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Not Doing Evil

As someone who has been on the world wide web (aka Internet) since the beginning, using Mosaic and Netscape (browsers) to access many of Google’s predecessors (Alta Vista, Lycos, eXcite), I have a broad perspective on the technology. And, as you obviously know, I’m an out-of-the-womb pragmatist. This combination makes me more sanguine about the angst over privacy and personal data when it comes to Google than some, who have come to find little value in the company’s motto to do no evil. If I’m concerned with evil, I’d avoid Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook long before I’d find myself questioning the motives of Larry Page and Sergey Brin (co-founders of Google).

There’s distrust of new technologies that can be linked to a much higher awareness about privacy issues. And yet, as the utility and value of these technologies (particularly applications) become more obvious, it’s difficult to resist all that they offer. If, for example, you use Google’s features such as calendar and turn-by-turn map navigation, you could receive a notification that due to traffic congestion on the route typically used to reach your appointment destination, you might want to leave 15 minutes earlier or select another route. This integration of services is both useful and yet sort of creepy. But you will not be late to your appointment thanks to this integration.

Evil is a matter of intent and results. And thus, there’s a conundrum. To benefit from the integration of technologies, you have to share information about your life. But information has degrees of granularity — the amount and specificity of details. And what happens to that information is really the issue. You might not share any or much of it with friends or coworkers, but what will Google do with it? Perhaps nothing, but if you want to know about special offers from retailers or restaurants along your route, they could provide that using GPS data. Show the offer to a salesperson or server and Google makes money. It’s one way for the company to help pay for the considerable costs of the technological infrastructure and (hardware/software) engineers that make all of this possible.

Or you could use a different search engine that doesn’t gather any data from you and makes your searches anonymous, such as DuckDuckGo. There are a lot of search engines, actually. Many have come and gone because monetizing the costs for them is not easily done. Indeed, even Google is having issues doing so on mobile devices, where advertising results in much less revenue. As a pragmatist, I find it difficult to fault Google for wanting to have sufficient profits to pay for its costs, fund its extensive research and development, and pay dividends to shareholders.

The issues regarding privacy and doing no evil while offering services that are valuable to many represent both a dynamic balance and a point of view. Some individuals are far less concerned about privacy than others, they differ on what constitutes evil and they place varying degrees of importance on the services offered. It seems part of human nature to distrust companies that become successful and dominant in this field of endeavor. The bigger they are, the more hostility there is toward them — some justified, some not. For me, it’s Facebook that I find far more troubling than Google. Mark Zuckerberg’s goals have always been for minimal privacy (except for himself) and leveraging user postings to drive ad revenues. Only pushback from users and enforcement by government agencies have placed limits on these goals.

For those looking forward to robots as assistants, I suggest that issues of privacy will become far more pervasive. Robotics, long the purview of science fiction, is becoming the next major technological wave, and will dominate the twenty-first century. The issues of privacy, safety and ethical boundaries will dwarf the ones presented by mobile technologies. From my pragmatic perspective, the conundrums of not doing evil will increase in scale and consequence. And, yes, Google has spent tens of millions acquiring a variety of robotics companies. As with driverless cars, their efforts will reveal the possibilities and the limits of new technologies. Evil, as with so many things, is in the eye and mind of the beholder.

Bigger Only Seems Better

Here’s a mini quiz. In what category are the United States and Sweden equal? Not population. Sweden has ~10 million residents, the U.S. ~315 million. Not size. Sweden has ~174,000 square miles, the U.S. ~3.8 million square miles. (I should note for comparison that California has ~155,000 square miles.) Not per capita GDP, although this one is closer, with Sweden at ~$58,000 and the U.S. at ~$53,000. (Beyond higher per capita average in Sweden, there’s a significant difference in overall inequity — a Gini coefficient of 0.26 for Sweden versus 0.37 for U.S. on a scale of 0 to 1, with 1 representing maximum inequality.)

The category in which Sweden and the U.S. are equals is in annual expenditures on roads as a percentage of GDP. Roads are, of course, included in the category of infrastructure, which is everything that matters both economically and in quality of life: roads, bridges, tunnels, airports, public transportation, pipelines (water, natural gas, etc.), seaports, railroads, fiber-optic cable and so on. Mind you, the GDP of the U.S. is close to $17 billion whereas in Sweden it’s about $600,000. That the U.S. is only spending what Sweden is on roads is actually even worse than it already seems because Sweden has excellent public transportation whereas the U.S. has near-complete dependence on automobiles.

I live in coastal Southern California, which is both somewhat affluent overall and has fairly benign weather, yet even here roads are clearly not being maintained consistently. I’ve noted before that the roads in Europe are better overall, but of course they pay for this with higher taxes, significant vehicle registration fees and much higher fuel taxes. Because Europeans are more focused on the greater good, they accept the cost of quality roads and road maintenance. In the U.S., local and state budgets are simply insufficient, particularly where winter road conditions are significant problems. As a result, issues with bent wheels and damaged tires are not uncommon during winter months as potholes become larger and deeper quickly. Budgets do not allow for year-round maintenance.

