we have the generosity of spirit to inquire and take interest.  This takes time, but can be a rich and meaningful experience.

Stephen Covey has written that “every human has four endowments – self awareness, conscience, independent will and creative imagination. These give us the ultimate human freedom…, the power to choose, to respond, to change.”

If we seek to build trust, and if we believe in freedom, all of these endowments must be recognized and actualized.

Many of us are unaware of our own endowments, our own potential to grow and mature.  And the surest way to learn and grow is in the effort to build functional relationships.

Many people will not share our personal vision or sense of purpose.  They may not understand what we are inviting them to do, and may be distrustful until we prove ourselves.  We need to communicate clearly, making sure we are understood, and find ways to work together.

We cannot wait for others to take the lead.  The initiative is ours to take.  This is how we test our skills and put rubber to the road.

Elbert Hubbard said, “Responsibility is the price of freedom.”  And Gandhi said, “You must be the change you want to see in the world.”

Understanding comes through relationship, and the best way to build strong relationships is to team up to meet community needs.  It is in working together to address felt-needs and resolve practical problems that we really come to know one another.

Now, suppose we need to join forces with people who are very different from us.  Perhaps our politics are at odds, or someone has religious or philosophical views that we find strange or unpleasant.

How can we get along – and actually trust others in difficult or dangerous circumstances? We will touch on this in the next post.

Again, I believe the bottom line is this: In every matter our concern must be to preserve and deepen the level of trust, because we can expect to remain under the pressures of disrupted lives and deteriorating social conditions for a long time.

Americans are a resourceful people.  We will get through this and come out on the other side as better people.

Tom

Note to readers:  Please look for the next post on or about February 14.

The introduction and several chapter drafts from the forthcoming book are posted at this page; see above.  Please see especially Chapter One: American Crucible.

The Problem of Trust and the Future of Humanity

Trustworthiness and dependability are usually thought of as admirable aspects of personal character.  But as we witness the continuing deterioration of social order it becomes increasingly clear that these priceless attributes are pillars of civilization.

Fear of crime or violence will cripple any society, but the greatest insecurity comes with the loss of trust between friends or neighbors or fellow workers – those we depend on and thought we understood.

Have we found ourselves unexpectedly questioning whether someone we trusted is actually who we thought they were?  When such questions arise, how can we be sure?  How does one keep body and soul together?  It is hard to recover.

Distrust makes the world precarious.  Uncertainties spread; confidence vanishes.

Things fall apart.

Businesses are particularly vulnerable to loss of trust.  Without dependability in governance and consistency in economic policy businesses are hobbled by unpredictability.  Business owners cannot plan.  And a market economy abhors uncertainty.

This is not the way any of us wish to live our lives.  If constant uncertainty makes things feel out of control, it can get scary.

What can we do as responsible people when we live in a society dominated by distrust and a general lack of personal integrity?

The benefits can be great when we choose to be trustworthy ourselves – in spite of everything.  We can be consciously determined to demonstrate what moral integrity means.  But this is not easy.  If America is to turn the corner it will take time and extraordinary patience.

We will have to keep the necessity of dependability in focus at all times.

Nothing will change unless we establish the effectiveness of trustworthiness to those around us and draw attention to its’ value.

In so doing, it will be important that we not fool ourselves into imagining that we are better than others who are failing to meet our standards.  Moral pride can be obvious, and it will push people away.

How can we assist others to understand and value integrity?  Self-righteousness fails to acknowledge that everyone has the capacity to recognize their mistakes.  So, if we would help America move on to a better future we need to be self-disciplined in our contacts and relationships.  Kindness attracts; arrogance offends.

Moral pride,” wrote Reinhold Niebuhr, “is revealed in all ‘self-righteous’ judgments in which the other is condemned because he fails to conform to the highly arbitrary standards of the self.  Since the self judges itself by its own standards it finds itself good. It judges others by its own standards and finds them evil when their standards fail to conform to its own.  This is the secret of the relationship between cruelty and self-righteousness.” (The Nature and Destiny of Man, Vol. I, p. 199.)

Readers who profess their belief in the Christian Faith may recall the admonition of St. Paul when he wrote: “For wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things….” (Romans 2:1)

Those of other faiths, or those who do not consider themselves religious, will never-the-less recognize this compelling logic.

Integrity is a personal choice.  We must never assume that others are incapable of cleaning up their act.  It is an intrinsic capacity we are given at birth.

A word of warning before we finish: When we recognize a consistent pattern of dishonesty and deceptiveness, it can become necessary to distance ourselves from it.  Such destructiveness permeates and subverts everything around it.

