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Pragmatism, Topics And Critical Thinking

When I post something new, I check back a day or two later to see if anyone has unfollowed the blog. My curiosity is about what topics cause some to say, what the hell is this…I’m outta here. It doesn’t bother me. Being the pragmatist I am, I assume their departure is about boredom with topics, nothing new to see here or, perhaps, not really that pragmatic after all. I’m assuming anyone following this blog would consider themselves pragmatic at heart. And you don’t have to agree with everything I post. It’s sort of like marriage in that you don’t have to always agree with your spouse to still love them (mine, by the way, doesn’t read this blog).

Speaking of marriage, and from experience, it’s better when spouses (and significant others) are both pragmatists. Otherwise, the pragmatist finds him or herself trying to cope with their partner’s less-pragmatic approach or response to topics. The pragmatic one sees accompanying issues and considerations while the latter is only focused on a direct strategy that mitigates something as soon as possible. This divergence can happen with two pragmatists, but is atypical much of the time. That said, primary relationships are already inherently hardwired with emotions that can turn two pragmatists into highly irrational individuals in an amazingly short amount of time.

Irrational implies emotional because emotions seem irrational in many ways, yet they often serve pragmatic purposes. When evolutionary biology is combined with cognitive psychology, the result is evolutionary psychology, which studies why human behavior has become what it is. From pair-bonding to group socialization and cooperation, and even etiquette, there are good reasons for emotions that reinforce behaviors that improve survival and reproduction. What might be described as an unintended but inevitable consequence are yet other emotions, such as anger, that are triggered when some evolved behaviors have functional variations — to put it nicely.

Of course, unlike pragmatism itself, these “pragmatic” emotions only serve the purposes for which they evolved (in terms of evolutionary psychology). The pragmatic process is outside of this realm. It’s really about critical thinking, a subject missing from general education and a skill undeveloped or underdeveloped in many. Ideologists are not pragmatists. In fact, they essentially disdain pragmatists as lacking true principles and values — all too willing to compromise anything and everything. Plus, ideologists make a mockery of critical thinking by fabricating supportive “reasoning” for their ideological tenets via selective use and misuse of data — tenets derived not from reality but from how idealists want and expect the world to be.

It’s reasonable to have ideals. We all have them to varying degrees. But pragmatists know them to be relative to reality rather than being reality. This difference is critical when it comes to approaching any issue, big or small. Immigration, for example, is a contentious issue that illustrates this point. On one side are conservatives who want all illegal immigrants deported prior to any revisions of immigration law, a requirement that is never going to happen. On the other side are immigrant advocates (known as liberals to conservatives) who believe the current administration is deporting record numbers of immigrants already. The reality is that immigrant deportations have declined 43 percent in the last five years. This change has occurred without desired revisions in immigration law, which almost certainly offends conservatives while being ignored by advocates. Reality and idealism are not aligned.

I write about the many ways pragmatism can matter because alternative approaches are not viable solutions. They may fulfill idealistic values and beliefs, but they lack functionality and more often than not actually make things worse. A lot of people can see when something isn’t working, but only the more pragmatic individuals among them can actually find agreement on doing something instead of doing nothing. Those who derive greater satisfaction from their principles and beliefs can’t seem to grasp how much worse doing nothing can be. They are only focused on avoiding compromise so they can claim that the integrity of their values remains intact. To me, as a pragmatist, these individuals are already on dubious moral ground. They just don’t know it.

Perfectly Imperfect

Among the things antithetical to pragmatism is seeking perfection. I should know. From vehicles to furniture to books to fill-in-the-blank, I have always tried to maintain the appearance of just-like-new. I blame this partially on my mother, who led by example when it came to taking care of things, even when they weren’t expensive. But she also wanted everything in life to be perfect — in that they match her expectations for behavior, decorum, values and beliefs. That would not be me. I’m too pragmatic.

My expectations — which include expecting to be disappointed on a regular basis — are that problems, issues and concerns be solved or at least mitigated in ways that work. I don’t expect perfection. Indeed, I expect that much of what works is actually more like works in progress. That’s okay, because even if things could be better than they are, they are already better than they were as a result of ongoing imperfect efforts. When (not if) my expectations are disappointed, it’s almost invariably because those who favor ideals over practicality are in the way. My harsh criticisms of conservatives are that even when they recognize what the issues might be, they invariably concoct solutions that are ideological but not functional.

