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).
- 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?
- 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.?
- Was it meant to be taken literally, or does it use figures of speech?
- Was it presenting a minimum requirement, or a picture of perfection?
- Were its commands timeless, or for a specific period?
- Did it extend the Law of Moses, or entirely replace it?
- Was it for everyone, or only a chosen group?
- Politics: Is there a political message? Was Jesus a political revolutionary, or is that inaccurate?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Wikipedia entry briefly explains Sermon on the Mount’s basic content, historical context, and schools of thought on what it all means.
- Full text: Read one.
- The much shorter Sermon on the Plain, from Luke. The “social gospel” believers are very big on this one.
- We know very little about the historical Jesus.
- A few commentaries I found, FWIW:
- The importance of the “Jewishness” of the Sermon on the Mount and of Jesus’ challenge to Judaism. (A Jesuit site) Recommended.
- Via Lace: A pastor she loves has a series of podcasts on the meaning of the Sermon on the Mount. Some good history and context in, for example, this one and this one..
- Book I read, What Jesus Meant: Reviewed at Slate and by the NYT. NYT piece recommended.
- Political uses: President Obama has invoked the Sermon on the Mount as a statement of progressive values.
Next Week: What Is Intelligence?
The schedule for Gary’s group is now updated through July, thanks to Fil. See the Philosophical Minds tab.
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 alter 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 did not have, so, of course we need, for example, to 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 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
- Why did the Founders create the Constitution? What problems were they most worried about?
- How did the Constitution expand and limit government’s powers? How revolutionary and democratic was it, really?
- Did they intend these limits on the size and scope of government be permanent?
- To what extent should we in 2015 be bound by the Founders’ understanding of governments’ proper powers and organization?
- What rules should guide on 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 –
- Yes, the Founders’ opinions still are relevant today. Recommended.
- But, they did not mean that governments’ powers should never change to adapt to changing circumstances:
- The Founders wanted and expected us to think for ourselves. Recommended.
- The Constitution is impossible to interpret mechanically, anyway.
- A conservative explains that the Founders created the Constitution to be flexible, to let future generations adjust to changing times. Recommended.
- Or, maybe they did mean to permanently limit what government can do (Conservative POV) :
- The Constitution’s federalism sharply limits the federal govt’s powers, and we have to live with it. (Our 11/14 mtg on federalism had good links)
- But, must we? Two conservatives debate whether we are obliged to dismantle Federal safety net because it’s not an enumerated power. Recommended.
- Right-wing POV: “28 fundamental principles of the founding fathers.” Just wow. But recommended.
- Mistakes: Was the Constitution just wrong about some things (beyond the stuff corrected by amendments)? Is it…
- Schools of Constitutional interpretation: A short primer on a very complex topic.
Next Week: The Sermon On the Mount.
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:
- Low productivity: Low wage jobs – even some we admire – add little monetary value to an employer so they pay little;
- Supply and demand: Wage rates are determined by employers’ demand for labor and the number of qualified applicants, and by nothing more; and
- 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:
- Power disparities: Many low-wage workers are worth more than they get paid but lack the bargaining power to demand what they deserve; and
- Power similarities: Low-wage workers often are employed by other people of modest means, especially in child and elder care;
- 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.)
- 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)?
- 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?
- Do some of these jobs have social value beyond their market value? How do we know that and who should determine the value-added?
- What do governments in the USA currently do to assist low-paid workers; e.g., minimum wage, earned income tax credit?
- 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 –
- Joan Walsh on our low-wage economy. Recommended.
- It’s not the low-wage jobs that have changed, it’s whose doing them –breadwinners, not kids.
- Long, highly optional study on the future of low-wage work in America: Problem causes, solutions. (from a liberal think tank)
- Conservative POV. (Natl Review) Recommended.
Specific jobs that we rhetorically value –
- Childcare workers are horribly-paid. Recommended
- Disabled workers can be paid pennies an hour in some job programs!
- Teachers are not paid all that well. College professors, too now, believe it or not.
- Restaurant workers are badly paid and few get benefits. (Just read the bulleted pts up front) Fast food workers: The franchise model is a big reason for their terrible pay.
Causes and Solutions –
- Bargaining power: Low-wage workers don’t have any. Most recommended.
