Category Archives: Mtg Announcements

Monday’s Mtg: Is the USA a meritocracy?

This is yet another of those “what’s gone wrong” topics that CivCon frequently deals with nowadays. Some days I think the group should be renamed the “What’s happened to our country” discussion group. It wouldn’t look good on the T-shirt, I suppose, If we had t-shirts.

(New members/lurkers – Really, we do a lot of much less distressing, barely political topics. These include discussing cultural trends, history, philosophy, and even personal growth issues, like February 10th’s meeting on dating and romance. See the full list of last year’s topics for the bigger picture of what we do.)

Even this slam dunk one, Are we a meritocracy Y/N is more difficult a question than it might seem. Yes, money seems to rule or politics and economic inequality is a 1928 levels. But, why?

Also, a meritocracy compared to what? And to where and when else? The way things “should” be, based on the ideals of the American dream and democratic (versus plutocratic) values? Compared to our own past or to another country’s present? Is a meritocracy about who rises to the top to rule and make the rules, or does it refer to how broadly-based material prosperity is, and who gets excluded from that and why?

What is merit in 21st century America and what is earned and//or “deserved” success? Is it just marketable job talents: The KSAs (knowledge, skills and abilities) some people acquire and some don’t? What about socially useful but poorly remunerated abilities, like artists and home health care workers? How racist annd discriminatory can a society be before we can say it’s not a true meritocracy?

Off hand, three different definitions of a meritocracy spring to my mind:

  1. Meritocratic Rule: Are we led – in govt and biz – by the best and the brightest? Okay, pause for laughter. But is the system sufficiently at least accountable to the people/workers/voters and self-correcting in the long term that we should have confidence that competent leadership will return?
  2. Meritocracy for most: I’ll use Bill Clinton’s famous campaign phrase. Are regular, average-skilled Americans that “work hard and play by the rules” able to live comfortable lives free from (per FDR) want and fear? Is class mobility still possible – or is even class stability failing?
  3. Meritocracy for everybody: Has the USA failed to distribute the tools of achievement broadly enough? (Access to housing, education, family financial support, freedom from govt oppression). If so, why and is it worth the costs to do so?

No matter how you look at meritocracy, it I hard to ignore this country’s huge and rapidly rising levels of economic and political inequality. But, the overall issue is more subtle, IMO. We’ve done related issues before, like 2017’s have our elites failed us; 2015’s inequality’s causes and effects; 2019’s does U.S. social contract need updating; and 2013’s are our schools preparing kids for 21st century jobs. But this is our first time considering meritocracy, per se.

I will do a short opening presentation that frames the idea of meritocracy and then toss that live grenade on the table. Here are optional background readings.


NEXT WEEK, Jan. 27: Are Russia and/or China weaker than they appear?

Monday’s Mtg: Implications of Corporate concentration of the news media

We discuss the news media regularly, for many obvious reasons. For example, in 2019 we did the emerging fake news problem and we debated the challenges posed by the Trump phenomenon in 2018 by asking, “What does responsible journalism entail now?” Back in 2016 we pondered the future of the news media generally.

An overarching theme in all of these meetings has been the sheer pace of change disrupting the news business. Arguably, 20+ years into the digital era the news media survive in a kind of permanent revolution, one based on new technologies, and new ways for producing, distributing, and consuming news.

Nile asks, what about an older but still very important issue: Corporate concentration of news media ownership? As many of you know, six gigantic companies own about 90% of all media consumed in the United States, news and non-news. As we discussed in 2018, news distribution is just as concentrated if not more so. Four or five companies distribute almost all news to the public: Google, Facebook, Apple, Twitter, and Google. Yes, a few big, independent news producers remain that are very influential; like the NYT, WashPost, HuffPost, WSJ. But, corporate control of the news is falling into fewer and fewer hands at a very risky time in our democracy’s history.

