Category Archives: Mtg Announcements

Monday’s Mtg: Our Opioid Crisis – Who’s to blame, what can be done?

The ongoing opioid crisis has been called the “epidemic of all epidemics.” It certainly is the worst drug overdose crisis in U.S. history. In 2017 alone 72,000 Americans died of opioid overdoses, up from 64,000 deaths in 2016. This is a greater toll than died in any single year ever from guns, car crashes, or HIV/AIDS.

It is not just prescription drugs that are the problem. Most addicts do start off with prescription drugs like OxyContin. But, after a decade of ridiculous increases the number legal opioid prescriptions has begun to decline. Most opioid deaths now are the result of people switching to fentanyl and heroin, much of it imported from China and Mexico.

This ravaging of Middle America has been extensively reported in the press for almost a decade. We’ve talked about it before.  What has gotten a lot less coverage is what to do about it. There is no single magic bullet that will “fix” the opioid problem. But there are a whole bunch of actions that if implemented intensively (and expensively) at all levels of government and within the health care industry that could start to contain the epidemic and reverse the damage it is causing.

Here are some descriptions of America’s opioid disaster, one major piece on solutions, and some reminders of major obstacles that prevent their being adopted. I will give a brief opening related to these readings.

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READINGS –

Solutions –

Obstacles to / problems with the solutions –

NEXT: The new Supreme Court – How far right will it really move?

Monday’s Mtg: Is there a “Right to Die”

Thanks to Ed for leading last week’s discussion on the uncertain future of NATO and other U.S. alliances. Given Ed’s extensive knowledge it must have been a good one.

One of the more fun aspects of our group is that we switch topic areas rather dramatically from week to week. Next up after NATO will be the “right-to-die.” We did this topic in 2014. But, over one-half of CivCon’s regulars are new since then and California has since passed its own assisted suicide law. So, it seems useful to tackle this haunting but important public policy issue again.

According to Wiki, California is one of eight U.S. jurisdictions where some form of assisted suicide is legal. The others are Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Vermont, Hawaii, Montana, and Washington, D.C. Assisted suicide is just what it sounds like: Suicide with help from another person.  If that person is a doctor, it is physician-assisted suicide (PAS). The individual that is to die must administer the instrument of their own death themselves.  If anyone else directly commits the killing it would be euthanasia, which no U.S. state allows. Some countries have legalized assisted suicide, mainly in Europe. Some of them have less restrictive criteria than the U.S. laws, notably Belgium and the Netherlands.

There are lots of issues here, ranging from the moral and ethical to political to the practical (of PAS laws’ proper design). I will begin our meeting by describing U.S. and selected foreign PAS laws, emphasizing California’s. Then I will introduce some of the major issues and questions that crop us when this topic gets discussed in the press. Then we can talk about the right to die as it is, should be, or shouldn’t be. Maybe we can use these questions to guide us.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. U.S. laws: What do existing U.S. PAS laws permit and not permit?
    — What moral or philosophical POV do they express?
    — What procedural safeguards do they have to prevent misuse?
  2. Foreign laws: Same Qs.
  3. Impact: How has implementation gone?
    — Who has used the laws and why?
    — Problems, controversies, public satisfaction?
  4. Arguments: Pros and cons and of supporters and opponents? Do they address each other’s’ arguments or just make different ones?
  5. You: Do you support these laws?  Why? How would you rebut what the other side says?
  6. Specific issues:
    — How often is PAS already being done on the sly? Better or worse to bring it into the open?
    — Safeguards/procedures: More/less onerous, better oversight?
    — Expand beyond terminally ill; e.g., mentally ill or infants?
    — Allowing/banning Americans from going overseas to do it?
    — Religious objections by medical providers.
    — Sanctity of life, sending the message suicide is OK.
    — How can law satisfy everybody on such a polarizing social issues? Should govt stay out of this issue altogether?
  7. Is lousy end-of-life medical care a part of the problem?  How could it be improved?

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READINGS –

NEXT: America’s opioid crisis – Who’s to blame + what to do?

Monday’s Mtg: Will NATO and other U.S.-led alliances collapse?

Reports of President Trump’s erratic behavior arrive so frequently now and are so alarming that their foreign policy implications often get overlooked in the press. Of particular concern is the70-year old, U.S.-built alliance system.

Obviously, our allies and friends have clearly been shaken by Trump’s election and his willingness to insult them and trash the very idea of positive-sum international politics. U.S. foreign policy is highly president-centered. Presidents have made significant course corrections in the past, such as Nixon’s détente, Reagan’s defense buildup, and Bush II’s preemptive war doctrine. Our allies know that Trump has a lot of room to maneuver and foreign confidence in America as a reliable ally and partner likely has taken a permanent hit.

