31 December 2008

Schütz and Bach

Following up on my recent commentary on Heinrich Schütz's Geistliche Chormusik 1648, wherein I touched on the relative lack of influence of Schütz on Bach, I came across these two links to Youtube performances by the Calmus Ensemble of Leipzig which illustrate this point nicely. One is of a (very lovely) short motet (really a strophic part-song) by Bach, Dir, dir Jehova, and the other is of Schütz's Also Hat Gott die Welt Geliebt, from the aforementioned GCM 1648. Bach's vocal style is much more "instrumental;" Schütz's owes much of its texture and compositional technique to "Renaissance" composers such as Palestrina, Victoria, and, especially, his teacher Giovanni Gabrieli.

Of course, a good deal of this is just due to the passage of time. Schütz was a hundred years older than Bach. But this isn't the entire explanation. Bach was definitely familiar with, and influenced by, Michael Praetorius, who was born even earlier than Schütz. On the other hand, Schütz's influence on Johann Theile and Matthias Weckmann is very clear, whereas it's not noticeable in the music of their contemporaries Pachelbel or Buxtehude, both of whom left their imprints on Bach's style.

Burriss should step aside

I have no particular animus towards Roland Burriss. I think he was a fool to accept a nomination from Blagojevich, since it (predictably) probably will effectively end his political career instead of propelling him into the Senate, but that doesn't reflect on him much beyond that he was a bit blinded by ambition; hardly unusual in a politician.

To add to that, however, I have to say that this story, showing his gigantic pre-need memorial monument, is indicative of a genuinely narcissitic personality. We've got enough of those types in the Senate already.

As I understand it, it's an open question whether the Senate's constitutional power to determine the "qualifications" of its members, and the validity of their election (as opposed to appointment), gives the body the power to do anything other than seat Mr. Burriss. But since there is pretty solid opposition to accepting any appointment made by Blagojevich, I join Democrats all over the nation in calling on him to step aside for the good of the Republic, to allow an orderly process of selection (no doubt of someone else)-- free of the taint of Gov. Blagojevich.

29 December 2008

Evenhandedness on Israel in American media or policy? Don't hold your breath

Please see Glenn Greenwald on New Republic owner Marty Peretz's fanatical views on Israel, and on the general lack of evenhandedness in the American media. No one is justifying the firing of rockets from Gaza, but the disproportionate war being fought by Israel in response is a clear violation of International Law. Yet hardly anyone dares say this in the U.S. media, even though, as Glenn points out, it is being said in Israel.

Until we break free from the stranglehold AIPAC and other pro-Israeli right wing political organizations have on both parties in this country, as well as on American media, we will never be able to help the situation as an honest broker. Meanwhile, our continued funding of the Israeli military machine, without checks and without balances, is clearly making the situation much worse.

Update, 12/30: The following is from a post today by Greenwald (emphasis added).

By itself, the degree of full-fledged, absolute agreement -- down to the syllable -- among America's political leaders is striking, even when one acknowledges the constant convergence between the leadership of both parties. But it becomes even more striking in light of the bizarre fact that the consensus view -- that America must unquestioningly stand on Israel's side and support it, not just in this conflict but in all of Israel's various wars -- is a view which 7 out of 10 Americans reject. Conversely, the view which 70% of Americans embrace -- that the U.S. should be neutral and even-handed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict generally -- is one that no mainstream politician would dare express.

In a democracy, one could expect that politicians would be afraid to express a view that 70% of the citizens oppose. Yet here we have the exact opposite situation: no mainstream politician would dare express the view that 70% of Americans support; instead, the universal piety is the one that only a small minority accept. Isn't that fairly compelling evidence of the complete disconnect between our political elites and the people they purportedly represent?

There is, of course, other evidence for that proposition: the fact that overwhelming majorities of Americans have long wanted to withdraw from Iraq was completely dismissed and ignored by our bipartisan political class, which continued to fund the war indefinitely and with no conditions. But at least there, Democratic leaders paid lip service to the idea that they agreed with that position and some Democrats went beyond rhetoric and actually tried to stop or at least limit the war. But in the case of Israel, not even that symbolic nod to American public opinion occurs among the political leadership.

The other striking aspect of this lockstep American consensus is that the Gaza situation is very complex, and a wide range of opinions fall within the realm of what is reasonable. Even many who believe that Israel's attack is morally and legally justifiable as a response to Hamas rockets and who generally side with Israel --
such as J Street -- nonetheless oppose this attack on strictly pragmatic grounds: that it won't achieve anything positive, that it will exacerbate the problem, that it makes less likely a diplomatic resolution, that there is no military solution to the rocket attacks. Others condemn Hamas rocket attacks but also condemn the devastating Israeli blockade and expanding settlements. Others still who may be supportive of Israel's right to attack at least express horror over the level of Palestinian suffering and urge greater restraint.