Among others Nile has in mind we might ask these questions about this trend:


  1. What is “news” these days? What is the “mainstream news media” (MSM)? Have the definition changed recently?
  2. Where do Americans go for their news? How big a role for print versus TV/radio? For digital? For social media? Is variation by age, education, etc., big and important?
  3. Concentration: Who owns how much and what? How concentrated is news media ownership, production, and distribution? National and local news? Newspapers and radio? International news?
    — How did it get this way? Market evolution v. deliberate political choices?
    — Are these monopolies, or close to it?
  4. Harms: What specific harms does media concentration cause – and how do we now this? Examples:
    — Ignored stories and topics.
    — Narrowed POVs, herd mentalities, lazy narratives.
    — Destruction of local journalism and newspapers.
    — Other harms typical of monopolies; e.g., barriers that stifle new media companies, higher prices, reduced innovation.
  5. It’s the news! – Special vulnerabilities:
    — Political control: How vulnerable are giant media conglomerates to political intimidation and control?
    — To self-censorship for business reasons?
    — How does a democracy survive without a vibrant, free – and economically viable – press? Especially with trust in the MSM so low AND Trumpism’s permanent assault on a free press?

Here are some optional background readings on the problem of growing concentrated corporate control of the news media and the problem it may entail.


NEXT WEEK: Is the USA a “meritocracy?”

Monday’s Mtg: Impeachment – What will happen + long term consequences?

Yesterday, President Trump started a war with Iran on the eve of his impeachment trial. Being devoted to “civilized” conversations require us to listen to all ideas and treat people respectfully. It does not requires we have “let’s pretend we’re all too stupid to see the obvious” conversations. A serious impeachment trial, always unlikely, is farther away than ever. By design, by assassination, and by war. Everyone knows this although no one wants to say it.

To be sure, Iran is a big problem for the United States and has been for decades. How best to handle the threat the Iranian regime poses deserves serious attention, as we have discussed before (2015, 2012, 2010).   And, yes, the general we assassinated was a very bad man. He had a hand in killing hundreds, maybe thousands, of Americans, especially during the Iraqi Shia rebellion after our invasion in 2003. Also in Syria, Lebanon and other places.  A semi-plausible explanation for Trump’s action is that the recent mob assault on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad terrified him into thinking he might preside over another embassy hostage crisis like the one that humiliated and defeated Jimmy Carter. Someone may have convinced the President that murdering the wildly popular, revered Quds force commander and architect of Iran’s proxy forces abroad would deter that. Either way, it is all about Trump.

Still, General what’s-his-name was a bad man a year ago too, and five years ago, and US. Intelligence probably always knew his whereabouts. Why kill him now (he was a top Iranian govt official!), over the holidays and a few days before the Senate was to return to consider whether to remove Trump from office? There have been hundreds of attacks on U.S. embassies since the 1970s and we have never openly assassinated a senior military officer of a country in response, let alone boasted about it.

I expect the Republican Party will immediately begin to lament that our “war—time president” should not be burdened by an impeachment trial. Or, at the very least, GOP Senate leaders likely will dig in their heels even more to demand an even more perfunctory, newly-discovered evidence free, witness-free trial.

Still, by most analyses the Constitution requires some kind of resolution to impeachment in the Senate. There are (non-binding) precedents for how to conduct such a trial, and Chief Justice John Roberts may have more influence over the process than people think. He may insist on respecting the Constitution enough to have some kind of non-joke trial process.

Ergooo, our topic lives. I think we have four – and now with Iran, five – questions to address.


  1. House articles of impeachment: What were they, again? Why did they go narrow rather than broad (e.g., exclude obstruction of justice that Mueller found or emoluments buck-raking)?
    **Is the evidence on Ukraine really slam dunk, or does it have holes?
  2. Precedents: What procedures have been used before if the Senate wants to use them; e.g., based on Bill Clinton’s trial, the Nixon investigation, Andrew Johnson, etc.? Which ones is Pelosi insisting on and which are the most important and most/least likely to pry from McConnell’s hands?
  3. Trial: What’s likely to happen? How long and what format? How use new evidence that has piled up since 12/18 House vote, witnesses Trump refused to let testify?
    ** Which legal standard for guilt should apply?
    ** Final vote guess? Dem or GOP defections?
  4. Impact: While trial is ongoing and on Democratic primaries. On Trump’s popularity and odds of reelection. On Senate and House elections.
    ** How will Trump exact vengeance and will he consider himself invulnerable?
    ** Long term harm to our constitutional democracy and the rule of law?
    ** will every POTUS get impeached now?
  5. Iran: What will Iran and Trump do next? Will acquittal slow Trump down or embolden more war? How ratchet down war?