For example, it’s widely recognized across the political spectrum that health care costs as a percentage of gross domestic product are unsustainable even as they continue to rise. At the same time, tens of millions of individuals and families do not have health care insurance, and even those with it can still face insurmountable costs for serious health care issues. As a result of being the only industrialized country without national health care — which most successfully addresses all of the issues, the U.S. has the world’s most expensive, but not most effective, health care. The only politically feasible alternative, the Affordable Care Act, is a hybrid that retains a market-based heath care system and thus was doomed to be riddled with shortcomings and problems. But it’s better than nothing. Nothing, by the way, is the alternative offered by conservatives.

Another example, one that conservatives actually correctly identify, is that the most stable, economically viable setting for raising children is a family with two parents. The data support this. The solutions from conservatives, however, are ideologically obtuse. They fund programs to promote marriage — but only between a man and a woman — and abstinence for those who are single. The data consistently demonstrate the utter failure of these “solutions.” At the same time, conservatives are against sex education and universal family planning (contraception), which would significantly reduce unplanned pregnancies among single women. True to form, conservatives are also against abortion. So, no working solutions, only ideological purity.

Perfection is an unlikely goal, whereas imperfection is a likely result. The former is black and white, the latter is grey. The former is about control, the latter is about variability and randomness. The former is about adherence to principles, the latter is about compromise. These contrasting differences, by the way, explain why conservatives find it so easy to stay on message — the message is simplistic. Complexity, subtlety and nuance are absent. Thus a phrase is more than adequate to convey a fundamental conservative principle irregardless of how meaningless and even intellectually dishonest that message is. It reduces everything to imaginary perfection.

I was fairly young when I realized that while objects and things might exhibit the perfection of newness, people never could. Even the most flawless exterior contains an individual with imperfections — although which characteristics are imperfect is in the eye of the beholder. And perfection is transient. What seems perfect now might seem flawed later on. Some become resigned to how things are but wish they were better, whereas others are actually happy because things are good enough often enough…not a concept widely appreciated.

Perfection is one of those ephemeral qualities that is rare and rarely lasts long. The perfect moment, the perfect gift, the perfect color…all exceptional. Imperfection is easy to come by in so many ways. Imperfection is what makes perfection unique. The rest of the time, what’s good enough is actually good enough. And if it needs to work better, that might be possible. Pragmatism is the search for truth, and the truth is that idealistic perfectionism might seem a loftier goal, but it’s really the least likely to make things better because it starts out with unrealistic expectations on the basis of unrealistic assumptions. Believing them does not make them true.

Bee Active

Much as been written regarding the vapidity of modern culture with its vast quantities of trivial “information.” One criticism is that a lot of people know very little about a lot of things. But I’ve noticed that surprising numbers of people become aware of and concerned about issues that would be relatively obscure without this same web of information. This was brought to my attention vividly months ago by a female server in her 20s, who was going over some menu items with my wife and I. Somehow, and I can’t remember the reason, the topic of bees came up, and she became quite animated and agitated about the die-offs of bee colonies. I found myself thinking perhaps there is hope for us as a species. Maybe.

If being pragmatic has the positive effect of being more aware of reality as it really is, the accompanying negative aspect is being aware of reality that is discouraging, such as how badly humans are treating the only place they have to live — the third rock from the sun. Even more discouraging is the political polarization of this issue. In an homage to Carl Sagan’s revered Cosmos television series and book, Director of Hayden Planetarium Neil deGrasse Tyson has recreated this series, updating it for the 21st century. When asked by my personal favorite cultural commentator, Stephen Colbert, what Carl Sagan would be most surprised by today (he died in 1996), Tyson said it would be the war on science.

When science meets ideology, too many conservatives seem to choose ignorance, which in theory must make them quite blissful. Their reasons for dismissing science vary with the topic, along with the degree of conflict they perceive between environment-conservation issues and the effects on business — and the costs for mitigation. So climate change is simply denied because of how expensive mitigation will be, whereas funding for issues with economic consequences, such as the mortality rate for bees, is merely inadequate (in keeping with their obsession for small government). Science is our most enlightened connection to life on earth and to the universe around it, but in the conflict between science and ideology/faith, many conservatives revert to the thirteenth century.

Let’s talk about pollination. Most of the food we take for granted in supermarkets and restaurants depends on pollination in one way or another. Bees (and bumblebees) are critical to pollination for all kinds of crops. Anything that endangers pollinators would seem very serious both for the livelihoods of farmers and for access to affordable food for everyone. Everything from genetically modified seeds with integral pesticides to changes in climate patterns and their severity should, so to speak, be on the table when it comes to issues this fundamental. Pragmatism, not ideology, should be the dominant perspective for these kinds of discussions.