At the federal level, congress exhibits a consistent inability to govern responsibly, and this is easily seen in how the highway trust fund has been renewed — 18 times in five years with short-term funding because there isn’t the political will to pay for what is needed with a long-term plan. Instead, monies are shifted about to keep the fund from emptying, creating havoc in terms of planning and efficiency at state and local levels (where budgets have been cut and never reinstated even as the economy has improved). This is, so to speak, a road to disaster.

The federal fuel tax of 19¢ per gallon, which is meant to fund the highway trust, hasn’t increased since 1993. It’s obviously insufficient two decades later, which is exacerbated even more because vehicles now have greater fuel efficiency. This tax could easily be increased five-fold to properly fund both maintenance and replacement of roads, bridges and related infrastructure as needed, along with similar increases of state fuel taxes. Predictably, conservatives want to avoid any tax increase, paying homage to the ideological principle that raising taxes increases government spending — completely ignoring that government spending is precisely what is needed when it comes to infrastructure.

It’s also no surprise that in surveys regarding fuel tax increases, a majority of drivers are opposed to them. They seem remarkably ignorant about the useful lifespans of road surfaces, bridges and transportation infrastructure in general. A useful rule of thumb for major roadway infrastructure is a usable lifespan of 50 years. That means anything built in the 1960s or earlier is now due for significant rehabbing or complete replacement, and this is on top of needed annual maintenance plus new projects to accommodate increased traffic and to encourage economic growth. Spending on infrastructure creates substantial economic activity both from the actual work done and from the results of such improvements, making increased fuel taxes a wise investment.

The mystery isn’t resistance to increased taxes and fees, but the disconnect between what needs to be done and paying for it. If drivers don’t want and won’t demand increased fuel taxes, politicians won’t demonstrate leadership and raise them anyway. Mind you, there are all kinds of costs for not funding what needs to be done — unsafe bridges, longer commutes, increased wear on vehicles, less fuel efficiency, higher shipping costs, reduced economic growth and lost jobs. If these are calculated, higher fuel taxes might seem a bargain, at least to those who are pragmatic enough to appreciate the difference.

Of Carriers And Personhood

The misuse of words has a long tradition in politics. Issues are reduced to words and phrases that either convey little or are simply misleading. Sometimes remarks or the choice of certain terms are inadvertent, spoken in haste or without thought, but more often the goal is to appeal to specific supporters on an issue while risking offending everyone else. Remarkably, given the rise of women in politics and business, it astonishes how inept and offensive conservative males can be, seemingly clueless how their words will be received by anyone but the faithful.

It recently came to my attention that some male conservatives, already prone to offensiveness when speaking about women’s issues, have added yet another insult to their catalogue of them by referring to pregnant females as carriers. The inference is not subtle — the fertilized egg that becomes a fetus that becomes a baby during gestation is all that matters. Yet another example of conservative men having strong opinions on a topic they will never face — being pregnant.

Then there’s that other term now in vogue, personhood, a conservative euphemism for the alleged state of a fertilized egg. That a fertilized human egg is no more a person than a chicken egg is a hen is simply ignored. A fertilized egg only has personhood because conservatives apply contorted logic to satisfy the fringe base that functionally undermines intelligent politics. Emotion and intelligence have a direct inverse correlation. When emotion is in charge, what passes for intelligence most often is better classified as just making it up. No wonder so many women ignore the emotional conservative message. Their intelligence knows what the truth is.

If a fertilized egg were actually a human being, then everything from failure to implant to miscarriage to spontaneous abortion would require a death certificate, but science and common sense recognize the differences between an egg, a fetus and an actual baby. And the differences are fundamental to biology. Nature aborts pregnancies all the time for all kinds of reasons. Are these homicides or biological realities? Again, the answer is obvious. There is only one difference between this and abortions — female health and choice.

The issue of abortion is unresolvable because one side starts from a position of none except for, perhaps, rape and incest…maybe. Abortions for the health of the mother are, reluctantly, accepted, but only because one death is better than two. Unfortunately, this rigidity is expanded to included any form of contraception that prevents implantation of a fertilized egg, which could only be classified a form of abortion if one ascribes personhood to the egg — a fabricated status.

Ironically, and yet so typical of social conservatives, this makes reliable contraception more difficult to obtain and expensive for many women, particularly poor women, even though contraception effectively reduces the incidence of abortions. For the emotionally committed, this intelligent information is irrelevant. Worse, all of this opposition is often wrapped in that old standby, religious dogma, and the invented issue of religious freedom. Until the last decade or two, religious freedom consisted of personal religious belief, with the civil rights of others being respected. Now social conservatives present themselves as victims of insufficient religious freedom.

