Category Archives: Mtg Announcements

Monday’s Mtg: What makes a religion tolerant or intolerant?

Monday’s meeting is a great topic, but it is also a bit of a breather before our big meeting in two weeks on the Mueller report and the topic of whether the President of the United States is compromised by a foreign power. (An educated but still lucky guess on the timing of the report’s release!)

I have not read much about the Mueller report yet, nor is it the final or even first word on the topic of collusion. But much already is known (or at least maybe can be reasonably postulated), based on Trump’s behavior in office and his and his family’s long history of financial entanglement with former-Soviet bloc and other countries. I really want to prepare a good opening presentation on April 29. Since that will take a lot of work I am taking a break this week from long background posts.

Luckily, we don’t really need one. Examining why a religion evolves the way it does is a staple of historical inquiry and social science analysis. We are not scholars. But, we could debate how a few basic factors influenced the development of tolerance within any particular religion or for religion in general. These could include things like

  • Scripture and doctrine.
  • Leadership and institutions.
  • War and peace.
  • Immigration history.
  • Wealth and economic development.
  • Many other historical and cultural factors.

Note to atheists: The POV that all religion is inherently intolerant is belied by the historical record. As this 2003 book shows (or maybe overstates [NYT]), at least in Europe the idea of tolerance developed as a Christian value before the onset of the Enlightenment and a long time before the secularization of society. This was true in the United States as well, albeit helped along a lot by the Bill of Rights. The history of other major faiths may be instructive, too. For example, tolerance in both Islam and Judaism have waxed and waned throughout their histories.  More can be found at the ambitious Wiki entry on toleration.

Tons of fun. At least compared to allegations of soft treason.

Anyway, our religious topics are some of our best discussions. Here are links to some that might relate to this topic. See you on next Monday 4/22.

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READINGS –

  • 2019: What does religion provide that secularism does not?
  • 2018: Are atheists intolerant?
  • 2018: Does religion expand empathy or limit it?
  • 2016: Are there any universal religious principles?
  • 2016: What re the sources of Islamist radicalism (+ intolerance)?
  • 2015: Will Pope Francis transform Catholicism? (He is a HUGE advocate for mutual tolerance)

NEXT: What if President Trump is compromised by a foreign power?

Monday’s Mtg: How much of government should be privatized?

We hear so much about the wonder or evils of privatizing government. What does it mean? Here is useful definition for our purposes (source):

“Broadly speaking, [privatization] means the shift of some or all of the responsibility for a function from government to the private sector. The term has most commonly been applied to the…sale or long-term lease of a state-owned enterprise to private investors. Another major form is the granting of a long-term franchise or concession under which the private sector finances, builds, and operates a major infrastructure project. A third type involves government selecting a private entity to deliver a public service that had previously been produced in-house by public employees. The latter is increasingly called outsourcing”

So what? In the last 20 years a major battle has been waged to privatize a lot of government in the USA at both the federal and state and local government levels. A lot of privatization has been achieved, much of it bipartisan, good government efforts to improve the quality of government services and lower their costs. Almost every function of government has seen some privatizing experiments, including

  • Criminal and civil justice systems: Prisons, parole, courts, tort reform.
  • Military: Logistics, combat support, espionage.
  • Education: Charter schools, vouchers, for-profit colleges.
  • Health care: Medicaid, Medicare, mental health services.
  • Transportation and infrastructure.
  • Financial (de-) regulation.
  • Space exploration.

Thanks to these experiments arguably a lot has been learned about what works in privatizing government and what doesn’t. The devil is in the details. Success depends on little things like contract language and oversight. Still, some basic principles for getting privatization right (and wrong) are emerging.

Great. Do what works. Well, unless you have been living under a rock since 1995, politics-wise, you know that privatization also has been a major tool in conservatives’ ideological crusade to shrink government. President Bush did a lot (esp. as part of fighting the Iraq War and War on Terror) and tried to do a lot more (like privatize Social Security).  The Trump Administration has big plans. It wants to privatize the Veterans Administration, national parks, air traffic control, Medicaid, and even the U.S. postal service. Progressives and Democrats are determined to prevent it, and some of their motives are not so evidence-based and noble, either.