I will open our meeting with a brief effort to partially answer Q1 and Q2. I will also list a few different forms any Senate trial could take. Beyond that, we are all flying blind. But even though I jumped the gun on timing a bit, this is one of these pivotal moments in U.S. history. How can we not cover it?


NEXT WEEK, Jan 13: Implications of corporate concentration of the news media. (Nile’s idea)

Mars needs guest moderators.

See next post down for Monday’s pre-mtg post, since this post will remain at the top of the page for a while.  DavidG would like to an occasional respite from having to moderate 50 mtgs a year.  To wit, here is the rest of the schedule trough March 2020.  If you would like to volunteer to be moderate some meeting, just indicate so in comments or contact me.  I will do the Jan. 6th one on impeachment and keep many of the ones I know a bit about for me to moderate.

Any volunteers?  Note:  You do not have to prepare any opening presentation or do the weekly pre-mtg post. Just sit in for DavidG so he doesn’t have to be there for every single meeting.

Jan. 6, 2020: Impeachment – How will it work + long term effects?  [DavidG moderator]
Jan 13: Corporate concentration of the news media – What are the implications?  [DavidG]
Jan 20: Is the United States a meritocracy?  [DavidG]
Jan 27: Are Russia and/or China weaker than they appear?
Feb 3: Generation Z: How will post-Millennials change the USA?
Feb 10: Why do so many American Christians feel under siege?  [DavidG]
Feb 17: How do dating and romance vary in different stages of life?  [Linda  N.]
Feb 24: Sacramento’s activist agenda: Too much or too little?  [John M.]
March 2: How can we rebuild American democracy?  [DavidG]
March 9: The ethics of brain augmentation.  [Wendy]
March 16: Has public shaming for youthful indiscretions gotten out of hand?
March 23: U.S. military-industrial complex: Exaggerated or worse than ever?  [DavidG]


Monday’s Mtg: What is your personal philosophy for living?

Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, and NO background readings this week.  Think of it as DavidG’s holiday break from posting.  Also, since this one doubles as a holiday social get together (albeit still at Panera), I’ve let in close to 30 people.

This means that we will break up into small groups.  I – and you too – can rotate around between groups.  We will divide up first thing.  Be thinking about if you want to moderate a table.  If no one volunteers, we are dividing up anyway..  A single mtg with 30+ people is too unwieldy and let’s just once get into small groups so it can be a bit more intimate.

I  looking forward to what people have to say abut their personal philosophy for life.  Most people probably don’t have a fully formed one, and that’s OK.

Monday’s Mtg: What is the state of interfaith relations in the United States?

Fred suggested this pre-Christmas idea. Interfaith relations may seem like an old fashioned term, useful for back when American Catholics and mainline Protestants dominated the country demographically and culturally and also were much more at odds than they are now. These days all of the religious strife attention seems to go to conflicts between atheists and those of deep religious faith.  Certain circles in the political media keep flogging the “War on Christianity” every day.  Ho, ho, ho.

We will discuss the latter topic indirectly on February 10 in the form of, “Why do so many U.S. Christians feel under siege?” One big reasons probably is that as most of you know, only about 75% of Americans now self-identify as Christian. This is down from 90% fifty years ago, and the fastest growing and largest non-Christian category is “non-religious.”

Despite these new and/or partially manufactured issues, efforts to improve relations between different religious faiths has experienced its own revival. Much of that was spurred by a desire to counter the anti-Islamic feelings that sprung up in the wake of 9/11 – and, as we once discussed, to fight an ugly, highly organized, and well-funded U.S. anti-Islamic movement that has been operating under the radar for 15 years now. Jewish-Christian interfaith dialogue efforts never went away. Hopefully, they too have taken on a renewed sense of urgency due to the recent resurgence of anti-Semitism in the global right- and left-wings and among regular people.