And implied in everything is the fundamental issue about women having sex. If social conservatives are nothing else, they are hypocrites in this regard. They have sex, but there’s a denial of sexuality because it emphasizes behaviors that aren’t suitably religious or socially conservative. In other words, puritanism is alive and well in twenty-first-century America among those who are putatively conservative. Conservative males are hyper-hypocrites, actively seeking sex from females while promoting values that are hostile to women. And when conservative males seem particularly derisive of homosexuality, the odds are compelling as to why — doubts about their own sexual orientation.

There is a pragmatic certainty in all of this for those of us outside the bubble. It’s easy to predict the lack of practicality, the contradictions, the hypocrisy, the lack of empathy. The linkages among social conservatives to a list of issues and rigid positions regarding them are equally predictable. Mainstream conservatives recognize the political consequences of this and would prefer to leave these issues off the table, but those further to the right aren’t having it.

The cultural wars are between modernity and those who who resist (fear) social change. My pragmatic guess is the latter are anxious about a society that allows too much of certain kinds of personal freedoms — supremely ironic given how much social conservatives are obsessed with big government usurping personal liberty. What are we to make of these contradictions, particularly as they apply to women. Let me suggest a thread among them.

Traditionally, when it comes to sex and sexuality, women who stray from what is deemed appropriate are supposed to suffer the consequences of their actions. So, social conservatives want to limit sex education, contraception and, of course, abortion, while promoting abstinence, marriage and family. In other words, social conservatives do not accept sexuality and sex outside of traditional (read religious) boundaries despite the cultural evolution of the society they live in. For them, liberty is always the goal except when it comes to these issues, which are seen as antithetical to correct values and social order. What is lost is the difference between personal and societal liberties.

When it comes to freedom, there’s a range of restrictions so that individual rights, the rights of others and the needs for a civil society are met. It’s a balance that is often imperfect but functional for the greater good, as well as for personal freedom within that context. Accommodation of religion is predicated on the assumption that such accommodation is personal and will not be allowed to interfere with the civil rights of others. Now, however, accommodation is being used by social conservatives to promote their agenda via the spurious issue of religious freedom. The separation of church and state has worked well for very good reasons, although apparently not good enough for those who are most conservative — and least pragmatic.

Cultural Pluralism

The idiosyncrasies of human nature transcend all cultures. Cultures are complex amalgams of history, social conventions, habits and other factors, all influenced by human nature. Although cultures vary considerably, there’s substantial commonality in the lives of people, leading to the phrase that we’re all more alike than different. Except, of course, when we aren’t.

Cultures evolve either in isolation or surrounded by other cultures. So, the U.S. developed its culture as a result of a combination of settlement by those who left their existing cultures to create their own, the frontier experience of self-reliance and the isolation of two oceans and only two neighboring countries, which have their own cultures. In Europe, with of many smaller countries, changing alliances and borders, and histories that are intertwined, there are many cultures — each one unique and yet also not unlike others around them.

Cultures consist of individuals who may or may not share all the same social, economic political and religious beliefs. Sometimes, individuals discover other cultures that feel more like a fit for them. Visiting another culture may not reveal all of its idiosyncrasies — which are only discovered by living there, but if one looks beyond the tourist locations, it’s possible to grasp much of what day-to-day life is like and how people live.

My pragmatic point is that there are many “great” countries (and no “greatest”), but this accolade is highly dependent on one’s own cultural criteria. How one’s culture compares to others, and whether it satisfies needs and expectations sufficiently, determine how exceptional it might seem to be at a personal level. None are perfect, but some are highly imperfect in ways that might be troubling or unacceptable. The U.S. and Europe offer a contrast in how equally developed economies and societies have cultural difference that are significant in terms of quality of life despite the many similarities (which may differ in the details).

If the U.S. has capitalism with an emphasis on the individual and ambivalence or disdain for “socialism,” Europeans have capitalism with an emphasis on socialism and the greater good. The result of this are differences in specific cultural attitudes. Europeans are largely mystified by the distrust of government and obsession with firearms in the U.S., while many in the U.S. consider the size of governments in Europe an infringement on personal freedom and the greater good simply a higher tax burden. Of course, these are generalizations, but one can detect the core reality of them in political-economic conversations, and in the results of surveys and polls.

In my pragmatic opinion, reality favors the Europeans, but many — perhaps most — U.S. citizens don’t know or understand this. They wrongly assume the quality of life and economic success in the U.S. are simply better than than in Europe, conclusions that are the result of combining cultural mythology with cultural ignorance. Over the last 40 years the European middle class has actually done better overall than the U.S. middle class, while Europeans have received equally good or better education and health care for very modest sums of money. Yes, taxes are higher, but tax revenues in the U.S. — as I’ve noted many times — are much too low as a percentage of gross domestic product. And, yes, homes, roads and automobiles tend to be smaller over there. Diesel and gasoline are also more expensive, although greater fuel efficiently erases much of the difference. Because of higher fuel taxes, European infrastructure is better maintained and public transportation is far better in quantity and quality.