My motives for this mtg are modest. I hope we can gain a basic understanding of

  1. What privatization means, where it’s been tried, and why.
  2. Pros and cons and lessons learned, including about some actors’ ulterior motives.
  3. GOP plans for more privatizing and insights to help us judge the merits.

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READINGS –

NEXT: What makes a religion tolerant or intolerant?

Monday’s Mtg (4/8/19): Will regional differences tear the United States apart?

This group frequently focuses on the many divisions that seem to be raging out of control in the United States today. The racial divide. Immigration. Economic inequality. Rural versus cosmopolitan. Old v. young. Right/Left.

Yes, this country has suffered from worse divisions and lived to tell about it. But, not by much on several occasions. And never before have our differences widened and consensus broken down in such a hyper-connected, social media-driven environment like today’s. Our political parties have never been so sorted by ideology nor our economy as zero-sum in our lifetimes. Worse and also not the norm is today’s political leadership. Up to the very top many of them rose to prominence in an environment where picking at every societal scab was richly rewarded and it is all they know how to do.

Anyhoo. So, what else is new? What about another problem that’s very old: Regional differences? Regional conflicts have been huge contributors to some of America’s past crises, and not just slavery. Divergent regional interests and cultures played a role in just about every major conflict in U.S. political history, from 19th century industrial policy debates to the opposition to the New Deal and Great Society to debates over health care and free trade. In a new century where most of our problems – and the institutions that we look to for solutions – are national in scope how could regional differences still matter?

Below are some optional background readings that make the case that geography does still matter. I will introduce and flesh out these ides a bit in a short opening presentation. Then we can see if anybody is buying it.

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READINGS –

Regions of the United States–

Why regionalism matters –

NEXT: How much of government should be privatized? A 4/15 Tax Day topic.

Monday’s mtg (4/1/19): Does mental illness get the acceptance and attention it deserves?

Civilized Conversation has discussed many different aspects of health and health care. But we have never done a meeting on mental health and mental illness. After 15 years and 500+ weekly meetings, that makes such a meeting long overdue. Mental health is also a great issue for us because it intersects with all sorts of societal and political issues: Public health, criminal justice, the social safety net, education, etc. We also could get personal a bit, discussing lessons learned dealing with mental health issues in our personal lives should people wish to share them.

To open our meeting I will give a very brief portrait of mental illness in America, based on the broad numbers. In short, about one in five Americans suffers from some form of mental illness and about one in five of them are “substantially impaired” by their conditions in any given year. Common illnesses include depression bipolar disorder, ADHD, anxiety and panic disorders, and schizophrenia.

These are chronic, serious, but poorly understood and supported illnesses. They often require a lifetime of treatment and support from family, the medical community, and heath care providers. Nearly one-half of people with severe mental illnesses do not receive any treatment and many that do have gone undiagnosed for years and/or are undertreated. Many develop substance abuse or other social problems. All of this makes mental illness not just a personal and family tragedy, but an issue for communities and government.

Below are a few basic articles on the prevalence of mental illnesses, the stigma surrounding it, the difficulties in dealing with it, and related issues. This will be a good one.

This will be a large meeting, too. Let’s remember to keep our remarks on-point and relatively pithy.

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READINGS –

NEXT: Will regional differences tear America apart?

Monday’s Mtg: California’s high speed rail – Solution or Boondoggle?

In February, our new governor, Gavin Newsome, drastically shrank and delayed California’s ambitious high speed rail (HSR) project. HSR lines that integrated all of the major regions and cities of our state were supposed to be built by 2022. The system was to go from San Francisco to San Diego with another line running the length of the Central Valley to help jumpstart its economic development. The project was approved by CA voters in a 2008 referendum and had a lot of enthusiastic supporters and federal money behind it.

Oops. Skyrocketing cost and long delays to even start the thing blew all of that up. The battle for HSR in our state turned into a kind of national referendum on the future of high speed mass transit generally in the United States, and it appears to have failed the test.