Intra-Christian relations in the United States are frayed and receiving more attention, too. The explosive growth of evangelical churches seems to have peaked, but there still is a lot of conflict between them (especially fundamentalist) and other Protestant sects. Prejudice against the Latter Day Saints church still runs strong in some places. American Catholicism is changing as its Latino numbers grow and is aggressively trying to attract members turned off by the sexual abuse scandals.

Finally, in politics, is anybody neutral anymore? There are huge disagreements between American religious sects on national political issues, notably on immigration, the environment, and support for our current president.  Just today the flagship journal  Christianity Today came out in favor of impeachment.  The magazine might just get the stake treatment Republican heretics get these days, or it might reveal or even spur some dissent on Trump within evangelical ranks.

So, lots of interfaith activity and challenges to discuss.  Good topic idea, Fred.

It’s a busy weekend, but here are some interesting articles on interfaith issues. Note recommended ones. I will have no real introduction on Monday except to briefly introduce the issue and then let Fred have first comment.


NEXT WEEK 1/30: What is your personal philosophy for living + holiday meet and greet.

Monday’s Mtg: Common Core education standards – A big deal, but do they work?

At our last topic committee meeting, Nile’s teenage son, Konstantine, looked at the list and asked, “How are most of these relevant to young people?” A good point. We will do college loan forgiveness on January 13 and Generation Z (those born since 2000) on February 3. Monday, at Konstantine’s suggestion, we will look at the major changes in U.S. education brought on by the Common Core K-12 educational standards.

As you probably know, developing and getting the states to adopt Common Core was a major effort in the mid-2000s. Basically, it was an attempt to create de facto national standards in reading and math for American school children. After decades of concern over mediocre educational outcomes, the National Association of Governors, the association of state Superintendents of Education, experts in and out of govt and in non-profit groups developed the standards and urged states to adopt them. California uses them as do 41 other states.

Common Core took about seven years to develop and test, starting in 2007. So, large-scale implementation is only a few years old, even in California, which made the decision to adopt in 2010 but only fully phased them in in about 2015.

Common Core is the main nationwide effort to improve American education that is still standing after the ideological education wars of the last 15 years. President Bush’s controversial No Child Left Behind law from 2002 was unpopular and has been repealed, although its annual standardized tests for grades 3-8 remain. Obama added a couple of major grant programs. Trump made big promises favored by the Right but has not done big things (see link). Most of the action is where it always has been: The state and local levels.

We have discussed other education fixes and fads, like charter schools and vouchers. They are still going and conservatives have vowed to keep going. But, results of both on student performance have been mixed. Common Core is the big policy change of the last decade in U.S. education – and they effect almost every American K-12 student every day.

Common Core standards are:

  • Not a federal govt program or requirement, although conservatives hated them because they thought they were or a sinister prelude to a federal takeover of education. Wrong as usual. But, President Obama controversially did try to pressure states to adopt Common Core by conditioning some federal education grants on the adoption of state standards that mimicked common core.
  • Standards only; i.e., ends not means. Common Core states the goals for what children should know and know how to do in each grade. They do not mandate (or even officially approve or disapprove) any specific curricula, method of instruction, or textbook.
  • Voluntary: Initially, 46 states adopted common core (that is, they pledged to adapt their K-12 standards for math and reading to Common Core’s). . Four states refused (inc. TX and VA) and 4 more have pulled out since. So, we’re down to 42.
  • Alterable. A number of states have modified their K-12 standards to ty to fix some of what they don’t like about Common Core.
  • Controversial for reasons other than right-wing ideological objections. These include allegedly overly-complex math standards, too-high expectations for very young students, and the continued use of constant standardized testing. The articles below explain more.

Describing education policy, much less measuring outcomes, is very complicated. CA’s standards in math and reading comprise hundreds of pages, and every state is different. Here are a few articles on Common Core, objections to it, and a good summary of our state’s math and reading standards.

I will see if I can describe the standards to open our meeting, then moderate the discussion as usual.

BUT FIRST, I will have one important administrative matter to discuss.


NEXT WEEK, Dec. 23: What is the state of inter-faith religious relations in the United States today?

Monday’s Mtg: Critical Thinking – How can it be taught and/or learned?

