Monday’s Mtg: The Causes of Modern Wars

People have debated the causes of war for as long as they have been fighting them. Since Middle East madness is on the front news burner, I thought it might be useful for us to discuss some of the basic thinking on what causes political violence and warfare and whether they are waxing or waning, and whether those factors might be joined by new ones in the 21st century.

In modern times, most attention has been paid to the causes and dynamics of inter-state wars, wars between nations. I am not very familiar with this body of work. Much of it either is in in books or gated at academic sites or the major national security-oriented journals. But, it’s not hard to guess the basic culprits they identify, like nationalism, imperialism, religion, resource acquisition, etc. Other factors they debate are more subtle, especially those that have to do with the dynamics of international alliances, globalization’s effects, and aggressor states’ internal political struggles. As the links this week indicate, new factors could come into play, notably climate stress and reactions against globalization’s further disruptions, and more failed states.

I will open the meeting with…very little this week. You all know your history and I don’t know this field of scholarship. So, I guess I’ll just introduce the topic and highlight a few of the “new” factors that might be added to the classic causes of war we all can list. In discussion, we can either stay abstract or debate particular hot spots where we all expect trouble to brew in the coming decades.

It was very hard to find good links this week, due to the books and pay walls problem. Try the recommended ones or the harder, optional ones.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week: Big Agriculture in the USA.

Monday’s Mtg: How Will Technology Change the World of Work (the Robots mtg)?

We’ve previously discussed how 21st century technological breakthroughs might alter the future of work in the Unit4ed States. In November 2013 I had us devote an evening to the “Great Stagnation” theory. This is the idea that we are entering a long (multi-decade)period of slower economic growth, flat wages and stalled prosperity.

The Great Stagnation, it is alleged, will be caused in part because the next few decades are unlikely to witness any truly transformative technological breakthroughs. The big, basic technological innovations that powered us into the modern world, like the railroad and telephone, are behind us now this theory says.  And, sometimes in human history decades can go by between major leaps in technology.

This week, we’re going to look at kind of the opposite argument, and its possible downside. What if artificial intelligence and other automation technologies finally reach the stage where they can replace a huge share of the jobs people now hold?  What if robots come to replace human workers on a very large scale, and not just for low-skilled, repetitive tasks, but thinking and problem solving jobs? What will our kids do for a living and how will it transform society?

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. What is the evidence that the “New Machine Age is dawning? Is it looming, or bunk?
  2. Who will it dawn for? Which industries and which jobs?
  3. Who will be made better off and worse off? What are the trade-offs?
  4. Can/should anything be done to hasten or prevent this transformation?
  5. If it comes, what kind of government policies will be appropriate? Libertarian policies (see links) or more social insurance and government support for workers?
  6. History: What can we learn from past instances of revolutionary labor-saving technology? Please answer without using the word Luddite.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

The Robots are coming –

  • Machines soon will take many more of our jobs – and maybe be a Libertarian’s dream come true. A must-read.
  • Another optimistic view (Wired Magazine).
  • Optional:
    • Short: A 14-minute TED talk gives ABCs of robots-R-coming issue.
    • Long but thorough analysis of whether we should be worried about this, from MIT Technology Review Magazine)

Rebuttals

Next Week: The Causes and Sociology of Modern Wars.

Monday’s Mtg: Assessing Bill Clinton’s Presidency

By my count, Bill Clinton – our 42nd president and possible future First Gentleman – will be the seventh presidency our group has evaluated. We’ve done Jackson, Wilson, Lyndon Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, and Obama’s first term. We also debated the best and worst presidents and the power of the office itself. The topic of George W. Bush’s tenure may have come up a few times, too, but my mind’s a blank.

We already know that Bill Clinton never will be on Mount Rushmore. He fought no major American wars nor battled any terrible economic catastrophes. He had to share power with his Republican tormentors and with some conservative Democrats. So, he spent most of his presidency compromising and triangulating. Conservatives despised him and progressives distrusted him.