Why? HSR works in countries all over the world. Yes, America is a big place and the uses of inter-city HSR are limited. HSR could be a piece of a 21st century infrastructure and  become an important tool in reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions (2/3 of U.S. carbon emissions are from transportation.)  In the opinion of many but not all observers a mix of mass transit (including some HSR, intra-city subways, light rail, buses, and maybe driverless multi-user vehicles one day) is crucial to the future of economic development. It just has to be done right, with realistic goals and adequate funding. Like all transportation planning mass transit must be integrated with other city, regional, and statewide urban planning and developing efforts.

Wow.  I almost fell asleep just writing that last sentence. Transportation policy and economic development can get boring fast. But, regular people have to engage at least a little bit on this stuff – at least to the point of acquiescing to the basic principles that should guide us in the future. If we don’t the insiders and special interests will take over the process, which has been a part of the problem in California’s HSR boondoggle.

The conservative point of view is important here, too. Republicans in California used to support mass transit. Have they abandoned it now because liberals have taken belief in it too far? Is HSR and faith that the public will one day flock to mass transit a liberal pipedream?  Or, is GOP abandonment of all mass transit just another symptom of its ideological lurch to the right and/or a function of its abandonment of non-White, non-suburban area of our nation?

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READINGS –

NEXT: Mental illness – Does it get the attention and acceptance it deserves?

Monday’s Mtg: Is there a “culture of poverty” in the United States?

It is important for Civilized Conversation to address the concerns of political conservatives. Think of it as a part of the mandate inherent to the group’s name. One very common belief concerns the causes of America’s persistent high poverty rate and the limits of our ability to reduce it:.  Call it the “culture of poverty” explanation.

To quote the Wiki entry the culture of poverty, it is “a concept in social theory that asserts that the values of people experiencing poverty play a significant role in perpetuating their impoverished condition, sustaining a cycle of poverty across generations.” Allegedly, poor people – especially those that live in areas of concentrated poverty – are said to have adopted a poverty-perpetuating value system. This system prizes attitudes and actions that make escaping poverty almost impossible. These include a focus on the short-term and on immediate gratification; acceptance of crime, violence, and drug and alcohol as coping strategies; disparaging the value of educational achievement and hard work, etc.

Thus, this theory of poverty holds that it is mainly a problem of personal morality and a lack of personal responsibility. Many, many Americans share this POV in whole or in part. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard a version of it uttered in discussions of poverty (and especially race!). Most progressives are contemptuous of the notion. It’s just blaming the victim and an excuse for inaction, they say.  But, is there anything to it?

Based on my experiences there are basically two versions of the culture of poverty theory. One is simplistic and, frankly, kind of dumb. It holds that poor communities and individuals do it to themselves. All they need is to adopt “middle class” values of hard work and honesty and the (few) remaining societal barriers to making it in America can be overcome. America’s enormous poverty problem is just the sum of millions of individual bad choices.

Giggity. There’s a more nuanced version, however. It says that yes, poverty has deep structural causes. They include poor job opportunities for people with little education, racial segregation, deindustrialization and rural stagnation, and a threadbare social safety net. Yet, enough time living under these conditions can produce such stress and feelings of helplessness that people begin to act in ways that help to perpetuate the poverty. Poverty has behavioral roots that, while not as deep as the structural problems that created them, still should be treated as a separate problem requiring its own creative solutions.

So, let’s examine the problem (or “problem,” if you prefer). Below are some optional readings on the culture of poverty theory. Most but not all blow big holes in it. I will introduce the topic quickly to open Monday’s meeting and then we can get down to discussion. Remember, all POVs are welcome in CivCon. They just don’t have to be welcomed with open arms!

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READINGS –

NEXT: A bullet train to nowhere? Mass transit in California.

Monday’s Mtg: How does U.S. foreign policy benefit regular Americans?

One of the big reasons Donald Trump got elected president had to be his oft-stated belief that most of our problems stem from the rest of the word is taking advantage of the United States. To Trump, we are the great nation and just about everybody else is a parasite on us, from NATO and the EU to China to countries that send us the “wrong” immigrants. Our allies are our enemies. Our adversaries should be our allies if they treat us “fairly,” etc. When Trump said, “only I can fix it” he seemed to mean primarily our exploitation by everybody else.