Quality of life includes both the results of science and also science itself — knowing more about the world we inhabit…and share. There are ~4000 species of bees in North America that pollinate our landscapes, native plants and fruit trees, vegetable gardens and wildflowers. Biological diversity is essential for sustainability — environmental, economic, aesthetic. When property rights and economic advantage gain precedence over healthy, functioning ecosystems, we are in more trouble than we can begin to know. Of course, life on earth has survived in one form or another despite multiple climate changes and cataclysmic events (goodbye dinosaurs, hello mammals). But these did not occur with 7 billion plus people on the planet.

If conservatives denying climate change think adapting to these changes will be less expensive and disruptive than slowing them down, they are naively wrong. Nonetheless, they can and do undermine government involvement necessary for addressing these changes. In the meantime, dozens of large corporations have taken it upon themselves to formulate their own plans of action regarding climate change because they are already seeing and experiencing issues that will have significant economic impact upon them. If their efforts result in some mitigation, this help will not have come from those elected to govern but rather from business leaders who can only sustain their business models through proactive goals that will also benefit everyone else in the process.

Being proactive is far better than waiting for things to become worse while pretending they won’t. Whether a city mayor or chief executive of a corporation, pragmatism is fundamental to sustainable success. In national and state politics, pragmatism is too often pushed aside for agendas that are irrelevant to the issues in question. Some of these issues have very important consequences for humans. To put this in perspective, if the history of our universe is represented by a calendar year, with the big bang at the first second of January 1, humans have been around for only the final 14 seconds of the last day of that year, December 31. We have a lot to answer for regarding much we have damaged this planet in such a short amount of time.

99 Problems

This iconic song from Jay-Z, indicating the singular thing that is not a problem while enumerating the things that are, may not be elegant in content, but it does speak to recognizing what real problems are. Being grateful for the problems one doesn’t have can be a pragmatic balance for those things that really could be better…perhaps a lot better. Pragmatism actually goes both ways. It’s about being realistic, but it’s also about the context of that reality.

A couple of years ago I posted about the issues of problem-solving, and I noted that my father had advised me, as a teen, that life was all about problems — little ones and big ones. A cynical point of view, but he was neither a pragmatic person nor a happy one. While there was a fundamental truth to what he said, he let problems define him. There was, and still is, a lot of anger. Ironically, he turned 97 recently — a long time to be unhappy. I’m nothing like him.

Not all problems need to be solved or can be. Having 99 problems would be bad enough, but feeling the need to solve them all would be considerably worse. In fact, not everyone is actually looking for solutions. Sometimes people (often women) just want to talk about a problem without having others try to “solve it” for them. Simply listening and asking questions can be all the help needed. Modern society is particularly notable for its focus on setting goals and solving problems, but these skills can become part of the problem rather than the solution.

The problem that Jay-Z didn’t have is often the very one that many others do. Relationships — sometimes family or friends but most often intimate — are not unlike the opening line of A Tale Of Two Cities: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… It’s not just the emotions — which are both inherent to relationships and the catalyst for their passion and dysfunction. When things go wrong, those outside the relationship may have to choose sides, with loyalties kept or abandoned. Should one’s advice be to repair the relationship or dissolve it. Ultimately, only the two individuals in the relationship can make it or break it, but friends, therapists and counselors are drawn into the process. As problems go, relationships are among life’s most challenging.

For pragmatic me, problem solving isn’t necessarily about the solution as much as broader observations regarding the problem. By definition, if the problem is misdiagnosed or misperceived, the solution may be ineffective or even negative. For example, the inverse of a relationship problem is the problem of no relationship — not finding the right person to share one’s life with. This issue typically divides into two parts. The first is about the process — where is one looking and what kinds of individuals are being chosen. The second is self-assessment — am I being too picky or doing something wrong. It could be one or both…or neither. Instead, it could simply be a matter of not finding the right person at the right time, trying too hard or discovering that the quality of choices declines with age. It’s a problem not easily resolved, but pragmatic wisdom is at least knowing that being with the wrong person is far worse than being alone.

Problems are a combination of reality and perceptions of reality. The ratio between the two determines how valid problems are as actual problems. Pragmatism is about using awareness and enlightenment to manage problems. Having even nine problems, let alone 99, is less likely when problems have to justify their existence. I cannot overemphasize the value of stepping back and seeing the larger context of problems. Sometimes it turns out that the solution to a problem is deciding the problem really isn’t one after all.

