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Needing To Know…Or Not

I’ve occasionally mentioned my wife, an attractive, intelligent senior executive whose pragmatism is pretty close to mine. Even though she was a cheerleader in high school, many of her friends were geeks, a fact she reminded me of on the occasion of telling me I was something of a geek. Mind you, something is the operative word and I have high-functioning social skills. So it was a surprise after sharing with her the first episode of the new version of Carl Sagan’s famous series Cosmos, this time with Neil deGrasse Tyson, to hear her say to me, why does anyone need to know this stuff. I was at a rare loss for words.

How could my pragmatic wife, who likes geeks, even ask such a question. As I considered this, I heard myself explaining that knowing the history of our universe, our solar system and our planet puts everything in perspective and explains so much. She agreed this may be true, but it wasn’t necessary for her to know or care about any of it. It wasn’t knowledge she actually needed. Not needing it, I noted, assumes that the concepts inherent in this knowledge don’t provide a valuable matrix upon which to place life’s issues and big questions. Ignorance, superstition and mysticism are not going to do better.

One of the differences between us is that I am extremely curious. She’s noted many times that I have more questions than anyone she’s ever known. “Your poor mother.” Hmm…how are questions a bad thing.

The phrase “there are no stupid questions” is meant to encourage learning. The same can be said regarding the quantity of questions. Some of us are more curious than others, and others lack curiosity at a level I find hard to understand. It won’t be surprising that I share website links via email (I never use share links on web sites) if I think someone I know will find a topic interesting or helpful. But I’m highly selective when doing so. I consider whether the potential value justifies sharing — a lot of information is of dubious value, if only for its triviality.

Here’s an example of information that, to me, meets the trivial threshold: It is estimated that each year the world’s population produces 6.4 trillion liters (1.65 trillion gallons) of urine. Of course, it’s possible that this information might be useful to someone, and it turns out that when urine flows through microbial fuel cells, it can create sufficient current to charge mobile device batteries. So it might be possible to use this technology in undeveloped parts of the world without electricity. But, otherwise, not really information anyone else has need of. Which is to say, the value of information is largely its context, and context should determine both our world view and how we interact with that world.

Information is life blood for pragmatists. It forms the basis of the search for truth, for determining reality and for problem solving. Even life’s most profound questions can have answers in information. Finding, sorting through and synthesizing conclusions from information is the challenge. Hence the need for questions, which lead to answers and then more questions. My inherent skepticism of religion from a young age was confirmed — for me — by everything from cosmology and physics to evolutionary biology and plate tectonics. There was no place for a deity or prayer, particularly when it turned out the whole genesis story was a retelling of the same story of creation from other preceding cultures.

Which brings us back to deciding what we need to know. Suppose we change need to want — because need is really the expression of want. One can want information to learn how to do something, but one can also want information to understand something…anything…and thus create more context. If you look at the fundamental premise of this blog, found in About at the top of this page, it’s really about how everything is relative to everything else — a huge context matrix. Whether it’s the meaning of life, keeping secrets, making realistic choices, solving difficult problems or whatever, context is a fundamental factor. We apply context so often we don’t even think about it.

And this was my point to my wife about the knowledge in the Cosmos series. It provides context on a vast scale upon which we can see ourselves and our relationships to everything else. Scale and relativity give us perspective. Years ago a close friend, a professor at MIT, noted how the students arriving there were the smartest fish in their high school ponds, but now found themselves surrounded by many equally smart or smarter fish in the much bigger MIT pond. This realization and the consequent adjustments to it provided a life-changing lesson in scale, relativity and sense of self.

Not everyone likes or can accept a pragmatic viewpoint. They prefer political ideology or religious dogma, which start with answers and then apply them to life without context. The attraction is certainty of principles and values, but the unacknowledged flaw is how meaningless the “answers” are without context. And the lack of nuance and balance so essential to reality make these answers even less relevant. In the real world, ignorance is not actually bliss but instead intellectual failure with negative consequences. The only way to know what one needs to know is by wanting information first and then being open to what it might say to us about our own contexts.