- The disappearance of regular, full-time work. Recommended
- Corporate culture: Companies don’t have to pay low wages; they choose to because of a corrupted corporate culture.
- Faster economic growth: Some low-wage workers have seen pay rises lately.
- Personal service jobs: Progressive ideas for improving pay for people who help other people. (AP) Most recommended.
- Local and state governments can do a lot to help raise l ow wages. (AP)
- Yet government wage subsidies encourage low private sector wages.
Next Week: How Did the Founding Fathers Envision Government’s Powers? (Bruce’s idea)
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!
- 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
I think this will be the first topic we’ve done suggested by Ali. It’s a good one. Already I’m learning that how Europe came to dominate the globe in the last 200 (as opposed to another region of the world, like Asia or Africa or Latin America) is a hugely controversial topic. You may, like me, know a bit about the “how the West beat the rest” issue from reading one of the popular history books on the subject that have been written in the last 20 years. Maybe you read Guns, Germs, and Steel (Jared Diamond), or Civilization: The West and the Rest (Niall Ferguson), or maybe you’re old-school and prefer Max Weber’s Protestant work ethic theory. There are many other theorists and theories, it seems.
Even if you’ve never pondered the reasons for the West’s century+ of dominance, you’ve got to admit it’s an intriguing question. Why did Cortes and Pizarro sail west and conquer the Aztecs and Incas and not the other way around? Why didn’t India colonize Great Britain? What lurched Europe forward and held the rest back? And, what do the answers tell us about the 21st century, with China and India and others becoming major powers in their own right while other countries still lag or go backwards?
There are many theories. Ali asks us to consider one that has been debated for a century, albeit sometimes with discomfort: Was the key reason for its success simply that the West had a superior culture – or at least a culture that led much more quickly to industrial and military development? Other theories discount culture. They say the reason for Western dominance had more to do with geography, resource endowments, financial organization, or just plain luck or path dependency (I’ll explain what that is).
Anyway, I’m looking forward to another good meeting that integrates history, sociology, and politics. Ali: If you want to open the meeting just let me know. Otherwise, I’ll do a brief summary of the main schools of thought to the extent I’m familiar with them.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
The West got there first because it had…
- Favorable geography and natural resources: The Guns, Germs, and Steel thesis. Recommended.
- Two specific resources: Coal to fuel their machines, and access to the vast resources of the New World. If not for these, Europe would not have surged ahead and conquered.
- No (Niall Ferguson). It was six big cultural and technical advantages: Competition among its many small nations, rule of law and property rights, science, medicine, consumerism, and a better work ethic. Recommended.
- More detail on Protestant work ethic.
- These six other/same factors (Jack Goldstone).
- Colonialism. Colonization destroyed indigenous scientific revolutions and infrastructure. Recommended.
Next Week: Why are so many rhetorically–valued jobs so low-paying? (Zelekha’s idea)
We all know a bit about why it’s gotten so hard to talk to the other side politically, having discussed polarization and its causes a number of times. I’ll list a few of the main culprits to open the meeting. We’ve also discussed how people are naturally resistant to being persuaded about politics. We’re all predisposed to “bias reinforcement;” i.e., to seek out opinions and facts we already agree with and to avoid or rationalize away any that cause us the trouble and psychic pain of self-examination. Hell, studies show that, among political partisans and those with well-formed ideologies, being exposed to contrary facts actually reinforces their opinions. How screwed does that make our politics?
Still, talking politics with someone from “The Other Side” politically can’t be totally, always futile, can it? I mean, an entire industry exists devoted to finding which rhetoric works best to persuade people in political advertising and in politicians’ speeches. Could we learn from their work and apply their techniques in our personal lives, when we’re in the situation and the mood to do so? Or, does talking politics with the other side just require using basic social skills and common courtesy that our political betters have forgotten in their rush to polarize us?
I’ve had to think about this topic a lot in recent years, from running Civilized Conversation and appearing in the San Diego Debate Club and (as Aaron does) on this ultra-conservative political TV show. So, indulge me for a few minutes on Monday and I’ll start us off with a few insights I think I’ve gathered. Then, I’d love to hear your thoughts, even if you’re one of those dim-witted, evil, ridiculous idiots on the other side.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- WHY talk to someone on the other side; i.e., for what purpose? What should one’s goals be when engaging such a person? Like: Persuasion, Defend your values, Find common ground, Censure or use them as a foil to persuade others within earshot? How about to learn something about why they think what they think?