Government is trusted because it is commonly understood by Europeans that government is central to the functioning of modern societies and the quality of their lives. European democracy is actually better because gerrymandering and disenfranchising voters aren’t allowed. And, because government is supported and trusted by citizens, there’s none of the obsession about owning firearms to fight against possible government tyranny — a common theme in the minds of conservatives here. Indeed, the distrust of government and unhealthy attachment to guns are inextricably linked in the U.S.

Of these two, distrust and firearms, the former is far more corrosive and undermining to society. Conservatives are perpetually asserting their mistrust of government even while benefiting from government. They are hypocrites — accepting benefits and assistance while disdaining the source. Those hating government enthusiastically praise private enterprise (although, oddly, simultaneously complaining about corporate influence in government), conveniently ignoring the tens of thousands of pages of laws needed to prevent — with varying degrees of success — business from implementing undesirable practices, schemes and goals. There is simply nothing inherently superior about business relative to government given their entirely different roles in society. Government does what business can’t, won’t, shouldn’t.

Cultures can grow and prosper for the greater good, or they can become dysfunctional as political and economic divisiveness sacrifice the greater good. There’s nothing pragmatic about distrusting government and demanding less of it for ideological reasons when this is in fundamental conflict with reality. For all the political rhetoric in the U.S. about the so-called failure of European socialism and problems in the European Union, a pragmatic assessment of the U.S. culture reveals serious issues politically and economically. If claiming to be the world’s greatest country is already cultural arrogance, allowing the decline of the greater good only makes the assertion even more meaningless.

Fútbol Versus Football

There are so many endeavors and aspects of life in which pragmatism and non-pragmatism co-exist, and sports is certainly one of them. I claim no great interest in sports per se. I don’t play them, and my experience as observer and sort-of-fan has been largely limited to professional baseball (minimal), motorsports (i.e., Formula 1 and Le Mans), cycling (i.e., Giro d’Italia) and fútbol (international football, also known as soccer in some English-speaking countries). I’m really only watching European fútbol these days, and, as I write this, selected World Cup games.

There are several approaches to sports. There are the true fans, who bring emotion and commitment that sometimes edges toward fanaticism (note the first three letters in the word). There are those who are always ready to discuss, argue and opinionize about teams, coaches, players and games. There are those who savor the technical and statistical details, and the strategies of coaches. There are those who bring intellectual rigor and historical-cultural perspective to their favorite sport. And there are those who equate team support with identification of personhood, ethnicity and country (including the hooligans of sport). Many combine various aspects of these, and while this can include a pragmatically intellectual involvement, it can also be an emotional and even irrational obsession.

So imagine, for a pragmatist, observing how even the name of the game becomes an issue, such as soccer versus football, known internationally as fútbol, although there are variations such as Italy’s calcio (which refers to kicking). In the U.S. it has always been called soccer, largely because we already had football, known outside the country as American football (in Italy it’s il football americano). This name, football, doesn’t make sense because 99 percent of American football is played using hands, not feet, whereas in fútbol using hands (except for goalkeeper) is simply not allowed during play.

The other reason it’s known as soccer here is because until the 1970s, it was also commonly referred to as such in the United Kingdom and other English-speaking countries such as Australia and New Zealand (although they have since changed it to football). In terms of governing organizations, associations and team names, football is almost universally used, whereas soccer is only used in the U.S. This should largely be a topic of academic interest, but it actually creates emotional divisiveness that results in the usual derisive comments and irrational opinions regarding what is correct and what isn’t. The pragmatic response is that it doesn’t matter because in the U.S. football simply doesn’t refer to soccer (I mean fútbol).

And then there’s the which is better debate, football or fútbol — as in separate sports. Here again, intellectual meets emotional. As is often the case, “better” is many things to many people, so the criteria in play, so to speak, depend on who you talk to and their personal history with the sport. Nostalgia has a way of distorting perspective in this regard, so the old and the new combine to create a strongly felt opinion. But, pragmatically, I can make a case for why I find American football tedious and fútbol more compelling. I didn’t know why for a long time, but I’ve come to understand what is missing from American football, and even baseball, but is largely present in basketball, as well as fútbol — making me wonder why I don’t spend any time watching basketball.

The average football game contains an actual playing time of ~11 minutes out of a 60-minute game, which itself averages 174 minutes. No wonder I am bored by the whole thing. All of the commercial breaks (whether you watch on television or watch a televised game at a stadium), huddles and time-consuming processes, plus halftime, turn the entire game into a test of endurance. In contrast, fútbol consists of two 45-minute halves, no commercial breaks, non-stop playing (minus penalties and injuries, made up for with extra minutes because the clock never stops) and a 15-minute halftime. An entirely different experience.

Speaking of injuries, fútbol is a relatively benign sport compared to football. Both are contact sports, but in fútbol many penalties are about behavior that can result in injury, whereas in football there is hard contact that results in more insidious injury. The long-term brain damage from football has become an issue that is now quite public after decades of denial within the sport, and the results may endanger the game itself. Many parents are not allowing their children to participate in school football, and schools are limiting participation below certain ages. The supply of players may well dwindle as a result of the concern for what happens years later when these individuals suffer from brain damage-driven issues.