Sigh. This is easy to mock because it is so simplistic (and megalomaniacal). But, why does it resonate so? It is not just the right-wing of the Republican Party that questions whether America’s foreign policy is worth its high costs. Progressives are suspicious of free trade and globalized big finance and despise our endless wars in the Middle East and huge defense spending, and. Middle America is angry over four decades of outsourcing and question if our immigration system benefits average Americans. And everybody everywhere is asking whether the U.S. role in the world is sustainable or needs a rethink.

Are they right about some of this? Who is the “we” in “our” foreign policy? How has economic and cultural globalization helped regular people in the USA? What has being the world’s military superpower and its indispensable nation done for us lately?

I tend to think U.S. foreign policy broadly benefits the country. Many of the biggest benefits are invisible to regular people, just like a lot of what government does. But, arguably in recent years the benefits of foreign policy have been smaller overall than they used to be, unevenly distributed, and increasingly expensive to maintain. Like most everybody I also question whether our political system can make the changes necessary to maintain broad public support for maintaining our role in a rapidly-changing world. YMMV.

Regardless, rather than do advocacy, I will take 3-5 minutes on Monday to introduce our topic. I will list the types of benefits that can come from foreign policy; the types of beneficiaries (quo bene stuff); and the major areas of policy that are in dispute, like trade, military overreach, and immigration. Then we can see where it goes. Several of our members have substantial experience in this stuff so let’s make sure to allow us to learn from them.

Here are a few general articles on the broad topic idea.

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READINGS –

NEXT: Is there a “culture of poverty” in the United States?

Monday’s Mtg: How should judges be selected?

Betty asks, is there a better way to pick judges? America’s independent, multi-tiered judicial system has much in it to admire. Yet more and more people are worried that, like so much else in American governance these days, something has gone wrong.

The whole process for selecting federal judges is broken. You all know the Supreme Court nominee process has become a sick joke. Senate Republicans flat out stole a SCOTUS seat by refusing to allow President Obama to fill a vacancy eight months before his term ended. They also filibustered his appeals court nominees for years and it took a lawsuit and a blunt threat by Democrats to end all filibusters to get them to back down. Then came the cringe-inducing Kavanaugh confirmation hearing, with both sides (and Kavanaugh!) explicitly promising revenge. Judges at all levels are selected more for their ideological purity and youth than by any kind of neutral measure of professional merit.

At the state level, as Betty has pointed out, huge amounts of special interest money has started to pour into judicial races. Pennsylvania had a $15 one in 2015. Often the money comes from out-of-state dark money groups or even in-state litigants with pending cases before the judges they are trying to oust. Other problem include very low turnout in most judicial elections, overcrowded dockets, and all the other problems that plague our justice system.

Some Civilized Conversation members are lawyers with experience standing before criminal and civil judges at the state and federal level. Others have lived or are from other countries. Let’s see what they – and Betty – have to say about the following questions and any others you might want to raise. I will open the meeting with 3-5 minutes on how judges currently are selected in the United States.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Process now: How many types of judges are there in the United States? How are they selected? What role do voters, politicians, and experts play in the process?   How are they held accountable after they are appointed?
  2. Effects: Do the different ways U.S. judges are selected satisfy the requirements of:
    1. Democratic accountability?
    2. Judicial independence?
    3. Judicial expertise?
    4. Public confidence in judiciary?
    5. The dispensing of, you know, justice?
  3. Specific issues:
    1. Partisanship of judges.
    2. Federal advice and consent function.
    3. Electing judges (state level).
    4. Money + special interests in judicial races.
    5. Diversity of judges.
    6. Limited jurisdiction courts: Bankruptcy, juvenile, etc.
    7. Others.
  4. Do other problems that harm justice matter more than judicial selection?
  5. Better ways choose judges?
    1. Alternatives to the present system: Term limits, merit selection, non-partisan races, stop electing them, limit money in judicial races, , including from abroad.
    2. Obstacles to change.
    3. Effects if implemented – including unintended bad effects.

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READINGS –

NEXT: How does U.S. foreign policy help regular people?