We must be practical, but also ready, if possible, to care for people who are troubled in this way. The greatest forgiveness is the least deserved.

However, forgiveness and trust are two entirely different things.  Once trust is lost, it can be very difficult to recover.

So it is that the restoration of trust and dependability in all our endeavors must be championed by every American as we enter a new day.

Without trust the future is lost.

Tom

A note to readers:  This blog posts regularly.  The next post is due on or about January 31. However, it will be less predictable than usual as I will be traveling.

You may request emailed alerts by clicking the Follow button on this page.

Freedom Road

When we think about a future beyond the long crisis ahead, we find ourselves confronted with challenging questions.  Among them is the meaning and implications of “perfect freedom” — the principle articulated by Patrick Henry, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and others.

Patrick Henry famously said, “Perfect freedom is as necessary to the health and vigor of commerce as it is to the health and vigor of citizenship.”

Many Americans consider this as an unyielding principle.  But context matters.  Those following this blog over time have, I expect, given thought to the limits of freedom we experience in our personal lives.  We all live in a reality defined by limitations and constraints.

A democratic society that provides the security and social order needed for the freedoms we treasure will always present us with limits.  The decisions we make concerning personal relationships, education, employment, and recreation impose the most immediate constraints in our daily lives.

So, what is ‘perfect freedom’?

If we are committed to ‘perfect freedom’ in principle, how can we fault business leaders for maximizing profits by moving jobs overseas or mechanizing assembly lines or in using any other means absent of fraud?

What else can we expect?  And, how can any alternative be legislated with fairness or practical effect?

Yet, we are now forced to recognize that even capitalism itself cannot survive in a world where “anything goes.”

Healthy businesses depend on stable economic policies, predictability, and the accuracy of price-seeking markets.  Free markets are necessary because prices in the marketplace must reflect reality for both buyers and sellers.

These are basic structural necessities that make economic freedom possible. No commerce and no functional economy is possible without it.

Freedom depends on respect for the rules that make it possible.

Today we find ourselves facing the overwhelming consequences of structural economic destruction.  Capital is monopolized by a tiny minority, and it is parked in unproductive places.  Money is not circulating, which limits economic activity.

A vibrant consumer economy has been derailed and the middle class hobbled.

The functional integrity of free markets has been abandoned to the self-centered interests of predatory individuals and institutions.  And that is not all.

Money and power now flow in the virtual reality of electronic networks, largely independent of the productive economy.  The new network economy is global, while jobs and people, community and responsibility all remain locally constrained in the real world.

Americans have entered a major turning point.

Placing blame is of little use when we are confronted with such extremes.  Yes, we must understand our predicament.   But, it is essential that we then turn our attention to re-imagining and re-configuring the future.

We need to think creatively and think together, calling on partisan adversaries to pull in their horns, get practical and apply themselves locally.

For many, the jobs we had are gone for good.  Incomes have stagnated or deteriorated for decades.  Most significantly, many of us have lost our means for living with self-respect.

Making an income influences our sense of dignity and well-being.  Unemployment and poverty are not simply insufficiencies of income.  They have a debilitating impact on individual freedom, initiative, and capacity.

Poverty and overwhelming debt are more than regrettable misfortunes.  They inflict a serious drag on a productive economy and are a blight on liberty.

Local communities can choose to overcome this barrier.  Individuals with practical experience can share knowledge and skills, assisting others to step out of our old lives and gain new competencies.

Each of us can look around, think creatively, and take initiative – cooperating where necessities become obvious and building businesses that address local and regional needs.

Locally and regionally-based economies need to be reconstructed, transcending the chaos around us and surmounting the stumbling blocks thrown up by government and big business.

We can network with people in nearby communities to share ideas and resources, to find (or offer) learning opportunities, and to expand our horizons.

Americans are smart, industrious, and resourceful.  We can rise to the challenge and free one another from the shackles of limited perspective and inadequate skills.

Working together requires many things, among them patience, vision, creative imagination, cooperation and generosity of spirit.

These are choices that are ours to make.

Tom

Please watch for the next post on or about September 27.

The Second Amendment, Then and Now

The Bill of Rights, which includes the first ten amendments to the Constitution, was first proposed to Congress by James Madison as articles to be incorporated into the main body of the Constitution.

Congress approved twelve articles of amendment to the Constitution in 1789 and submitted them to the states for ratification.  Contrary to Madison’s proposal, they were submitted as “supplemental” additions.  Articles Three through Twelve were ratified by the required number of states and became Amendments One through Ten in 1791.