Fútbol is open to both genders and doesn’t restrict participation by physical characteristics. Injuries are typically minor, although heading the ball for those not in their their teens is generally not allowed. Beyond physical and mental skills, those who play fútbol have far more endurance than those who play football because the activity level is higher in fútbol. That said, professional fútbol players tend to retire by their early 30s because the wear and tear of so much running and play cannot be sustained much beyond that. Then again, not many football players make it that far.

I’m not trying to promote fútbol, which some really do find utterly boring to watch. Rather, I’m noting how pragmatism has a place even in being a sports “fan.” Some time ago I posted about the excesses of fandom, and that remains true. Excesses in general can be marginal or even negative behaviors, but sports can be particularly unique in this regard in terms of how enthusiasm morphs into a lack of perspective. Having an inclination toward a pragmatic attitude overall seems to keep one grounded while allowing a rich emotional existence as well.

My wife sees some of the fans at World Cup games — who traveled thousands of miles to get there — and rolls her eyes. I understand why she does, but I also understand why these fans dress the way they do. In many countries, fútbol is like a religion. In many ways, it’s better.

All Checks, No Balances

I can’t remember when in school I first became aware of the three branches of government and the concept of checks and balances, but as an adult I have come to understand the conflicts and nuances inherent in any system of democratic governance, and why this country’s founders chose this particular configuration. As I’ve noted previously, democracy simultaneously represents the best and worst of human nature, and a variety of government configurations exist to cope with these opposing characteristics. The results are equally successful and inadequate depending on the intent of those elected to office.

The ultimate goal is the same whether there are two or seven political parties: allowing the winners of elections to govern but ensuring that losers retain some influence in the process. Avoiding tyranny of the majority is balanced with avoiding tyranny of the minority (blocking the ability of the majority to govern). It only works when all parties agree that the greater good and compromise are fundamental to the sustainability of governance as election results shift winners and losers over time. Those who are centrists by nature accept this agreement, whereas those farther from the center may or may not.

This all came to mind when I read a recent poll in which a sample of voters said they would vote for the opposition party so the legislative branch could block the executive branch. All checks, no balances. What are these foolish people thinking? Polls consistently rank approval of congress from single digits to low teens, with particular frustration with how little gets done and how few issues are addressed. The answer (as noted in previous posts) can be found in the perspective of ancient Greek philosophers, who pointed out how ignorant and easily misled the typical voter would be when it came to politics.

To make matters yet more incomprehensible, even when a large majority of voters are for specific solutions to issues, many still vote for those who fundamentally disagree with them. Why would they do this? It will come as no surprise that I have three pragmatic answers to all of this. One is that voters often do not choose who they vote for on the basis of specific issues, so these conflicting points of view do not decide elections. Many voters easily make decisions on the basis of generalized misguided assumptions regarding the economy, government spending and political rhetoric (complex issues made falsely simple through the use of fabricated, meaningless phrases). In other words, these voters confirm the ancient Greeks’ worst assumptions…over and over.

My second answer is that one side of the political equation cheats far more to win. Conservatives radically gerrymander districts to avoid political consequences, use voting laws to disenfranchise voters unlikely to support them by making registering and voting as difficult as possible, and run campaigns of misinformation/disinformation targeted at the large percentage of voters who are too ignorant to know better. For many, perhaps most, conservatives, justification for all of this is the belief that their country is being taken away from them by people who are not like them. So all is fair in not just love and war but also politics.

My third answer is that too many voters who could make a difference in undoing the lack of balance in politics simply don’t vote or rarely do so. So democracy is easily subverted bythe will of a small percentage of citizens. [A recent Virginia Republican primary in which the seven-term incumbent unexpectedly lost was the result of only five percent of the gerrymandered district’s voters actually voting.] The most committed, consistent voters are the conservative base of one party, who expect no compromise on issues of fiscal and social conservative ideology. In other words, moderation is too liberal.

Refusal to compromise might seem justified to these voters and those they vote for, but it undermines checks and balances by discarding the balance side of the equation. What is left is all checks all the time. This is a corruption of democracy that will eventually lead to its failure in fundamental ways. When there is no compromise, democracy ceases to functionally exist. Voter apathy combined with partisan gridlock makes reasonable, effective governance unlikely at best. The ancient Greeks had it all figured out.

Co-Existence Of The ‘Isms’

The premise is simple. Socialism cannot exist without capitalism, and capitalism without socialism undermines the greater good. It’s that simple…and should be obvious. Socialism is only possible with the tax revenues created by economic success, which requires capitalism. But maximum economic success under capitalism simultaneously creates inequity unless government implements public policy that redistributes sufficient wealth to ensure a minimum standard of quality of life for all citizens. Which is to say, a fundamental purpose of government is redistribution.