Yet, Bill Clinton’s presidency was a consequential one. Moreover, he left office still popular, scholars are ranking him in the top 10 all-time presidents (!) these days, and his wife is running implicitly on a platform to bring back her husband’s era’s widely-shared prosperity. I also think we need to rethink Clinton’s presidency in light of 14 years of post-Bill perspective.

As I indicated last meeting, I will open Monday by listing the major accomplishments, good and bad, of President Bill Clinton. Then, I’ll take a brief stab at providing some context I think might be helpful to us in evaluating his presidency (and, maybe his wife’s?)

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. What was Clinton elected to do? What did he promise to do?
  2. Achievements: What was accomplished during the Clinton years in terms of:
    • Domestic policy,
    • Foreign policy,
    • Politics (building an enduring political movement and coalition)?
  3. Evaluating him:
    • Context: How were the domestic and international contexts within which he operated different from todays?
    • Credit: Does Clinton deserve all of the credit/blame for these achievements, or do others share both?
    • Standards: By what standards was Clinton judged at the time? How might those standards be different today?
  4. So, how good or bad a president was Bill Clinton?
  5. Any lessons for how Hillary would or should govern if elected?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week: Cry, Robot. Will technology revolutionize the nature of work?

Topic Ideas Needed

Let me have any ideas for topics for June, July, and August.  Put in comments, or email or call me or catch me at next week’s mtg.

Also, I need two warm bodies for the topics committee, which will convene in late May or so.

Monday’s Mtg: What Is Intelligence?

Bruce will moderate this meeting. I think it is a good topic for integrating science with our personal experiences. So many libraries have been filled with books on what intelligence is that I wasn’t sure where t start. So, some of the links below are via Bruce and others are ones I found. My impression is that Bruce is particularly interested in some theories of concerning intelligence that some of us might find controversial. Politics is everywhere.

I’ll see you all Monday night

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. What are the major theories of intelligence? Are there different kinds of intelligence? Or, is there just one intelligence (a G factor) and we see different aspects of it?
  2. How do they measure intelligence? How accurate are the tests? What are they really measuring?
  3. Variability: How does intelligence vary between people and across cultures?   Why do IQ levels in a society tend to rise over time (the Flynn effect)?
  4. How does intelligence change as we age?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week: Bill Clinton: How good a president was he?

Updated Philosophical Minds Schedule

The schedule for Gary’s group is now updated through July, thanks to Fil.  See the Philosophical Minds tab.

Monday’s Mtg: The Sermon On the Mount – What Does It Mean?

I’ve been wanting to talk about the Sermon on the Mount for a while. No matter what your religious views, this sermon by Jesus as chronicled in Matthew 5-7 arguably is the most influential ever recorded utterance by a human being. I think it’s commonplace to say that the Sermon on the Mount is the core statement of Christian values and Jesus’ main guidance to Christians on how to live and act. I feel that our group’s discussions of religion are always at arm’s length. We focus on historical and structural factors that influence the action of religious people, but never on their actual avowed beliefs. So, this should be interesting.

But, very hard. They’ve been debating what Jesus meant in his sermons for 2,000 years, obviously. Even the simple, straightforward language of the Sermon on the Mount gets complicated in the interpreting. Opinions differ even on who Jesus’s advice was meant for, much less what he meant. It will help us to know a bit about the historical context of Jesus’ ministry and when and how and by whom the Gospels were written. But, no one “knows” for sure what Jesus meant in every respect, of course.  Differences in interpreters’ denomination and faiths lead to different interpretations, too.

What could we ever add to all that? I propose we all start by reading the Sermon on the Mount. It is not long and I’ll bet some of us never have red it or haven’t in years. Beyond that, I’ve found a little bit on the historical context of the Jesus movement and the world he lived in.  And, I’m going to skim through a book I once red on the subject, What Jesus Meant, by the Catholic historian Gary Wills. (See links for a review of it).