Democracy Isn’t Majoritarianism

Democracy is a paradox. It seems so simple, so sensible, so pragmatic. Who wouldn’t want to live in a democracy. And yet only 40 percent of the world’s population does so, and the quality of governance for them is often inefficient, ineffective and not necessarily democratic. The ancient Greeks were skeptical of democracy, as I’ve noted in previous posts. The founders of this country also recognized its numerous flaws, which they tried to account for. American foreign policy has too often focused on nation building via democratic principles, which has proven to be idealistically misguided more often than not. Democracy is complicated.

The appeal of democracy is understandable. Citizens can express opinions and participate in their destinies, and they can vote. Democratic nations tend to be wealthier, less likely to start wars and are less prone to corruption. Unlike with autocratic governance, changing leaders is much easier. As a result, democracies ultimately find better solutions, although the process of doing so is inefficient, with a lot of zigging and zagging to reach these solutions…eventually…maybe.

A significant reason why so many countries have not had success at creating true democracies is, ironically, the distracting focus on elections and voting. These give the appearance of democracy in action, but by themselves don’t mean much. Even though some 120 countries (more than 60 percent of all nations) have voting, many are missing essential components we take for granted, such as guaranteed rights and functioning institutions.

We have a strong constitution that ensures freedom of speech and the right to organize, provides stability and minimizes corruption, limits the power of government and thus tyranny of the majority, and, above all, creates a governmental infrastructure of institutions that make voting and elections actually meaningful and sustainable. Which is to say, there is a sophisticated political system and powerful civil services. Nations new to democracy have to create the societal infrastructure (culturally rooted practice) necessary for democracy to work. And we understand what winning elections means, which is not majoritarianism, the mistaken belief that election winners are free to do whatever they please and impose their will on everyone else.

But we shouldn’t be complacent. Democracies can degrade over time. A pragmatic assessment of democracy in America reveals why many around the world do not see a shining light on a hill but rather an example of what can go wrong with democracy. Democracy as functional governance isn’t ensured by longevity, even here in “exceptional” America. The corruption of gerrymandering encourages extremism and disenfranchises many. Partisan gridlock results in “governance” that makes democracy appear outdated and dysfunctional. Money creates influence and gives the appearance that the rich have more power. Lobbyists outnumber members of congress 20 to 1, and influence is now considered free speech.

As the Greeks expected, voters are certainly part of the problem. Plato noted that they would live from day to day, enjoying the pleasures of the moment. Others predicted widespread ignorance among many citizens, which would make them vulnerable to dishonest political rhetoric and thus incapable of voting with intelligence and reason. Add to this a distrust for politics and government among many voters, and one can rightly be doubtful there are enough voters who have the common sense, pragmatism and wisdom to comprehend the deterioration of their democracy and how to update it for the twenty-first century.

Too many voters are truly clueless, and too many of those they elect only encourage this lack of reality. Government borrows from the future to give voters what they want now, making large debt and deficits inevitable. Slow economic growth and tight budgets create conflicts among special interest groups. An ageing population only adds to this demand for government services that few seem interested in paying for. When governance through democracy stops working, the greater good is lost as well.

For much of the twentieth century, the U.S. was an inspiring — if imperfect — example of what democracy could do, and this encouraged other nations to embrace democracy. But the U.S. has become something quite different in the last couple of decades. Now it is a monument to democratic dysfunction, and instead of inspiration others see a wealthy country seemingly unable to solve its problems or even govern itself pragmatically. This isn’t a problem with democracy per se but rather what happens when some become convinced that democracy has to be manipulated so they can achieve their goals. They seem to have no qualms about corrupting democracy, ignorant of what will happen as a result.

Pessimistically Optimistic

The title says it all. Despite what seems an ever-higher inertia of human progress in the last dozen decades toward making the world a better place, it’s obvious not only how much hasn’t become better, but also the practical likelihood that such progress has very real limits. What, then, is the pragmatic response to this reality? After all, pragmatism’s claim to fame is about finding effective solutions to problems. It’s a fame that’s well justified…but there is a caveat — one I’ve noted before.