Cultural Nostalgia

In my journey to two degrees in history, I covered a wide variety of topics in many areas, from global and regional to national and local. I was less interested in political and economic aspects, more interested in social and cultural ones, and focused particularly on urban history — the history of cities. The focus was on large cities and metropolitan regions, but also small towns and villages. The evolution and growth of cities is tied directly to invention, innovation, technology, the arts and finance. And cities are cultural transformers, creating megalopolises of urban and suburban that represent higher education, higher income and higher expectations. Eighty percent of Americans live in metropolitan regions.

It’s not news that those who live in these areas tend to be more liberal relative to those who live away from them. It’s not unusual to see cities mapped in purple or blue surrounded by large areas mapped in red. To those outside of them, cities have a centuries-old reputation as places where human behavior and activity are marginal at best and in contradiction to religious values. Pick any socio-cultural topic that is in political contention, and the most conservative opinions will be most prevalent in rural areas and towns. Non-conformists have long found their home in cities.

Earlier this year I noted (Getting It Done — March 13 2014) that cities are well ahead of the federal government and many state governments in getting problems solved. Mayors keep their jobs by making sure the programs, services and assistance residents want and need are in place and functioning. This pragmatism ignores political party lines, and might be deemed “liberal” by the ever-unhappy far right — social conservatives in particular. Unlike some fiscal conservatives, who can be social moderates or even liberal on some issues, social conservatives have an overwhelming cultural nostalgia that wants to push back against all the changes that have invariably emanated from cities.

From diversity to individuality, cities are engines of cultural change in a country with vast areas of rural culture that is largely hostile to this change. This conflict may ebb and flow, but slowly and inevitably — particularly now with the Internet and cable-satellite television — change seeps even into places that are the most resistant to it. The result is anger and political rhetoric about taking back the country and saving “religious freedom.” This is a fundamental consequence with nostalgia in general and cultural nostalgia in particular. Both are distortions of reality, selectively remembering the past and creating its mythology while emotionally rejecting changes since then…whenever then might be.

By definition, nostalgia is tied to individual age. As people get older, some develop a predilection for nostalgic romanticism. Despite all evidence pointing to things being better overall now, there’s a persistent belief that things were better, and simpler, in the past (an amorphous term that lacks specificity or context). This was made obvious in a recent piece I read in which the author noted that thanks to cable and the Internet, dozens of television shows from the 50s, 60s and so on were easily available, but rarely worth more than an occasional cursory viewing. From simplistic plots and dialogue to inconsistent acting, these nostalgic “classics” are neither better than nor often even as good as what has come to us more recently. It’s fun for a little while, and then it isn’t…or shouldn’t be.

The comments by readers were a combination of selective agreement and pushback. Yes, many shows had not aged well, but there were exceptions — a demonstration of it depends who you ask. These less hip, less ironic, simpler and almost innocent programs are apparently a pleasant reprieve from the past for many of a certain age demographic. What I found myself contemplating was all the actors who are now dead and only still in our cultural awareness because of the interest in these sitcoms and dramas from decades long gone. Otherwise, fame (and wealth) does not change the long-term outcome of eventual obscurity. This is part of cultural change, of course, realizing that even those who are the least anonymous are easily forgotten with the passage of time.

Nostalgia for the past and hostility toward change are both highly misguided in that the former will not bring back the past and the latter will not stop change. In other words, neither is going to alter reality. The notion that life was somehow better and simpler in some previous era of human existence is simply without merit. The quality of life overall is vastly better for more people now than it has ever been, be it a century or a decade ago. The quality of one’s personal life may vary with time for many reasons — real or perceived, but this is not a reflection on changing society and culture or the fault of cities and misplaced values.