The Second Amendment, which has become a matter of considerable interest in recent years, reads as follows:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

This was not controversial at the time.  The concept existed in English common law long before the enactment of the Bill of Rights.  And, many Americans feel it necessary to own firearms today.

The importance of this issue to the Founders was quite clear.  James Madison, who introduced the language that became the Second Amendment, also wrote that “The Constitution preserves the advantage of being armed which Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation where the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms.”

Alexander Hamilton, like Madison a strong advocate for Federalism, was equally explicit: “The constitution shall never be construed…to prevent the people of the United States who are peaceable citizens from keeping their own arms.”

Thomas Jefferson famously said: “No freeman shall be debarred the use of arms.” And he also wrote that “The strongest reason for the people to retain their right to keep and bear arms is as a last resort to protect themselves against tyranny in government.”

During the years just prior to the Revolutionary War there was mob violence in several of the colonies.  In addition, many Americans lived in or close to wilderness regions where conditions were essentially lawless.

The need people felt to protect their families was quite rational.

It should be noted that a primary motivation for supporting “a well regulated Militia,” expressed in the Second Amendment as “being necessary to the security of a free State,” was the strong opposition among the Founders to the concept of a standing army.

Thomas Jefferson put it this way: “None but an armed nation can dispense with a standing army.  To keep ours armed and disciplined is therefore at all times important.” “Every citizen should be a soldier,” he wrote. “This was the case with the Greeks and Romans, and must be that of every free state.”

The American reality in 1776 and 1791 was entirely different from that confronting us today.

Yet, news of social and religious violence imposes on our peace every day.  Older Americans are particularly sensitized to what has changed: the radical loss of trust and the absence of civility, ethical integrity, and social responsibility.

We must acknowledge the compelling reasons why so many feel it necessary to possess firearms.

It is in this context that I express my concern about the threat of force made or implied in the name of political ends.  We already face dangerous instability, a condition likely to grow worse as conditions deteriorate.  Political violence could easily tip us into chaos.

For those with the eyes to see, it is clear that the use of force for political ends will very likely produce exactly the opposite of its intended purpose.  There is a dynamic relationship between means and ends.  The character of our results will be determined by the character of the means we employ.

Indeed, violence committed by Americans against Americans would endanger the Constitution and contradict the rationale behind the incentive for violence itself.  The uniformed services are staffed by our own sons and daughters, brothers and sisters.  We need to win them over; not turn them against us.

We have pragmatic alternatives.  We need to learn what they are.  Both our purpose and our means must be carefully considered, and we need to get it right.

We face a long crisis.  Many dark and dangerous things can happen.

Tom

A reminder for readers: Please look for the next post on or about June 14.

Foundations for Security

In seeking security for those we care for at a time of crisis we would do well to consider the qualities of order and stability that security requires.

Safety depends on the conditions we put in place around us, and therefore upon our ability to provide for necessities and to create a dependable environment.  This includes access to adequate food and healthcare, a roof over our heads, safe functional sanitation, and absence of conflict, among other things.  None of these will be possible without proactive, trustworthy relationships with our neighbors.

With deteriorating social and economic conditions we will be exposed to the failure of institutions and systems we have depended on for basic needs.  Our neighborhoods may feel less safe.  Police protection may become less dependable.  Some individuals might lose their balance and become disoriented.

It is quite possible that we will find it necessary to organize our communities effectively to meet needs and resolve problems.

In a time of social degradation it would, in my view, be wise to think carefully and rationally about the potential for sociopathic violence.

But, let’s be clear: The possibility for violence is only one among a wide range of security concerns.  In the coming weeks I will touch on some of these, including ways we can both prepare for and limit personal encounters with violence.

As we experience increasing disorder, I expect it will become increasingly clear that we must assume responsibility for our own necessities.

Food security will be a major problem if we do not learn how to produce and preserve food.  Hunger is not fun and hungry people are often not very nice.  By the way, March and April are crucial months for planning gardens and preparing the soil in the northern hemisphere.

The greatest test for some may be the sudden recognition that we do not really know how to be self-sufficient.  Our well-being will depend on how we respond to these challenges.  And so, as we find our way forward in a new reality it will become apparent that the requirements of security are in fact the requirements of stable communities.

That said, let’s be realistic about the relative nature of security.

President Dwight Eisenhower, a five star general, reminded us of the limits: “If you want total security,” he said, “go to prison. There you’re fed, clothed, given medical care and so on. The only thing lacking… is freedom.”

Like President Eisenhower, Helen Keller also had a way of putting things in perspective.  Being both deaf and blind gave her insights into life that the rest of us would do well to think about.