Yet, even before Trump the U.S. alliance system was under challenge. NATO lost its core mission after the Soviet Union collapsed. China’s rise complicates our alliance system in Asia and Africa. Our relying on undemocratic governments as our main partners in the Middle East and Africa seemed more and more questionable. Globalization had created a more multipolar world that the international political order (designed mostly in the 1940s) needed to adapt to accommodate.

Perhaps most importantly, American public opinion may be changing. Many of us especially Trump’s supporters – that will still be here when he leaves the scene – have grown suspicious of our alliance system. They ask: What’s really in it for us? Why do we need NATO, 30,000 troops in South Korea, and permanent war in Afghanistan? Why do we need so many immigrants (the face of globalization most people see most clearly)?

Anyway, there are a lot of issues here. This week Edward, our resident former Foreign Service officer, will manage the meeting while DavidG is out of town. It should be very interesting.

Here are a smaller number of links than usual.

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READINGS –

 

NEXT: Should people have a “right to die?”

Monday’s Mtg, Part 2: Media Responsibility in the Post-Truth Age

Has maintaining the independence and integrity of the nation’s news media ever been more important than it is right now?  [UpdateOr more difficult?  Your #1 read.]

If there is any precedent in U.S. history for the sustained attacks by President Trump and his many allies on the media as an “enemy of the people” producing “fake news” I am unaware of it. His devotees overwhelmingly agree. Roughly three-quarters of Trump’s supporters literally believe the mainstream media (MSM) invents stories about the President in order to destroy him and about the same percentage supports government retaliation and censorship.

It’s not like the MSM and the journalistic profession were on a sound footing with the rest of the public before Trump, anyway. As we have discussed many times, the entire industry is in trouble. Its audience is changing rapidly. It is widely distrusted by the American people generally. Social media monopolies are hoovering up almost all of the industry’s new ad revenue. Big companies like Sinclair Media and private equity firms are seizing control of local TV news and newspapers. Fox News’ model of a nakedly partisan Media outlet tightly integrated with one party is being widely imitated. See the list of old CivCon meetings, below, for more on some of these issues.  CivCon has discussed news media bias, as well.

Yet, we have never exactly discussed what the reporting standards of modern journalism should be. What constitutes responsible journalism today?  Has it changed?  What standards can the MSM’ meet in today’s hyper-competitive and shrinking news media environment?  Specifically, how should the MSM:

  • Stand up for the truth?
  • Deal with propaganda posing as hard news and bad-faith political actors?
  • Uncover and counter fake news?
  • Control its own biases (or at least be upfront about them)?
  • Maintain its independence from both government and corporate masters?
  • Rebuild its lost reputation with the public?

None of these problems are from the machinations of just one man – but all are being exacerbated by him and what he is teaching his supporters to believe about the press. The MSM is not free of responsibility for some of its own problems, IMO.

Below are some readings on how the press might go about dealing with this unprecedented situation. I will start the meeting off with a short introduction that frames the issues and the basic conundrum. Then, let’s hear from everyone – including I hope the several journalist we have in the group.

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READINGS –

FYI:  CivCon mtgs on News Media –

What is good journalism?

Our crisis –

NEXT WEEK: Will NATO and other U.S.-led alliances fall apart?

Monday’s Mtg Part 1: Where do Americans get their news?

There will be two pre-mtg posts this week to preview our Labor Day topic on the news media. This one just links to a study on and some list of where Americans get their news and political information.

  • Where do we get our news from?  See this summary of Pew Center research.
  • Top 15 most popular news websites:   The top five are
    1. Yahoo (175 million unique monthly visitors)
    2. Google (150 million)
    3. Huffington Post (110m).
    4. CNN (95m)
    5. NYT (70m)
  • Top 15 political websites:  Top 5 are
    1. Huffington Post (80 million)
    2. Breitbart (60m)
    3. Drudge Report (30m)
    4. Politico (25m)
    5. The Hill (20m)
  • Top 15 social networking sites. These include #12 Meetup (42 million) and:
    1. Facebook (1.5 billion)
    2. YouTube (1.5 billion)
    3. Twitter (400m) 

NEXT: What constitutes responsible journalism today; some POVs.

Monday’s Mtg: Dating and romance in the social media age.

Probably the main purpose of Civilized Conversation (to me at least) is to help people make sense of the rapid changes that are occurring in U.S. politics and society. The background readings provide some key information and POVs and we expand on them in the discussions.

We can also learn a lot from each other. This is especially the case for topics that relate to everyday life, like this one on dating and social media.  Many of you no doubt have tried on-line dating. Even if like me you haven’t you probably have wrestled with how to use social media within your existing relationship(s) or advised friends and family on online romance issues.

About 100 dating websites/apps are commonly used, according to one study (see link below). The ten most popular websites each get more than 1 million unique visitors per month, from #1 Match.com (35m) to #10 Blackpeoplemeet.com (1.2m). The behemoth Facebook just announced it will be getting into the dating app game, so more big changes are coming.  Popular apps include Tinder, Bumble, and Grindr. Something like one-third of single Americans have used the internet for dating.