How can democracy function if the public lacks the ability to think critically about what it sees and hears and reads? This question, along with the fact that critical thinking skills are crucial to many of today’s well-paying jobs, has led to an explosion of interest in teaching critical thinking skills at all levels of education. Our current political crisis has led many to wonder if a lot of Americans are incapable of thinking critically and whether such abilities as they do have an be unlearned or turned against them with skilled propaganda.

Penny asks, is it realistic to believe that critical thinking is a stand-alone skill that can be taught to kids or even to adults? What about to those Americans that either grew up in environments that discouraged independent truth-seeking or as adults self-marinate in political or social propaganda that is untethered to objective truths?

American schools are all over this issue in recent years. They are said to spend a lot of time and resources emphasizing the teaching of basic critical thinking skills. (Of course, education content is highly decentralized in the USA, so generalizations are hard. On December 16th we will discuss the Common Core educational standards that were create as de facto national edu standards. They heavily emphasize teaching critical thinking and analytical skills.) How are they doing? Can successful techniques be used on adults? See the discussion questions, below, for more.

To make this meeting meaningful and relevant to our times, I believe we must be willing to discuss honestly one thing above all else: The effectiveness of the deliberate assault on citizens’ ability to judge facts and arguments of the last 20 years. Especially, of course, in the last three hundred years of the Trump presidency.

My short remarks to open our meeting will just ty to introduce and frame this vital issue. Then we can debate. As with any topic related to education, there is a TON of stuff on the internet about it and how to teach it. I link to a few, but it is hard for me to judge their quality.


  1. What does “critical thinking” really mean? Are there different definitions? How do they define it for pedagogical (teaching) purposes?
  2. How does critical thinking ability relate to (1) intelligence, (2) psychological makeup, and (3) age and experience?
  3. Teaching it: How can critical thinking be taught to young people that lack the factual or experiential context to help them? How do they measure or observe progress in learning critical thinking?
  4. Bubble dwellers: Many of us live in “epistemological closure,” closed circles where questioning revealed truth is discouraged (some religious communities, Fox News junkies, bigoted families, etc.  Liberals are not immune.) As we discussed in our mtg on cognitive bias, others find learning contrarian or conflicting information uncomfortable.
    — How can their bubbles be penetrated?
    — What will make them listen or at least be open to new facts?
  5. Propaganda: How much damage has fake news and deliberately deceptive propaganda done to our:
    — Critical thinking skills.
    — Democracy? Does a functioning democracy require a consensus on a common set of facts and trust sources of information?


Related CivCon mtgs –

  • 2019: Fighting fake news.  2016: The “Fox News effect.”
  • 2019: The power of cognitive bias. Key concepts.
    2016: What should kids be taught about U.S. history?

Critical thinking and its teaching –

NEXT WEEK: Time travel: Where/when would you like to visit and why?

Monday’s Mtg: Recent anti-govt mass protests overseas – what do they mean?

This was Nile’s idea. As our own national political crisis drags on and on, the rest of the world keeps turning. One recent major development has been mass anti-govt protests in a dozen countries. They include in Hong Kong, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, Lebanon, Iraq, and others. Some have been in developed countries, like the U.K. and France. (Mass protests ushered in the Trump Administration and surely will usher it out, probably involving at least some violence. But, that will be a topic for others Mondays.)

Popular protest against oppression and corruption have been a staple of the post-Cold War world. From the “color revolutions” in the former USSR in the 1990s to the Arab Spring in 2011 with others in between. Many failed, some partially succeeded, and some did even better. But now large-scale popular protests are popping up everywhere, not just in regions roiled by some big triggering event.

Nile asks, why? What is going on and what does it mean? To try to answer Nile’s question we could ask thing like:


  1. WHAT is happening where? Breaking developments. Specific countries of interest, especially Hong Kong and Latin America.
  2. WHY: Common/similar causes?  E.g., in how their govts work/don’t’ work, how the people live, who is leading or doing the protesting (minority groups, the poor, propertied classes, etc.)?
  3. DEMANDS: What do protestors want?   Common goals? Govts’ flexibility or red lines?
  4. USA ROLE: The world does not revolve around us. But, does all of this have anything to do with us?
    — Do we bear any responsibility for the conditions being protested?
    — Will protests and/or crackdowns harm or help our interests?
    — Trump: Is the vacuum of US leadership a factor in the timing of protests or restraints on govt crackdowns?
  5. PREDICTIONS: What are reasonable expectations for real reform, peaceful resolution, or revolution?