Monday’s Mtg: The future of national health care in the United States

Healthcare was the number one issue among voters in both 2016 and 2018. It fell off of the Media’s radar after the Republican Congress’s’ effort to “repeal and replace” Obamacare crashed and burned from its own inherent contradictions in 2017. But, it will be a major issue going forward at both the federal and state levels. Whether and how to expand healthcare access and quality and at what costs and with what tradeoffs will remain the top priority for Democrats. Stopping them will remain a top priority for Republicans.

Among the Democrats, a half-dozen major proposals have been floated already, including by presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Plans range from bold all-at-once single payer plans like Medicare for all and large expansions of Medicaid to more incremental strategies to strengthen and expand the private market-based model of Obamacare. The latter involve things like expanding subsidies to buy private insurance, adding a public option to state insurance exchanges, and tackling monopoly power in local health care markets. Democrats also want to undo the Trump Administration’s open sabotage of Obamacare. All of the energy is on single payer and Medicare for all.

Too bad, IMO. Single payer will not happen anytime soon. To achieve that Democrats need consensus within the Party to go for it, the House + 60 senators, a Democratic president, a Supreme Court that won’t overturn it, strong public support for single payer as written (not just in the abstract), and acquiescence of major parts of the private healthcare industry. At most in January 2021 they will have 2-4 of these. Today’s single payer proposals build public support for universal coverage and single payer as legitimate goals, mainly.

So, for the next few years our national HC policy debate will be about whether and how to make incremental changes to the existing system that expand access, protect consumers, control costs, and improve quality.

Civilized Conversation will have multiple meetings on this stuff. For this first one, my goal is to arm you with some basic information about the moving parts of HC reform and a framework for judging the proposals you will hear in the Media in between Trump’s tweets the next two years. Healthcare reform is very, very complex. Yet, the basic problems we face, and the ideas and choices available to us are not rocket science to understand.

In my opening remarks on Monday I will quickly –

  1. Explain several of the basic problems, contradictions, and tradeoffs that all U.S. healthcare reformers have to face;
  2. Describe how Obamacare dealt with them – or failed to; and
  3. List the basics of the big Democratic healthcare plans, including Bernie’s and Warren’s.

For time’s sake, I will keep it short and minus many details. Hopefully, it will establish a framework for discussion.

(Explaining conservative ideas in this area poses a dilemma. As the first links explain, GOP leaders do not want universal coverage or more government involvement in health care and many of their ideas for expanding access are more marketing slogans than concrete proposals. Still, serious conservative healthcare proposals do exist and deserve consideration. As evidenced by the lack of details on tax increases in the big Democratic plans, conservatives are not the only ones that hate to get specific about some of their pet ideas.)

Here are fewer readings than usual, but longer ones.

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READINGS –

NEXT: How should judges be selected? (Penny’s idea)

Monday’s Mtg: What makes people happy?

“Happiness studies” is an academic field, it turns out. And an active and popular one. For decades bookshelves have groaned under the weight of endless self-help books full of strategies for attaining happiness, personal growth, and emotional well-being. Now we have on-line happiness studies scholarly journals and hundreds of popular websites providing advice on how to get happier, improve your emotional well-being, self-actualize, etc.

What do they say?  Interestingly, a lot of this literature claims that hard science is starting to reveal the keys to how happiness – much more so than did the old tools of philosophy or religion or personal experience. Last year we discussed a piece of th happiness puzzle: Whether a good life needs to have a purpose. We were pretty careful not to simply equate a good life with a happy life, so, our discussion was a bit different from and broader in scope than this one.  Moreover, in that meeting we got into our personal experiences a bit, which was very helpful, IMO.  As the group gets larger and more diverse I wish we did this more often. Maybe Monday is a chance.

What does being “happy” mean? Does it mean different things to different people? Is a tendency to be happy a character trait, a cultural trait, or a product of experience and wisdom? Can one become happier through effort? How important are the quality of our personal relationships with others? How does happiness relate to other components of well-being; e.g., success, respect, and physical/emotional security?

Beyond science and intellectualism, what about you? What have you learned about happiness by living your life, finding/losing love, raising your kids, working with other people, or through other experiences? Lots to talk about.

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READINGS –

NEXT:   The future of national healthcare in America.