Equally important, the balance between capitalism and socialism is where political and societal conflict emerges between “conservatives” and “liberals,” terms that over-simplify the range of opinions regarding this balance. Economic inequity and social mobility have become the focus of discussions about this balance. Conservatives tend to deny there are issues here, in much the same way they deny human involvement in climate change. In both cases the scientific and economic data contradict the denial, which is inevitable given the reason for denial: ideology.

In the U.S., socialism is both misunderstood and the victim of conservative propaganda. This is unfortunate because it’s a critical part of any modern, industrialized nation. Socialism is public ownership, such as infrastructure and public education, but it’s also about societal expectations regarding the range of qualities of life for citizens. Where capitalism can’t or won’t help those who need it, socialism can and does. It also protects the rights and treatment of workers when capitalism fails to do so. Of course, socialism, like capitalism, can become too much of a good thing, with unsustainable costs and excessive involvement, but overall it makes the lives of citizens better. This is why the middle classes in industrialized countries with capitalism but greater socialism have done better than in the U.S.

Conservatives in this country support minimally regulated capitalism while holding socialism in disdain, essentially ignoring how much regulation is needed to reduce the excesses of capitalism while simultaneously ignoring the important role played by socialism in successful countries that combine the benefits of both. An obsessive focus on the individual and a lack of interest in the greater good represent an imbalance between capitalism and socialism that is actually undermining the overall economic viability (and thus quality of life) for a majority of citizens in this country. When 10 percent of the population has half the income and assets, and the other 90 percent share what remains, there is insufficient opportunity, social mobility and redistribution.

Of course, greater socialism means higher taxes to pay for it, but overall benefits to society are well worth it. For example, universal higher education and health care result in citizens who are more content because higher taxes prevent the amounts of debt for college/university degrees or health care common in the U.S. Retirement is also less likely to be a form of poverty that is all to common here. On the basis of economic size, the U.S. is not generating sufficient tax revenues as a percentage of gross domestic product. This is another failure of ideology replacing reality, in which conservatives fetishize lower taxes without regard to how little economic activity they create while simultaneously increasing deficits and debt. Cutting spending, the conservative “solution,” isn’t an answer when citizens expect and deserve the services, programs and benefits of a successful industrialized nation in the twenty-first century.

All of this demonstrates how far pragmatism is from ideological belief and opinion. To a pragmatist, capitalism isn’t better than socialism. An either-or mentality is pointlessly simplistic and unrealistic, although common to those with rigid approaches to complex issues. What is actually needed are realistic, viable goals plus what works to achieve them, even if that means revising and tweaking along the way. In the U.S. this is no longer politically possible.

The U.S. is an outlier when it comes to socialism. In other nations that combine the two “isms,” conservatives support capitalism but do not have problems with socialism (or with the taxes to pay for it). They focus on fiscal policy (interest rates, inflation, spending-to-revenue) and issues such as immigration. In these other industrialized countries, the greater good remains an overall priority in ways not shared here. We will increasingly come to regret this as inequity becomes more pervasive in the (for now) world’s richest economy. The individual will still be king, but a much poorer one in many ways.

Good Questions, Better Questions

The famous quote that an unexamined life is not worth living can (for me) lead to questions. A good question would be how does an examined life differ from an unexamined one. A better question could be how relevant is the meaning of life to living. The first one seeks to judge the relative quality or value of one’s life compared to the lives of others or other possible lives. The second asks whether examining one’s life for meaning serves any useful purpose. Often, I’m less interested in the answers than in the questions themselves, and I have something of a reputation for the kinds of questions I ask. I’m intensely curious, which can lead to questions less obvious, but with more interesting answers.

When it comes to navigating life intelligently, the quality of the questions one asks helps facilitate answers that are inherently likely to result in more desirable outcomes. Conversely, asking the wrong questions undermines effective problem-solving and successful decisions. Unlike optimists, who assume things will work out, and pessimists, who are perpetually doubtful, pragmatists ask questions in order to develop a reasonable, realistic point of view. Simply asking what could go wrong, which is different than the habitual negativity of a pessimist, avoids optimistic assumptions that any problems will be minimal and trivial.

I focus particularly on wrong questions. I don’t mean it’s wrong to ask these questions but rather that asking the wrong questions will easily result in the “wrong” answers. Here’s an example. I know someone who drives a small sport utility vehicle that’s getting old and starting to need repairs. Her favorite characteristic of this vehicle is that she sits up higher and has a better view of traffic. She’s thinking of getting the current version of her vehicle, which has better fuel efficiency, but is also interested in a hybrid because it’s greener in terms of carbon emissions. Her concern is that she will not have the same view of traffic in any hybrid she can afford. My response is that the most important (and thus best) question she needs to answer is about the driving experience itself. The wrong question is about greenness if there are no affordable (for her) hybrids with a higher seating view of the road.

Similarly, I think asking what are the best restaurants in a location away from home is also the wrong question. The problem is, not only does the term best mean little without greater specificity, it also depends on the criteria of the person you ask or the review you read. Plus, restaurants are an amalgam of qualities — food, bar, décor, menu, ambiance, servers and relative value. A better question would be to simply ask locals where they eat breakfast, lunch or dinner. They are going to know which places are their favorites and why, and then the details can be determined by cuisine and so on.