A logical approach (to out mtg, not to romance) might be to go through how the social media revolution has altered how Americans

  1. Find relationships,
  2. Maintain them,
  3. End them and deal with their aftermath, and
  4. Support family and friends that are in stages 1-3.

After my very short opening, how about if I go around the room and ask people if they want to share any stories about online dating and the lessons they’ve learned?  Feel free to pass or wait until later to talk.  Maybe some common themes will emerge early.  Regardless, we can also explore differences in the online romance world by age, race, religiosity, etc., and try to predict where all of this might be going in the future.  (Wearable dating software?  AI-enhanced love?)

There are several public affairs angle, well. One is online dating fraud and harassment. Another is privacy.  This is highly personal info people are giving out and one firm owns Match.com, Tinder, OKCupid, and Plenty of Fish. Pivoting off of last week’s outstanding meeting on racism, I would like to get into whether social media is increasing tolerance faster than intolerance.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Labor Day tough question – What does responsible journalism require today?

Monday’s Mtg: Is human nature best grasped by science, philosophy, or religion?

Everybody is all science-y about human nature these days. Insights into how and why people are the way they are gleaned from cutting edge neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, and other hard sciences have captured the public’s imagination. Pop science mags/websites are chock full of articles on the latest findings about the biological basis of human nature. The social sciences keep plugging away on the matter, too, trying to untangle the role that environment and upbringing play and whether there is such a thing as a common human nature that spans different eras and cultures.

When CivCon discussed the existence of a universal human nature in 2015 our discussion focused mostly on the science, if I recall right.

The idea behind Monday’s revisit is to make sure we don’t shortchange the 3,000 years of thinking about human nature that came before 21st century cognitive science. There are the major philosophers like Plato and Hume and their heirs. Political philosophers, including Madison and Jefferson, rooted their theories in particular views of human nature.

There is also religion. Don’t all of the major faith traditions have a conception of basic human nature? What is the Ten Commandments if not a statement about how people naturally will act if not deterred by authority? Isn’t Jesus saying that human empathy is malleable and expandable? Buddhists claim our nature is to suffer because we crave too much. You get the idea. And, yeah, the science is pretty cool, too.  Maybe some of us know more about it than I do (It would be hard to know less).

Our meetings are getting pretty crowded these days. This is great in many ways, but maybe a bigger group needs to discuss a broad topic like this one within some sort of loose structure. So, after a brief intro I will ask sequentially about:

  1. You: What personal experiences have given you insights into human nature?  Education.  Family.  Marriage/relationships.  Parenting.  Work. Worship/spirituality?  Personal crises?
  2. Science: Anything cool you’ve read on biology etc. of human nature?
  3. Social science: Sociology, economics…
  4. Religion: What do religions assume about human nature and can faith/spirituality change it?
  5. Philosophy: Insights of major thinkers + different schools (like East/West or essentialist/nomological)
  6. Art:  I forgot this one.

Here are some (optional as always) background things to ponder.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Hail Me! If you were our dictator what would you decree?

Monday’s Mtg: Are kids made or born?

In Civilized Conversation we’ve done a fair number of romance- and relationship-related topics. We’ve done others concerning changing cultural norms and issues of personal morality.  We have several more of these in our new August – December schedule, which Jenn and Rich and I are working on and which will be posted this weekend and in hard copy on Monday.

But, we never do topics related to parenting. This is kind of an omission, I‘ve always felt, since raising children is the biggest endeavor of most people’s lives. It is true that some of us have had kids and others haven’t. Either way, most of us have some personal experience in dealing with children and the mysteries of how they turn out in spite of their parents’ best (or worse) intentions. Some of us may even have been children ourselves.

So, this topic is for everybody. We can focus on either our opinions about how kids turn out in ways that are surprising to those that raise them, based on our personal observations. Or, we can talk about the psychology, biology, sociology, etc., of the nature versus nurture debate.

Link hunting, especially on topics that are way outside of my knowledge base, is time consuming. So, here are a few that seemed interesting, plus some specific discussion questions that I will use in the meeting to keep us focused on the topic.

I’ll see you Monday with new topics.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. How often in your personal experience have you seen children turn out in ways that surprised you, given their parents and upbringing? To what did you attribute these differences?
  2. What about you? What do you think caused you to be the way you are? Were you born to be a certain way or raised to be? Were there pivotal influences or events? Were you lucky or unlucky?
  3. Science and social science: What do they say about nature v. nurture? Are there new findings you’ve heard about or debunked CW? Is some of the pop science about nature v. nurture wrong?
  4. Specific traits’ origins: Nature/nurture effects on –
    a.  Intelligence?
    b.  Judgment?
    c.  Talents and abilities?
    d.  Sociability and anti-social behavior?
    e.  Morality, ethics, empathy?
    f.  Sexuality?
    g.  Success in life and in relationships?
  5. Traumas: How crucial are childhood traumas to development? What have you observed/experienced + what does the science say?
  6. What is your advice to new parents – and to ex-children?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Affordable housing in California.