The roots of nostalgia are not a mystery. Change brings anxiety, unfamiliarity and new challenges. Things become more complicated, information increases in volume and job skills evolve in scope and complexity. Cultural signposts — language, entertainment, trends — are constant reminders of change. The pace and amount of change may be greater than they used to be, but change itself has always been there. The stereotype of increasing age bringing increasing resistance to change is not without merit, but depends on a variety of variables. Phrases by the nostalgic about moral collapse and loss of values are not new, just more widely seen and heard thanks to the 24/7 world of news and social media.

As an historian, I put things in perspective by training. As a pragmatist, I do the same by nature. Cultures evolve as combinations of what has come before melded with what is here and now — over and over, again and again. Not everyone is up for this, and they want to stop what can’t be stopped and reverse what can’t be reversed. Nostalgia for the past is really about when the future was ahead of them and they were going to own it. Now they are older, the future is their past and others who aren’t like them are taking their place. These transitions are rarely easy, but they are inevitable. It’s a pragmatic truth.

Doing Nothing

Governance is not just about government. It actually applies to any organization — profit or not-for-profit, institutions such as museums, universities and libraries, religious organizations and charities, and so on. Essentially, it’s about the establishment of policies and continuous monitoring of their proper implementation. In other words, the rule of the rulers within a given set of rules. It’s not unreasonable to expect governance to be rational and practical. Ironically, this does not always — or even often — occur in government, particularly in the legislative branch

The primary source of the dysfunction of governance that plagues legislatures, most notably the federal branch, is politics combined with large numbers of elected members. For governance to be rational and practical, it has to take place within an assumption that the greater good is a commonly held goal, and that points of view have to be sufficiently malleable that consensus can be reached and laws passed — to then be signed by the executive branch and implemented. The results are not perfect and may have flaws that need later correction, but governance takes place because issues are addressed.

A working assumption is that when legislators are a problem, voters will make changes in who is elected to office. Yes, I know…Civics 101. And yet, with mid term elections just a few months away, and the federal legislature having done so little while creating so much endless drama, there is no compelling reason to expect meaningful changes. It is true that some of the most extreme candidates were not successful in their primary campaigns, but it’s questionable how much (if any) moderation this will create when there are still sufficient numbers of those with extreme opinion and no interest in compromise who can and will prevent governance from occurring.

Democracy is messy, with its greatest redeeming value being that it’s better than the alternative. But messy should not mean ineffective or non-functioning. Even many within Congress are noting that the institution is not working and no problems are being solved. Being part of the solution or part of the problem takes on greater meaning. The larger problem becomes not just the issues that aren’t resolved in practical ways but the cumulative effect of this. The decline of nations is often the slow degradation of their governance.

While it’s true that only voters can fix this, the voters who are wise enough to understand the need for moderation and problem solving are not necessarily the voters who regularly show up to vote or vote by mail. It’s the voters who are least informed and least moderate who are committed to candidates and incumbents who are least qualified to govern. Moderate voters are more intelligent in knowing that compromise and consensus are fundamental to the functions of democracy, but perhaps insufficiently committed to voting. Of course, gerrymandered districts simultaneously corrupt democracy while allowing fringe incumbents to remain in office despite doing nothing of value…and nothing at all.

I’m a pragmatist. I know there’s not much that will simply turn around doing nothing, at least not right now. But motivation is coming. The Republican party is tired of losing elections they might have won except for far-right candidates in their party, and business is tired of being the target of these candidates and seeing government and economic stability threatened by tea party zealots. The party elite and business leaders are fine with moderates and compromise. The party base has finally proved to be the liability it was always going to become. Demographics are also changing, and white males are destined to become a minority who will not be easily elected by the coming voters unless they move back toward the center.

Corrections in political excess and dysfunction eventually take place. It’s not efficient nor is it timely, but it does happen. As an historian by training if not profession, I can point with confidence to how the movement from political center to left or right and then back the other way has happened many times. It takes cultures time to adjust to progress, and there can be regression, but in the long run the overall result is more liberal (open-minded), less conservative. If the Republican party hadn’t foolishly embraced the most conservative as its base, the degree of partisan gridlock and acrimony would never have come to where it is, with nothing getting done and the conservative base just fine with it. They are fools in every sense of the word.