- What kind of arguments/appeals work in such settings? Like: Facts or logic, Personal stories, Appeals to authority, Appeals to community or patriotism, Citing your/their moral values, Citing public support , Cursing and screaming?
- How do the pros do it? Any lessons from politicians or political campaigners (Reagan/FDR, Atwater/Carville) or social scientists (Lakoff, Haight)
- Specific issues: Any ideas for talking with an opponent on, say, climate change, Obamacare, taxes, abortion, etc.?
- Specific settings: Dealing with family members, colleagues, strangers, very well-informed opponents, etc.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- The problem: Recommended if you’re unfamiliar.
- General advice:
- 10 tips for engaging the other side. Use empathy and basic manners. Not bad.
- It’s all about using stories to frame one’s moral values. (Lakoff)
- No, this is way too simplistic.
- Watch: The most brilliant communicator I’ve ever met explains how to persuade people through rhetoric. (Joe Romm TED talk, 20-minutes, focuses on climate change)
- Specific issues: How to talk to a conservative about…
- Conservative POV:
Next Week: How did the West “beat the rest?” Was it culturally superior?
Unfortunately, Mike Aguirre could not attend last night. I thought we had a good one, anyway, especially since John M. knew a lot on current issues related to SDG&E headaches.
Here are the posts I used to improv my opening presentation. They are from a great environmental and energy policy website called, Grist.
— There are a dozen other posts in the series; many deal with community choice and other 21st century utility issues. http://grist.org/series/utilities-for-dummies/
This week we have a guest speaker, thanks to Bill! Former San Diego City Attorney and current talk radio host Mike Aguirre will be joining us. Mike has been battling SDG&E and the other Big Energy powers that be in our region for years. He will give a little opening presentation on why we pay pretty much the nation’s highest electric utility rates and update us on the fight to keep consumers from paying the $3.3 billion costs of closing the San Onofre nuclear plant.
During discussion, there will be a fair amount to debate beyond rate rips-off. Having reliable access to energy that is both affordable and sustainable is vital to our region’s future. But, it’s not a simple matter. As with all natural resources, electric power generation, transport, and pricing come from a complex dance of market forces and government regulation. The public is very cynical about all of the major utility players after the deregulation fiasco of the 1990s and recent revelations about the coziness between Big Energy and state regulators. Still, if change to our energy system is to come, their acquiescence is required.
I’m looking forward to hear what Mike has to say. Below are some questions I have for him and the group, and some links to recent developments in our electricity rate-paying drama.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Where does San Diego get its electric power and gas from?
- Who determines how much we pay for it: SDG&E? Local government? State government? How much public accountability is there, and who speaks for consumers?
- How do the rates we pay compare to other California and U.S. cities? Who in San Diego pays the most and least under the current rate structure?
- Why do San Diegans pay so much more? Is it just unavoidable market forces? Is it their absence (SDG&E’s monopoly)? Is it deregulation and/or industry capture of regulators and politicians? What about high taxes or too much regulation, like environmental mandates?
- Are there ways to bring rates down in the future and/or distribute the burden more fairly or efficiently? Should rates go down, given the climate impact?
- Special issues:
- San Onofre: What’s up with customers paying $3.3B closure costs?
- Climate: What is San Diego’s Climate Action Plan and what impact will it have on future utility rates?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Californians pay the nation’s highest electricity rates (by far) and it’s because industry owns the regulators. (SD Reader) Recommended
- This is hurting local businesses as well as households. (Voice of SD)
- The whole rate structure will be overhauled in summer 2015 and [link fixed] SDG&E wants flatter rates, which would charge small users more; and rates that disadvantage solar users. Recommended.
- Ways to lower rates (maybe):
- San Onofre: The lawsuit (UT 10/14) Recommended
- Climate: What is the San Diego Climate Action Plan?
- Taxes: San Diego is a low-tax city compared to the rest of California – including of energy use.
Next Week: Is there a universal human nature?