Pragmatism is really about the search for truth. This is an essential starting point, because effective solutions are only possible when one knows the truth of problems at a fairly high level of confidence. Now, suppose the truth turns out to be that some issues can only be mitigated at best, but never eliminated. And even mitigation may be too little too late. Or mitigation might require the agreement of parties who cannot agree and perhaps haven’t done so for decades or even centuries. And as I noted in a recent post, even when knowing the information of a problem, the solution(s) may be less certain — needing to be tried alone or in combinations, tested and then revised or replaced when there are shortcomings or unintended consequences.

One of the great paradoxes of human existence is how individuals can exhibit contradictory feelings and behaviors simultaneously — for example, being loving and kind toward some while greedy and ruthless toward others. When it comes to power and money or religion and politics, sometimes self-interest or intolerance comes down to killing others or at least depriving them of what you have. It’s estimated that a little over one billion people have lived and died so far in the history of human beings, and many of them have died violently one way or another for one reason or another.

So for a pragmatist, the truth can be that things are getting better but are still terrible in many ways. And, the terrible will always be with us. The difference between one person dying violently, or 100,000 or two million is a matter of scale. Scale matters, of course, but in the end each life was ended prematurely for reasons that are the results of a variety of circumstances. Often, the victims are collateral damage by those who have agendas, such as remaining in power at all costs or spending as little as possible making buildings and roads safer. Over a million people a year die in automobile accidents, mostly in developing countries.

What makes pessimistic optimism reasonable is, pragmatically, the lack of 100-percent alternatives. Yes, governments, organizations and individuals will continue attempting to create them, but these are subject to cost-benefit effectiveness. At some point on the improvement-for-money-spent curve for, say, humanitarian aid, diminishing returns eventually show up, with decreasing benefit for additional money. Unless innovation can significantly reduce costs, it eventually becomes sensible to reallocate money toward other issues that are far lower on their curves. There’s no shortage of issues. Yes, it’s far from ideal, but pragmatically it creates increased greater good overall.

Poverty has always been with us and always will be. Despite all the efforts globally to eradicate it, more than one billion people live with less than 1 USD a day to spend. This doesn’t include another one billion plus who now have at least 3 USD per day to live on. (Poverty in the U.S. is having less than 63 USD per day.) Close to 50 million Americans (adults and children) are considered poor, although if one adds in food insecurity, that number would be significantly larger. Unfortunately, hostility by some toward assistance, including food, has made it difficult to successfully mitigate poverty and hunger even in the world’s wealthiest nation.

Then there is political- and religious-based violence, which is as old as human society and can be seen all around the world today, including even some developed countries. Add to this the toll from drug and criminal cartels. And, of course, there are the acts of individuals with mental health issues who feel compelled to take the lives of others for reasons they themselves don’t understand. Finally, there’s the age-old consequences of severe weather — hurricanes, tornadoes, monsoons, typhoons, tsunamis. These take dozens, hundreds or multiple thousands of lives, and may become even more problematic depending on the changes in weather patterns and intensity resulting from climate change.

This is not me saying pragmatists should do nothing or not care. This is me saying that pragmatism includes acknowledging reality for what it is and coming to terms with what that means. One can be optimistic that good things can be done to help others, but also pessimistic that we will ever come close to ending completely any of what we deem morally wrong and inhumane. Acceptance isn’t approval. Acceptance is knowing that we and those who come after us will face the same issues and dilemmas. It has always been so and will always remain so.

Getting It Done

Cities are where the action is. They are incubators for creation of new ideas, economic growth, wealth, culture diversity and artistic endeavors. The close proximity of talented, ambitious people represents an intricate network of contacts, collaborations and innovation. All of this takes place within a matrix of municipal governance and services that rely upon the leadership and guidance of individuals elected to lead their cities into greatness. We know them as mayors.

We tend to assume a political hierarchy in which the president of the country and others elected to national government have the highest status, followed by the the state governor and those elected to office, and then finally the city mayor and elected board or council members. And yet, it turns out that in many ways the most effective of the three levels is at the “bottom.” Let me suggest the fact that just under 80 percent of citizens in developed countries live in cities makes mayors a very powerful force in governance.

Let me also note that cities, not countries, are the oldest institutions in human history. We live our lives in cities and are intimately familiar with them, whereas countries are more abstract in relationship to ourselves. We pay federal taxes and vote for national officeholders, but our contact is, at most, with the local offices of members of congress, if even that. But city hall and the mayor are in the city where we live. And mayors, it turns out, interact with lots of other mayors through a variety of organizations and conferences far more than national government officials interact with their peers in other countries.