And Now, The Weather

When I was in college here in SoCal, I had a fascinating summer class taught by a professor from the University of Hawaii on regional climatology. It was just for fun (I was a history major) and brought into focus the many aspects of climatology and its effects on both the history of the earth and human history. The most important takeaway was and is that the complexity of weather exists both at a global level and at regional levels, with microclimates within the latter. The effects of everything from atmospheric gases to amounts of light or dark areas on the earth’s surface to the persistence of cloud (or volcanic ash) cover all interact in complex ways.

That was decades ago, and since then the power of computers and the complexity of weather models have increased exponentially. And climatology remains just as important as it always has both for the planet and for the life on it within the thin biosphere from ocean bottom to outer edges of the surrounding atmosphere. Historical climatology demonstrates how profoundly climate can alter life on the planet, including extinctions on massive scales. The Gaia theory posits that plants and animals can alter the composition of the atmosphere by their existence and activities, which can enhance or impair their survival over time depending on their adaptability.

We now live in the (informally named) Anthropocene period, indicating the results of the existence and activities of humans on the planet and its weather. Humans are a very recent development, mere minutes at the end of the last day of the year if a calendar year represents the history of the universe and this planet. You can see where this is going. Those with interests in science have been contemplating the effects of mankind on the earth since at least the 16th century, when humans numbered in the mid hundreds of millions, not billions. If there’s anything we’ve learned from the various disciplines of science that didn’t even exist that long ago, it’s that seemingly small changes can have subtle but cumulative effects over time.

The war on science has always existed. Be it evolution, contraception or climatology, when science meets religion, belief or special interests, the intellectual progress of humans comes to an abrupt halt. My inherently pragmatic response to new information is to reconsider and rethink what it means, and I find it incomprehensible why anyone wouldn’t do the same. After all, the alternative of ignoring information makes no sense, particularly when the amount of information is huge and highly regarded.

When it comes to climatology, there are so many interrelationships that it’s hardly surprising the cumulative effect is so significant. If small changes can have long-term consequences, large changes have even greater impact. For example, as ocean water becomes warmer it contains fewer nutrients, which in turn mean fewer plankton, the tiny creatures that represent a fundamental food source for the biological pyramid above them. Plankton are also an inhibitor of carbon dioxide. With reduced masses of plankton, there is increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This is just one example among many. Those individuals most resistant to the influence of humans on climate change are also the least likely to have knowledge of the details and what the long-term effects will be.

Which brings us to opinion as truth. Truth is not a matter of opinion unless there is either insufficient evidence (who, what, where, when and, often the most difficult, why) or credible questions regarding the evidence. Even then, opinion is not actually truth but rather related to the evidence itself. The evidence determines truth. For example, is the climate changing? Yes. The is true and not in dispute. What does the evidence say regarding cyclical climatology versus climatological change driven by human activities? More than 97 percent of climatologists agree that humans are driving the scale and rapidity of the changes.

We have comparative climate data for hundreds of thousands of years to use in gauging current levels and rates of change, and the current numbers far exceed historical data. The conclusion seems inescapable…unless one has reasons for not wanting to accept this reality — and these reasons are neither science nor scientific. They are, instead, about agendas and special interests and ideology and simple denial. For this pragmatist, there is no truth in any of these. The war on science has always been truth versus those who want the world to be a certain way regardless of how it really is.

It comes down to this. What needs to be done, should be done, can be done to slow down climate change remains controversial and contentious even when there is agreement that doing nothing is not a viable option. Reversal of climate change is also not an option. The challenges for those who will be living with climate change consequences later in this century will only be made worse by how little is done now. Pragmatism is about truth — not necessarily optimism, and the truth is that the twenty-first century may determine much about the quality of life on earth for a very long time.