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. What is the Sermon on the Mount? Who wrote it (in Matthew) and what’s in it?  How sure are we that it is faithful to what Jesus said?
  2. Context: How does knowing the historical context of the Sermon help us to understand what was meant; e.g., the Jewishness of both Jesus and his audience, conditions in ancient Israel, etc.?
  3. Meaning:
    1. Was it meant to be taken literally, or does it use figures of speech?
    2. Was it presenting a minimum requirement, or a picture of perfection?
    3. Were its commands timeless, or for a specific period?
    4. Did it extend the Law of Moses, or entirely replace it?
    5. Was it for everyone, or only a chosen group?
  4. Politics: Is there a political message? Was Jesus a political revolutionary, or is that inaccurate?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week:  What Is Intelligence?

Monday’s Mtg: The Founding Fathers’ View of Government’s Powers.

This one was Bruce’s idea. I love it, but I would add a second part to it: Why should the Founders’ vision of the appropriate powers of government still matter to us? The latter is a very important question, IMO, not because I think their views no longer should matter but because I think they do. Conservatives often say we that (1) the Constitution strictly limits government to a size and scope far smaller than it is currently and that many of the federal government’s functions should be returned to the states as the Constitution “intended; and (2) we are bound to follow their recipe for government’s power and reach in perpetuity. IMO, it’s a No or at best a highly-qualified Yes-but to both. First, the Founders clearly believed that future generations of Americans could and should be allowed to think for themselves. That’s why they created a republic in the first place.  Therefore, as some of the Founders said explicitly, the Constitution allows us to adapt governmental powers as long as doing so remains faithful to fulfilling the document’s purposes.  Second, 225 years of applying the Constitution provides us knowledge and perspectives the Founders just did not have.  So, of course we need to, for example, regulate commerce and protect privacy in ways they did not foresee.

But, conservatives have an important point. The Founders created the Constitution to be above and a priori to law and politics. Under it, the people are sovereign and governments’ powers are limited. The Constitution also separates powers between different branches and levels of government in some cases.  The document does bound government’s functions and reach and the Constitution cannot mean whatever today’s exigencies and show of hands say it means.

So, what are we to discuss, exactly, in this fascinating but broad topic? I don’t know about Bruce, but I think we should start by asking ourselves why the Founders wanted to limit government’s power and whether those reasons still make sense in the modern world.  That does not give us our topic’s answer, but it’s a good start.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Why did the Founders create the Constitution? What problems were they most worried about?
  2. How did the Constitution expand and limit government’s powers? How revolutionary and democratic was it, really?
  3. Did they intend these limits on the size and scope of government to be permanent?
  4. To what extent should we in 2015 be bound by the Founders’ understanding of governments’ proper powers and organization?
  5. What rules should guide us on judging what is permitted change and what is not?  Is there a way to interpret the Constitution’s meaning that takes both original intent and the needs of a modern United States into account?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week:  The Sermon On the Mount.

Monday’s Mtg at NEW LOCATION: Why Are So Many Rhetorically-Valued Jobs So Low-Paying?

This will be a meeting of transitions for Civilized Conversation. We start a new life at a new location – The Village Café, 10415-B Mission San Diego Road. (Coco’s closed suddenly, as have dozens of their locations around the country.) Also, this will be Zelekha’s last CivCon meeting! She’s off to NYC to seek her fortune and/or get involved in some of the issues that we just sit around talking about. Good luck, Z. Thanks for the venue, Filip.

It is Z.’s topic idea on Monday, too. We have discussed the problem of low wages in the United States several times. See here, for example. We’ll do so again on May 18, when we ponder the effects technological change might have on the future world of work (I’m calling it our robots meeting).