Problem-solving seems like it’s about finding solutions, but it’s really about asking good questions. If you were hiring a consultant to help you, what you’re paying for is the knowledge of what questions will reveal the best answers and information, which in turn lead to the optimal solution(s) or choice(s). Even though the details may differ, the process is what makes this work. Whether it’s looking for a new town to move to, a job/career change or what vehicle to purchase or lease, you’re really answering questions, so the key is asking the best ones.

As a lifelong pragmatist who is also a lifelong aficionado of questions, my pragmatic search for truth has been made more successful by asking questions that have the potential for revealing information I don’t know exists. It’s a process that reinforces the value of focusing on questions. This is actually a popular activity among curious people, with a lot of interesting questions and even more interesting answers on websites devoted to such exchanges.

One place to start is quora.com — devoted to many questions on many topics, with many answers. Register and you’ll get emails loaded with questions and snippets of answers to draw your curiosity. Many answers will be intelligent, insightful and interesting, but there are always clueless ranters who offer nothing of value, and those who clearly have not thought through what they post. Responders with open minds and broader perspectives are obvious, as are those (fewer in number) who have narrow points of view and rigid (typically conservative) opinions. All made possible by questions — some good, some better.

Different Routes, Same Destination

If philosophy is the attempt to know the knowable and theology is the attempt to know the unknowable, does this mean we understand the meaning of life? The short pragmatic answer is no, and the longer pragmatic answer is no, although some believe they have worked it all out. For me, the meaning of life is simply being alive, but that is insufficient for many…because not dying is the actual goal. You know…the body dies but we do not.

This fiction is represented by humans creatively devising a wide variety of improbable ways for it to occur, all on the assumption that this is a good thing. The goal, regardless of the means, is to live forever, a bizarre concept that simply sounds better than it is…if you really think about it. Yes, I know: but if I really die, I’ll no longer exist. My response is, so what. Existence is a result of awareness, and thus conversely an absence of awareness removes existence. Except for dreams, we spend a third of each day and of our lifetime not being aware of our existence, and even dreams can be very unreliable as awareness.

And how is living forever in some spiritual form something positive. I suggest that the concept of not dying has a fairy tale appeal that fails any actual analysis. It’s really about confusing the desire to survive and the functional reality that death is an essential component of life…at least biologically. In terms of evolutionary adaptation and reproduction — which is to say, species survival — living long enough to reproduce sufficiently to continue the species is really the end point. If it wasn’t for medical science, old age would be — if we were lucky — what we think of as middle age.

I remember as a child, when my mother was trying to instill some religious values into me (doomed to utter failure), I’d hear about going to heaven and sitting next to the hand of god. What…all of us? And doing what? If church was boring, what would heaven be like. As an adult, I can think of many metaphors for what heaven would have to be for it to be alluring in any way, but my pragmatic mind simply dismisses it all as daydreaming. There’s no point in pretending that what life has to offer us has anything to do with life ever after. It’s not even life. It’s death.

I will say that for those with religious inclinations, being sure you’re going to heaven is relatively harmless in the scheme of things even if it turns out not to be true. I mean, one will be dead and will never know. The only problem I have with this is that getting into heaven causes religious humans to lose sight of what is going on. Those who don’t realize the heaven-hell paradigm is meant to exert behavioral control will become fixated on the goal — avoiding hell, going straight to heaven — yet behave no better than others. As a pragmatist, it all appears so manipulative. Even at death’s door, one can accept [fill in the blank] and/or ask for forgiveness and, conveniently, no matter how horrid or depraved one was, heaven is suddenly available.

As you probably know, our ability to suspend disbelief is how we watch films and television and don’t become sarcastically derisive of the stories. But this has limits. If the writers lack sufficient skill, we become aware that the story arc is crap and our disbelief arises in indignation. That’s me about life after death. When I hear people actually say they look forward to reuniting with deceased relatives, friends and pets, I wonder at how they seem to actually believe it. Really? More than a billion people and who knows how many pets all milling about in heaven? I think it reasonable to be skeptical about the entire concept.

Despite those who insist that human behavior would be far worse without the belief that doing bad things is an express ticket to hell, the evidence is quite the opposite. Humans simply do not think in these terms, and if they do, it’s most often after, not before, they have had affairs, embezzled money, cheated to get ahead, killed someone in anger or whatever seemed justified at the time. Even then, not getting caught is the priority rather than wondering how to avoid dancing with the devil. Besides, they can always apologize and ask for forgiveness.

So my message is simple. Just because we are the only species that can contemplate death and also make assumptions about life after it (and what that might be), it doesn’t mean we should let it dictate our existence. Even if hundreds of millions believe in life after death or at least say they do, that’s not proof of anything. Simply ignoring heaven and hell, reincarnation and all the spiritual mumbo jumbo that is attached to the unknown and unknowable regarding what happens after death leaves more time and options for living. And living is something we know a lot about…or should.