NEXT WEEK:  Critical thinking – How can it be taught and learned?

Monday’s Mtg: How much of federal government spending is wasted?

Sorry re missing last week.  Thanks to Fred for covering his own topic idea. With Fred’s background I’m sure it was an interesting evening.

I am still sick, but not contagious. Our first order of biz Monday will be what I would have started with last week: When is the best Monday to talk about impeachment.   December 2 or 9 would work well as they will correspond to major events in the process and our listed topics are not time sensitive, but we an dicker.  I predict the Senate trial will go on until at least March 2, Super Tuesday, so all of the nation’s attention will be on Trump and none on the Democrats.  But, it could end much earlier.

I think I can make it to our next mtg because it has long been a pet peeve of mine.  I doubt I have ever been to a discussion on govt wastenfraunabuse that didn’t quickly degenerate into know nothing, pig-ignorance-ness to the point of being totally useless. (Sorry, my tolerance for nonsense masquerading as wisdom has been lowered by illness.)

Most politically literate people know that Americans completely fail to grasp what govt even does.  I will give out a few hand outs that summarize it.  The public knows even less about how much of federal spending goes to waste. Yet, poll after poll after study shows that they believe a HUGE share of it is just wasted. In 2014, the public median estimate was that about one-half – half! – of all federal spending was “wasted.” Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is insane.  Since Gallup began asking the question in 1979, the number has never been lower than 38%.

Yes, there is waste. There is fraud. There’s probably abuse, too, whatever that means. But “waste” is a tricky concept.  It sounds ideological or even emotional rather, than well thought out.  But, hope springs eternal.  With a little help from me, perhaps, Civilized Conversation can do the impossible: Pull off a realistic discussion of govt waste and misspending.

It will be both a help and a hindrance to limit our topic to “federal government spending.” OTOH, the big federal programs do have the most fraud AND the worst public misperceptions about them.  OTOH, limiting to federal spending ignores a lot of govt where malfeasance may be rife(r), such as:

  • State and local govt spending: One-third of govt spending in the USA is done here with funds mainly raised locally.
  • Federal regulation, like environmental and health and safety. These can have huge impacts, big benefits as well as costs, piss people off, but leave little USG budgetary trace.
  • Tax code: Exempting people from paying taxes, like letting homeowners write off their mortgage interest payments or companies their health insurance costs may be good public policy. But it is mathematically identical to spending. Letting someone keep $1,000 that others in slightly different situations have to pay in taxes is like writing them a $1,000 check. Such “tax expenditures” cost $1.1 trillion in lost revenue per year and mainly benefit the upper middle class not the poor. Any discussion of govt waste that ignores the tax code is a waste – of your time.

I will open our mtg with a brief discussion of these confounding factors and a basic tutorial of what the federal govt spends all of that money on. Then, we will be ready for the core of this issue: What is “waste” in govt? What does the public think it means and are they right at least about where it occurs? I can speak  little bit to the topic of what “waste” s to professionals in govt that study it and try to stop it, and how prevalent it is thought to be.


Where do federal tax dollars go?

Public opinion on USG waste:

Facts on actual USG waste, fraud, abuse –

  • Waste/Fraud are real. About 30 areas of USG are at high risk of fraud, waste, and mismanagement. Many of these are at DOD, health care programs, and IT.
  • Minimizing waste is about financial controls, audits, contract oversight, and all that boring management stuff that makes for bad sound bites.
  • Known fraud in many programs is quite low; e.g., about 1% in Food Stamps. But, much is unknown due to poor oversight/financial controls.
  • Masquerading wanting to shrink the federal govt as concern for its well-being makes me want to go take some more pain medicine.

NEXT WEEK: What do the many recent popular revolts against tyranny (like in Hong Kong, Bolivia, Chile) mean?