Zelekha wants us to focus Monday on a specific type of poorly-paid work and its seeming paradox. Why do so many of our society’s most rhetorically-valued jobs pay so little? For example, a lot of jobs that involve taking care of the sick or the very old or the very young pay dirt wages: Home health care workers, nursing home staff, day care center and in-home child care workers. (Of course, some such jobs pay better, like police officer, firefighter, and soldier.  But, why)  Some other jobs may not exactly be respected, but we all recognize their importance to the public good: Food handlers, cyber security types, security guards, etc., and some of them certainly pay poorly. Why is this, Zelekha asks?

The usual answers get at a part of the truth, in my opinion, but are not the whole answer. Based on my experience, conservatives tend to cite these three factors:

  1. Low productivity: Low wage jobs – even some we admire – add little monetary value to an employer so they pay little;
  2. Supply and demand: Wage rates are determined by employers’ demand for labor and the number of qualified applicants, and by nothing more; and
  3. Immigration: Allowing in so many low-skill immigrants puts downward pressure on wages in those jobs. (not all conservatives cite immigration)

Liberals, IMO, tend to cite these three:

  1. Power disparities: Many low-wage workers are worth more than they get paid but lack the bargaining power to demand what they deserve; and
  2. Power similarities: Low-wage workers often are employed by other people of modest means, especially in child and elder care;
  3. Social value:  there is a lot of social value-added in rhetorically-high-valued jobs which is not captured by labor markets, and it should be (or at least, government should compensate the workers for that social benefit if businesse can’t/won’t).

I’m no expert, but I know a bit about such things, especially the ways that people over simplify the above arguments. So, I will open with a brief overview of these points-of-view. Then, the usual: We’ll have a nice 2-hour debate and then trash the place. (Kidding, Filip.)

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Which jobs are “rhetorically-valued but low-paid?” Jobs helping the elderly or children? Jobs protecting the public? Dangerous/unpleasant but someone’s got to do them jobs? What do these jobs pay? Do some pay reasonably well (e.g., police/firefighters)?
  2. In general, what factors determine how well jobs pay? In theory? In real life? Are the factors different for the low-wage jobs we’re talking about here?
  3. Do some of these jobs have social value beyond their market value? How do we know that and who should determine the value-added?
  4. What do governments in the USA currently do to assist low-paid workers; e.g., minimum wage, earned income tax credit?
  5. Could/should more be done to either (a) raise these wages or (2) support these people’s incomes? In general v. sector-specific? Pros v. cons.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING – (I went a little crazy. So prioritize.)

In general –

Specific jobs that we rhetorically value –

Causes and Solutions –

Solutions (?)

Next Week: How Did the Founding Fathers Envision Government’s Powers?  (Bruce’s idea)

We’ve Changed Locations – 1.5 Miles Away from Coco’s

Coco’s closed suddenly last week.  Thanks to Desiree and all the other wait staff that helped us out all of these years. Luckily, we already have a new home, and it’s just over a mile away from Coco’s.  A brand new member of CivCon, Filip, has volunteered the café he owns, the Village Café.  It’s the same spot where Gary’s Philosophical Minds club meets on Tuesdays, so it comes highly recommended.  We will stay with Monday nights.  Here are the details.

  • Monday nights at 7pm – 9pm, same as before.
  • The Village Café, 10415-B San Diego Mission Road, San Diego.  It’s also in the Grantville area, 1.4 miles south and west from the old Coco’s as the Google flies.
  • We will have the entire café to ourselves!
  • Map and directions from Coco’s.

Thank you, Filip!

UPDATE:

  • Parking:  Should be ample in front of the cafe, but if not two driveways west there’s overflow parking in the back of the San Diego Teachers Association.
  • Directions:  Take I-15 to the Friars turnoff and go east, just like to go to Coco’s.  But, before you get to Coco’s, turn Right (south) onto Rancho Mission Road.  Then, after what looks on Google Maps like 5 intersections but maybe is less, turn right onto San Diego Mission Road and The Village Café is on your left at 10415-B.  Lost?  The Cafe’s phone number is 619-528-4556
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