A Caucus Of Reasonable Adults

The growing controversy over net neutrality seems obvious enough. Equal access to the Internet backbone and broadband carriers is fair and reasonable for both consumers-customers and content providers-online businesses, be they large and established or new and growing. Or is it? The seeming simplicity that is embraced by seemingly reasonable people may not convey the complexity of the issue and the details that are unknown, overlooked or ignored.

This post is a little about this particular issue and a lot about what constitutes reasonable. Regarding the issue, many want the cloud fiber network made into a public utility so that it would be governed with the same goal of universality that other fundamental utilities are. The argument that government regulation of this will make things worse is nice conservative rhetoric but demonstrably untrue. Other industrialized nations with much faster, more widely available broadband have achieved this through government policy and funding. In the U.S., investment in public infrastructure is so deficient that the American Society of Civil Engineers annually grades this infrastructure at a D. So the problem is spending money, not governance.

At the same time, consider just how much bandwidth is used by certain content providers. It’s estimated that just one, Netflix, uses up to 30 percent of available bandwidth for streaming video content, and it is only one of multiple providers sharing fiber optic pipes. As the amount of data packets grows exponentially, who is going to pay for the expansion of backbone and broadband capacity? How are these costs going to be recovered? Prioritization of data packet traffic is already allowed, but that will not begin to answer the longer term ramifications of this issue. For a very large percentage of the population and for business, the Internet is a fundamental part of daily life, making solutions far more than academic.

So, what is a reasonable solution? Dictionary definitions of reasonable include 1) not conflicting with reason, 2) not extreme or excessive, 3) moderate and fair. All in all, seemingly reasonable definitions. If only a caucus of reasonable adults could agree on what they mean for specific issues, such a net neutrality. The best starting place is to focus on the fundamental concern, because any solution likely to be agreed upon will by necessity have to address the central issue(s). In this case, it’s the concern that consumers with limited financial resources and start-up companies with limited funding will be unable to afford higher speed access that wealthier individuals and companies can easily pay for. Keep in mind that normal speed traffic will not be impeded or blocked, but may be prioritized (i.e., phone call data packets will have priority over, say, email data packets).

Equity and fairness show up in a wide variety of issues, with expectations that they will primary considerations. But while these concepts are widely supported in theory, in application they become more relative. When it comes to products and services, there can be wide pricing disparities in both because the financial resources of customers vary widely. Those who have more money have more choice. Be it special concierge services at theme parks or premium channels on cable or satellite, it’s understood and accepted that equity is determined by basic services and prices, not premium ones, and this is fair because the market will accommodate all levels of consumers to varying degrees. It would be unreasonable to expect everyone to be able to afford more expensive levels.

What matters most is that those who are poor or working poor still have access to basic levels of fundamental services, even if that means some form of subsidization. It’s not just about fairness but also about being vested in society. This may come in the form of subsidized rates that recognize low income circumstance or expanded availability in other ways, such as Internet access in libraries. In the twenty-first century, access to employment opportunities and college applications can be highly dependent on access to the Internet. To most people it seems reasonable to ensure this access through the use of tax revenues as needed. Some, however, consider any help from government to be a misuse of taxpayer money. These same people are often also equally hostile about taxes in general…and government.

It might seem highly unreasonable to expect governance without taxes to pay for it, but by definition this is dependent on perspective. The degree of trust or distrust of government is an example. Although anti-government opinion can be found in many countries, the American version is particularly negative because of the iconization of the individual over the greater good. A frontier mentality and obsession with self-reliance feed anti-government fervor and create a variety of odd manifestations, such as militias and survivalism. This anti-government sentiment can seem unreasonable to those who perceive government as the protector of citizens.

And this is the crux of the reasonable adults conundrum. Depending on the issue, expectations and opinions can range from pragmatic to dogmatic in the same individual. Many who expect government to protect their interests do not trust their cable television Internet service providers to do so. And these ISPs are well aware of how much their reputation for mediocre customer service and endlessly rising rates undermines public perception. At the same time, they are faced with higher fees from television networks and competition from online content providers who are taking up substantial amounts of ISP bandwidth. The costs for expanding and operating greater bandwidth have to be paid for, one way or another.

My inner pragmatist says that the first 25 years of the Internet cannot reasonably determine the years to come as data traffic rises. Unlike freeways, which can only be widened so much regardless of how much traffic there is, fiber optic networks can be expanded almost infinitely given the financial resources to do so. So it seems that premium-cost access to fatter pipes is all but inevitable, and reasonable. At the same time, I’m also pragmatic enough to know that many would consider this unreasonable and just another example of how much inequity has become embedded in our society. Unfortunately, resolving inequity in the U.S. isn’t about net neutrality but rather systemic issues that are political, economic and societal. We will survive without net neutrality as it exists now, but we may not survive persistent inequity.

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