And when it comes to politics, mayors may or may not have party affiliations because it really doesn’t matter the way it does for those in state and national politics. And unlike those running for office at those levels, who can move from state to state for political gain, mayors are residents of their cities, often having grown up there or at minimum having lived there for a considerable length of time. As a result, they are typically more trusted than other politicians. It’s not unusual for their approval ratings to be in the range of 70 to 80 plus percent, whereas presidents and governors are lucky to maintain 50 percent and congress is in the low double-digits.

Most importantly, and you’ll see why I say this, mayors are pragmatists. Unlike state and national elected leaders, mayors actually have to get things done — things that directly affect the quality and functioning of life in their cities. The garbage has to be picked up, potholes have to be filled, public transportation needs to effective…the list of services and programs is long and directly experienced by residents. Mayors note how the dysfunction inside the beltway simply wouldn’t be acceptable to those who live in their cities. No mayor would keep his or her job, so they have to be problem solvers, and that requires a high level of pragmatism.

Mayors get along with each other because they share the bond of running cities, so unlike leaders of countries, who are continually facing off over issues, mayors will meet and work together on common issues in ways that evade presidents and prime ministers. So, for example, when mayors work together to reduce carbon emissions, it matters because 80 percent of these originate in cities. Many cities have relationships with other cities in other countries that are examples of cooperation not seen among countries. What this all means is that cities are dealing with education, poverty, mobility, public health, the environmental and many other issues that are receiving little effective attention at higher levels.

Local governance, of course, has its own challenges. Activists with ties to the tea party sometimes attend local government meetings to protest efforts toward better use of natural resources, more effective urban planning, expanded public transportation, increased availability of bike lanes, preserving open space, reduced carbon footprints, use of smart meters and other measures, all of which are meant to improve the quality of life for citizens while spending less money. According to these activists, the efforts noted above, as well as other government activities, will reduce personal liberty, deny property rights and allow big government to control our freedom. They seem oblivious to quality of life issues beyond the free-floating concepts of freedom and liberty.

Recognition of what mayors can accomplish that others cannot has become an emerging, if somewhat hidden, topic, probably because nations have largely been passive and ineffective with too many issues for too long. When nations convene to discuss issues such as climate change and poverty, not much comes from these conferences. When mayors — day-to-day pragmatists — meet, they share best practices and expertise. Instead of political posturing and talking points there are goals being set and plans being made — cooperation instead of confrontation. We started with cities and well may end up with them as the best hope for human existence in the future.

Information Please…But Then What

It’s all well and good for me to keep noting the importance of information, data and facts in the service of pragmatism, but acquiring such knowledge may seem far easier said than done — starting with, what sources should one trust and what if they contradict each other? It may just be me, but I find that accumulating credible knowledge is not usually the difficult part unless one chooses newspapers, magazines, web sites and broadcast sources with agendas and/or reputations for leaving out details and ignoring fact-checking. A more likely difficulty is when studies, research results and surveys are cited that do not seem to align well or perhaps at all.

Long-time readers are probably aware that I favor the New York Times and The Economist because they are highly regarded by those who want detailed information on diverse topics that includes discussion not only of facts and data but also how and why studies on these topics may differ in analysis and conclusions. The upper echelons of business, academia and government read these publications for good reason. There are, of course, other sources that provide unbiased, in-depth reporting and discussion — you can often find them by doing searches with general key words for topics. Claims of liberal media bias are invariably from those who simply don’t like unbiased information that doesn’t support their point of view.

The issue of conflicting studies is common, but not necessarily what it seems. Guidance is essential. Reporting should therefore include analysis and discussion by experts regarding possible or probable causes for differing results. Often there are data sets not considered, researched or included because of the particular focus of each work, which can be very specific. The differences in the models for the same topic can easily result in multiple conclusions. But when variables from different studies are combined, more accurate insights can be found.

The real difficulty is that once in possession of all this information and data, deciding how best to address the issues raised by them can be truly vexing for a pragmatist. I’ll give you an example. There have been numerous studies on the relative levels of socio-economic mobility over not just recent decades but also throughout this county’s history. In my graduate work long ago in urban history, there were studies of colonial New England towns and cities indicating disparities between what mobility was believed to be and what it actually was. Here we are now in the early 21st century still trying to determine what factors are linked to it and how rates of mobility are affected.

Now I’m going to give you the five factors correlated to rates of mobility dependent on where one lives as measured by either race or income: residential segregation (either by income or race), the quality of schooling, the family structure (such as number of children living with one parent), social capital (such as involvement with community groups) and inequality (particularly income gaps in the 99 percent). Studies indicate that socio-economic mobility is highest in integrated places with good schools, strong families, good community spirit and narrower income gaps within the broader middle class.