Monday’s Mtg: Was communism right about anything?

Communism?  Really?

Sure, soaring economic inequality and our increasingly plutocratic politics have revived interest in class-based social analysis. But, the 20th century saw communism fail spectacularly as any kind of just or effective governing philosophy. Moreover, the 21st century is grounded in universal values that communist regimes were fundamentally hostile to, like democracy, constitutionally-limited government, and a mixed economy.  A handful of countries still call themselves socialist in the Marxist sense (China, North Korea, Cuba, etc.). But no one thinks they mean it.

Marxism is more than just a failed governing philosophy, however. (You may not even agree it failed; we could debate that.) Marxist thought was also a very well-developed system for critiquing capitalism.  Communist doctrine may be relevant today as a tool for analyzing what has gone wrong with global capitalism – and thus with democracy, even though Marx held that bourgeoisie democracy as a mere cover for capitalist greed and exploitation.  Understanding the ideas behind what some call “cultural Marxism” may help us to understand some of the structural factors that let the few continue to exploit the many in society.

I propose we start the meeting by discussing what Marxism “stands for.” It might be helpful to identify four distinct historical stages of Marxist thought:

  1. Phase 1 (1848-1917): The purely theoretical and academic phase. Mainly Marx’s philosophy and critique of where capitalism seemed to be inevitably heading, plus his vague, Romantic ideas for how to prevent that future.
  2. Phase 2 (1918-1950s or so): The state-centered ascendant phase of Soviet and Chinese led communism. Revolutionary and totalitarian. A fusion of pre-modern absolutism with new “scientific” justifications.
  3. Phase 3 (1960s-1989): The post-colonial/anti-colonial phase. Marxist-Leninism fuses with third world nationalism and adapts to local conditions (including tribalism and local leaders’ lust for power). Per Lenin, severe critique of Western-led capitalism-based globalization.
  4. Phase 4:  Post-modern Marxism (I made up that term).  Marxism as an explainer of underlying power relationships in society that oppress marginalized groups.

The point is whether communism got anything “right” requires more than just pointing out its monstrous cruelty in power. That god has failed and likely won’t be back.  Marxian ways of thinking about modern capitalism may provide insight into how we got into the economic mess we are in and how to get out of it.

On Monday I will briefly introduce the main tenets of Marxist political philosophy (I know a bit but not a lot).  Then we can dive right in. Here are some readings I found interesting.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Are kids made or born?

Monday’s Mtg: Do parliamentary systems produce better governments?

Americans continue to bemoan our paralyzed and ineffective political system. Even when it’s 108 degrees outside. Yeech. As we have discussed, some of the problem may be inherent in the structures of our political system and the way we hold elections. One particularly intriguing idea is for the United States to adopt features of a parliamentary system of government.

To go full-on parliamentary is a bit of a pipe dream since it would entail amending the unamendable Constitution. Yet, there are ways the United States could change its electoral systems that would let us capture some of the benefits of parliamentary systems. There are many different variations of the parliamentary model around the world and other presidential systems, too. So, it is hard to directly compare a generic version of the two. Moreover, the U.S. political system has some unusual/unique features beyond anything change to parliamentary procedures could change, so we couldn’t necessarily just adopt some and expect similar results.

From what I understand, the basic arguments in favor of parliamentary government include:

  1. CHOICE: They tend to produce more than two viable political parties and thus offer voters more choices, and third parties can wield substantial influence sometimes.
  2. ELECTIONS: Campaigns are shorter and harder to buy with big money. Unpopular leaders and governments can be removed quickly via no confidence votes or snap elections.
  3. GOVERNANCE: Governments are more effective and accountable because the party that controls the legislature appoints the prime minister (no separation of powers), and voters can see clearly who to hold accountable.
  4. STABILITY: Parliamentary systems are less likely to produce authoritarian strong men, like in Venezuela or other (ahem) presidential systems.

On the other hand, some argue that parliamentary systems have their own problems. Voters do not directly elect the head of state. Coalitions can take months to form, be fragile, ad fall overnight in the middle of crises. Fringe political viewpoints get their own parties and (sometimes) outsized influence in coalition parties. There are fewer checks and balances and overreliance on permanent bureaucracies. And so forth.

It’s too hot to ask folks to binge read on political theory, IMO. So, here are just a few background articles that argue the advantages and disadvantages of the two systems. I will summarize the main arguments to open our meeting

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Was communism right about anything?