Security is mostly a superstition,” she said. “It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it.  Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure.  Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”

Fear can interfere with our ability to address problems and to keep our heads clear in difficult circumstances.  However, security concerns certainly do need to be addressed to keep our families safe and our communities productive.

I suggest that a sequence of responsibilities applies to local communities:  Freedom depends on security, which depends on stability, which in turn depends upon honesty, trust, dependability, and forbearance.  All these depend on personal commitment and generosity of spirit.

There is one other essential component as well, which I call “constructive action.”  By this I mean the active condition in which dependable working relationships are built.

Trust and dependability among neighbors can only be functional in the presence of constructive action guided by principle and a shared sense of purpose.

Principle and purpose cannot be constrained.  Stability is only possible when we are in motion.  Constructive action supported by a shared sense of purpose will be the only way to navigate through dark times.

Stability is the necessary foundation for security.  And, constructive action allows us dynamic flexibility in responding to what the world throws at us.

All of this will also depend on our readiness to work closely with people we have differences with.

We cannot be tentative about this.  Building trustworthy communities will not be easy.  Our future depends on it.

Tom

Dear readers:  Please look for the next post on or about April 6.  To receive alerts by email when new posts are available, please click the “Follow” button on the right side of this page.

From Crisis to Crisis

The twentieth-century brought an immense number of marvelous advances to the world – scientific, intellectual, cultural.  Yet it was a century of appalling violence, the most destructive in human history.  An estimated 167 million to 188 million people died at the hands of their brothers.

The century that produced communism, fascism, and nationalism also saw the invention of highly efficient weaponry and a willingness to direct it against civilian populations on a massive scale.

Do we understand that terrible things could happen on American soil – tragedies far worse than anything we have experienced since the Civil War?  At this historic turning point we can least afford a repetition of the world’s destructive past.  And how easily that could happen!

Only a strong America, just and wise and levelheaded, can lead a disrupted world back to stability and peace.

In his 2006 book, “The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West”, the historian Niall Ferguson, who I have introduced to you previously, wrote that “the hundred years after 1900 were without question the bloodiest century in modern history, far more violent in relative as well as absolute terms than any previous era…. There was not a single year before, between or after the world wars that did not see large-scale violence in one part of the world or another.”

I consider Niall Ferguson’s analysis to be of value because he departs from the typical explanations that blame weaponry and fascist governments, as significant as these were, and instead identifies ethnic conflict, economic volatility, and declining empires as the true causes.

In short, he reminds us of our human vulnerability to fear, emotional insecurity, and tribalism.

The convergence of multiple crises I am writing about here involves elements of all these things, but also a range of newly emerging concerns that most of us have not seen coming.

These include a fragile and globally interdependent banking system, depleted natural resources, environmental degradation, and runaway technologies that are rapidly outpacing the maturity of human moral competence.

In every case, regardless of the particular nature of approaching crises, the challenges we face as individuals and families come into focus in the form of immediate local threats.

And, as Dr. Ferguson points out, it is the overreaction of people under pressure that leads to the most terrible violence.

Long-time readers know my views.  In the extremes of social and economic crises, it is my belief that local communities are the only place where we have the capability and reasonable hope of organizing our lives in a civilized manner.

The difference between a violent past and a civilized future will depend entirely on the manner in which we address problems with our neighbors and manage our local affairs.  To be plainspoken, the distinction between past and future will be determined by personal attitudes and dependable relationships.

Local communities are the only context in which we have the capacity to respond constructively to the social and economic degradation taking place around us.

Community provides us with the means to build trust with friends and neighbors, and to take responsibility for meeting needs.

Here it is that the real needs of real lives can be identified and addressed.

And, it is in the process of problem-solving and working shoulder-to-shoulder that we can begin to know, understand, and influence one another.  The lessons of civility and cooperation to be learned here will be critical to our future as a nation.

We must be realistic.  Many people are still dominated by their own crippling prejudices.  This is unlikely to change until we are forced to address the essential needs we all face together under crisis conditions. 

Patience and determination will make many things possible, and necessity will sharpen the mind.

Distrust and alienation are diminished as we identify common concerns and work together in service to a common purpose.

And what is that common purpose?

Ultimately, in my view, it is the survival of a constitutional republic and the Constitution of the United States, which together have allowed gradual progress toward unity and inclusive fairness for more than 200 years

Tom 

Watch for the next post on or about December 1.

A note to new readers:  A project description, an introduction to my forthcoming book, and several working drafts of early chapters are posted on this page (see above).  Please see especially, “American Crucible”.