This is fundamental information derived from a lot of data. It probably makes sense to you why these factors could/would influence socio-economic mobility. It has the ring of truth. As I noted at the beginning, accessing good information isn’t really difficult, although it can be time-consuming, if you look for it and seek it from well-regarded sources. The truly difficult part is deciding what should be done. How to fix the differences between the places where socio-economic mobility is good and all the places where it is not. The disagreements — both ideological and practical — on doing this are so great and divisive that little gets done. Conservatives simply shun the data and insist there’s no problem with social mobility, just a problem with the ambition of the poor.

Disregarding data that doesn’t support beliefs of how things should be, and why they are not, doesn’t change the data and what they mean. That said, having lots of information and knowing what the problems are doesn’t ensure mitigation or resolution. Crafting and then implementing solutions requires facts, information and data so reasonable people can work together to try making things better. But inside the beltway, national government is doing less and solving very little because there aren’t enough reasonable people. Ironically, it’s the mayors of cities — both here and in other countries — who are driving solutions, the result of inherent, necessary pragmatism — a topic worthy of its own post.

Wandering Around The Playing Field

Pragmatism is part of life but not the meaning of life. Which is to say, it’s not the game but part of playing the game. Being pragmatic isn’t about knowing the answers but rather the process of deriving the best answers from what is known. Process — the methodology — determines the quality of the answers. So we start with facts, data and information, but then factor in our emotions and feelings so that the best answers are also the ones we feel good about…that we can accept and live with.

If compromise is essential to getting things done when working with others, it’s equally essential when getting things done for ourselves. We combine reality with what we feel, like, dislike and care about so we can make choices we are comfortable with that are also functional. The balance between functionality and emotion is dynamic, varying depending on what the issue is. It’s okay to sometimes give emotions priority, but not okay to avoid doing a reality check as well.

Early in adulthood I came to realize that others would seek me out to talk about problems, because I apparently seemed to be able to “solve” them. In reality, I was simply taking a broader view and looking for more possibilities than they were. I always thought they could have reached the same resolution. Except for relationships, in which case being on the outside can sometimes give greater clarity. But when pragmatism meets relational emotions, pragmatic insight may be of limited assistance.

This came up recently while watching the only “reality” program I am willing to see — in the company of my wife — The Bachelor. One of the three remaining women (an assistant district attorney) this season decided the bachelor — whom I thought had a good combination of emotion, pragmatism and desire for honesty — was uncaring, and chose to leave after a night alone with no cameras. It was interesting how this woman became angry at his pragmatic responses when confronting him. While he felt their night together had been very good, she was unhappy and hurt that he hadn’t asked her specific personal questions, such as about her religious and political beliefs. He noted she never brought them up or asked to talk about them, and that if she didn’t feel she could be with him, that was okay. He was hurt but could accept that this is the way she felt. Every time he said it was okay, she became angrier as she tried to elicit responses that were more emotional from him.

My wife, a very pragmatic woman, thought she was trying to start an argument that was really about her, not him. This woman also noted later, when leaving, that perhaps her standards were too high. Maybe they are, or she isn’t interested in pragmatism when it comes to relationships. I’ve known women whose professional lives were successful while their personal ones were not, and I’ve always wondered if the emotional aspects of relationships simply overwhelmed the pragmatism that seemingly functioned well in their work. It was obvious how much he cared for her, but he correctly noted that if she didn’t feel the same way, it was okay for her to say so and move on. For an ex-professional Venezuelan soccer player with a young daughter, this seemed reasonable in spite of his emotions.

The reality is that successful relationships are as much about pragmatism as love and romance. Ask those who have been together a long time and they will note that coming to accept each other for who they are, not expecting to read each other’s mind and knowing what really matters make relationships work long term. Love (or being in love) by itself can’t simply erase anger, disagreement and disappointment. If that feels like lowering one’s standards, then finding someone and staying with them becomes increasingly unlikely. I’ve noted before that one of the primary functions of pragmatism is seeing things for what they are, as opposed to only what they should be or are supposed to be. Doing this creates an opportunity to determine if the latter is reasonable and/or necessary.