Staying Tethered To Reality

The daily news contains a rather long list of depressing stories, some far worse than others, involving the deaths of dozens, hundreds or sometimes even thousands of innocent people — innocent in that they were going about their lives, not fighting in wars, uprisings or rebellions. As a result, we sometimes have a collective reaction both for the lost individuals and for how perhaps it could be us someday. The details of these events differ, with some being accidental whereas others are clearly the result of malevolent intent. We make the distinction because we believe the why matters as much as the how.

These distinctions don’t change the results of what happened, but may distort both short- and long-term perspectives. The mourning of loss can be an individual experience or it can be a collective one (sometimes including societal expectations of participation). For the former it may be devastating and life-changing; for the latter it can be shared emotions, but with the potential for becoming culturally intrusive, even obsessive. Over the centuries some cultures and societies have suffered far more loss than others — most often from war, but sometimes disease or terrorism of some form. Yet, again, the results are the same regardless of how and why.

The U.S. has largely been spared significant collective loss and grief, partly a result of geography, but also because losses from war in the last two centuries have taken place elsewhere — with the exception of the civil war in the 1860s. Events such as assasination of a president can trigger collective grief, but these are rare. What we do have now is 9/11, which has taken on a life of its own for many, and is now memorialized with a tower of a precise height to match the numerical year of the country’s founding. The horrific deaths of 3000 innocent people is, of course, a tragedy, but more than ten times that many people in the U.S. die each year in traffic accidents, and the annual number worldwide is ~1.3 million.

The reality is that most people in developed countries will live relatively long lives. Participation in higher risk outdoor activities has the potential to change the odds, but even these do not make much of a statistical dent in longevity. Lifestyles matter as well, with moderation increasing lifespans for many. But longevity is not the only measure. Quality of life also matters to us, and we tend to generalize about having good health, career, family, friends and things we enjoy. Taken as a whole, lying awake at night worrying about all that can go wrong — and kill us or loved ones, isn’t a desirable use of sleep time (an exception could be serious illness).

We should, of course, care about the why of death, holding those accountable for doing things that result in the killing of others. However, while the existence of consequences may have some effect in preventing such behaviors, a pragmatic overview says that consequence as deterrent has distinct limitations thanks to the perversities of human nature. Those with agendas may even create their own consequences, such as the individuals responsible for 9/11, who were driven by political and religious zealotry to do what they did while dying in the process. Despite all of this, the odds against becoming a victim remain remarkably in our favor.

Focusing too much on these events distorts perspective and balance. Collective mourning, assuming it’s actually necessary and appropriate, should be relatively brief. Life truly is for the living, and the normalcy of day-to-day existence should be celebrated and embraced. Daily life may feel mundane and even banal at times, but it clearly is what keeps us grounded in reality. Erecting memorials so we “never forget” may seem noble, but time will erase much, if not most, of what was so emotionally real for those living at the time. Even when culturally embedded, these events mean less and less to more and more with each passing generation.

Want proof? Pick any national holiday and note what percentage of the population actually makes it a day of remembrance. Individuals and families with direct connections to the purpose of the holiday may focus on this, but for most people it will be about deciding what to do on a day off or with a long weekend. Which may be of equal value. In many ways, the barbecues, picnics and three-day road trips are celebrations of life, and living. And that’s the pragmatic reality.

If you’re one of those individuals who wants to find the meaning of life and death, enjoy the search, but don’t be surprised if you ultimately discover the meaning of life when seeing yourself in the mirror or looking at your significant other, spending time with children or with friends, watching a favorite sport or being immersed in a hobby, seeing a good film or reading a great book. I haven’t written about it in a long time, but the zen approach of being in the moment and finding your happiness in life in many small things remains great wisdom.

As for death…well, it’s possible to contemplate it from every perspective and point of view and still end up back at the beginning, recognizing that it’s really just part of reality and therefore of living. As a pragmatist, I can tell you what it’s not about. Death is not about fairness. And death is random for a long list of reasons. We may place judgement on the how, when and why, but the pragmatic reality is that the end result is still the same. Experience the emotions but stay tethered to reality.

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 $600,000m. 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.

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