The conversations on this reality show are repetitious and predictable because people want pretty much the same thing — marriage and family — for pretty much the same reasons. Getting to this is easy for some, yet not for others, which creates questions about why this is. After dating and relationships have failed, some choose to take their chances in front of cameras (but perhaps for reasons other than they believe…or say). And the odds aren’t good, for two reasons. One is that a process of elimination doesn’t mean the finalist is “the one” but rather simply who is left after everyone else has been sent home. This results in reason two: the real work of creating a functioning relationship begins after the program has aired, and it rarely turns out there is true compatibility.

Having idealistic goals is fine, but if they remain elusive, there should be a more realistic plan B. Of course, I’m a life-long eclectic pragmatist, so this is already a comfortable habit. That said, realistically, there are things about love and compatibility that exist somewhere between idealism and realism — imperfect yet still wonderful, and here pragmatism may only provide wisdom to look outside of idealism while being aware of realism. When two people can do this, emotion and intelligence can co-exist.

For the bachelor who kept saying it’s okay that you don’t care as much and for the woman who kept responding that means you don’t care, pragmatism met idealism and the conversation that should have taken place could not. This, from a pragmatic perspective, represents a primary downside with idealism. When expectations are not met, the idealist can easily conclude the fault lies elsewhere and make a decision on this basis. The opportunity (possibility) for exploring what happened and why is lost, but what the pragmatist sees as lost is not deemed worth having by the idealist.

Retrieving Perspective

It’s too easy to become distracted by all that goes on around us, and by that I mean all that happens in the world continuously. So many things to do, to fix, to stop, to change. It can be overwhelming to realize how much needs to be done, can’t be done and will never be what it could and should be. Some simply withdraw into their own existence while others redouble their efforts to make the world a better place. But what that means depends on who you talk to, listen to, look up to.

I was told some time ago I was so pragmatic that I didn’t have a strong sense of principles. Although not meant as such, I actually took it as a compliment, which only irritated the other person even more. I noted that most of what is wrong in the world comes from devotion to “principles” that are too narrow, unrealistic and inflexible. Idealism seems noble but rarely takes into account practical reality. It too often becomes an excuse for increasingly extreme intransigence that invariably fails to accomplish anything beyond being true to one’s “values.”

I have “rules” I apply to myself that keep me focused on what I, as one person, can reasonably do while also being able to enjoy life. As a pragmatist I accept the reality of limits, and I choose my issues on the basis of how I perceive their importance in the larger picture. I then try to balance these with being in the moment. This is critical because the quality of one’s life is not just about getting things done but also finding pleasure and enjoyment in each day. The balance of trying to make the world a better place and also making life a better personal experience is what helps maintain a sense of proportion.

Many issues eventually require involvement in politics, because more often than not government is fundamental to solutions for many issues. This is where ideology and pragmatism meet head on. Conservative idealism is about limited government, maximum individual freedom and minimal regulation, all of which are in conflict with a majority of issues facing society and its citizens. So the conflict of ideology versus pragmatism is my number one focus because it directly affects all the other issues I care most about. This blog is my personal effort to raise awareness of rational solutions to real problems. If I have any guiding “principle” in life, it’s that problem-solving and ideology are antithetical.

The choice of issues to pursue is different for each of us, and even though this means a very limited number of issues per person, overall there are lots of individuals participating to varying degrees in many different issues. The person noted above who suggested I was too pragmatic has a guiding principle that consistent commitment to issues requires sacrifice. She sends money to a multitude of environmental/conservation organizations, attends rallies in support of numerous social issues and is zealous in living a sustainable lifestyle. I appreciate her dedication, but am not about to emulate it.

I carefully choose my issues. One is natural habitat, because when it comes to all other conservation issues concerning wildlife and nature, this is the one that enables all other related ones. You can’t save a species if it doesn’t have appropriate habit in sufficient amounts. Habitats represent ecosystems that support many species of wildlife and plants, which occur within specific niches in these ecosystems. Some habitats are rarer than others, and are critical in terms of their size and the presence of corridors between them when they not contiguous. Saving habitat for “popular” species of animals simultaneously saves the same habitat for all other species that are more obscure.

Realistically, what we accomplish now is only permanent if others continue to actively care in decades and centuries to come. And it may not even matter two hundred or five hundred years from now for reasons we cannot imagine. Perspective may seem mundane but it provides context and scale. For example, the ideal may offer smaller additional improvements for increasingly larger efforts, whereas the pragmatic might accomplish less than the ideal yet more overall in a sustainable manner from a reasonable effort. If I’ve learned anything from decades of experience, it’s that pragmatic perspective accomplishes more overall most of the time because it’s easier to make others stakeholders when the goal and the process seem realistic.

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