Anyone minimally objective and well-intentioned finds Hamas rocket attacks on random Israeli civilians to be highly objectionable and wrong, but even among those who do, one finds a wide range of views regarding the Israeli offensive. But not among America's political leadership. There, one finds total, lockstep uniformity almost more unyielding than what one finds among Israeli leaders themselves -- as though Israel's wars are, by definition, America's wars; its enemies are our enemies; its disputes and conflicts and interests are, inherently, ours; and America's only duty when Israel fights is to support it uncritically.

Whatever your views of the situation over there, the alarming lack of sensitivity to public opinion Glenn documents should give anyone pause. The lockstep accord to special interest views, which we find in our public officials' statements, and, worse, their actions, should also be of concern to anyone who values open debate and policy decisions based on the best interests of the American people.

Gaza war a part of tragic Bush/Rice legacy

I just commented (below) on how ineffectual Condoleeza Rice has been. I think the war in Gaza right now is a prime example. The Bush administration's policy towards Israeli/Palestininian peace has been utterly incompetent, and this is the fruit: a part of the tragic legacy of this totally failed administration.

I fear that the Obama team is too much aligned with the same old thinking, when a completely different approach; one which might take some pointers from former President Carter, is what's needed. (Carter gets a lot of unjustified criticism, but he's the only U.S. president who ever achieved any lasting progress towards Middle East peace. That should give him credibility beyond anyone else's, but for some reason, it doesn't).

At least, Obama, and his team of foreign policy advisers, including Clinton as Secretary of State, clearly want to take action to try to change the dynamic and get some kind of serious peace process restarted. The failure of the Bush administration has mostly been its unwillingness to really take the situation seriously, or to commit any resources to it at all. As a result, the entire Israel/Palestine political situation has deteriorated steadily, exacerbated by U.S. policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have also been spectacularly incompetent.

Update 12/30: Let's hope reports today that Hamas is suing for a truce, and the Israelis are considering it, are true, and that a truce indeed materializes. May peace prevail in our World.

Laura, Condi: Bush will be vindicated

TPM reports Laura Bush and Condoleeza Rice both claim Bush presidency will be vindicated by history. Laura: what do you expect? And I suppose what else can Rice say? But really, just how clueless is it possible for this woman to be? She, too, will pretty clearly be thought of as one of the very worst to hold both of her offices in the entire history of those offices.

Krugman: 50 Hoovers and public sector participation in the economy

I have little patience with fiscal conservatism right now. Its ugly side, laissez faire, meaning let the crooks screw everyone, has totally ruined our economy for the short and medium term, and now they're saying we should cut public investment as well. I hear the argument that only discipline will correct the current problems, and that public spending is just another bubble.

That kind of thinking was what led to trying to balance the budget in 1932, with disastrous results, as Krugman points out in his column today. He points out that State governments, mostly hamstrung by the inability to deficit spend or "print money" the way the Fed can, are acting like 50 Hoovers right now, when what's needed is continued public investment. The obvious short term fix is Federal revenue sharing and direct aid to states.

When market capitalism fails, capitalists all become socialists, at least for their own interests. We have seen this in a huge way in the past six months. But what's really important is maintaining vital services, and ensuring that economic activity continues, and the only way to achieve it is public investment.

Face it, conservatives, the pendulum has swung. Uncle Milt is dead, and his policy ideas are in eclipse. We are going to have a major role for public sector investment for some time now, and a completely new regulatory regime to at least prevent the repeat of the last round of greedy entirely self-interested Wall Street schemes. The American people are pissed off, and are insisting on reform in ways we haven't seen, quite literally, since before WWII. Of course, the sharp minds who are drawn to finance will eventually figure out new ways to game the system, both financially and politically, but for a time, at least, we are going to have a big shift towards more control and more public sector participation in the economy. It's a done deal already.

24 December 2008

Why I am a Buddhist (updated 2008) (see Note, 2014)

(Oct., 2014) NOTE: In the unlikely event someone is reading this at a distance of some years, please see this (from 2013, which is more reflective of my current philosophy).  There are some things, such as specific identification with a Spiritual Guide and willing suspension of skepticism, in this post, to which I no longer adhere. I think that to some extent at the time (2008), I was 'trying to convince myself' of beliefs which I did not actually entirely embrace.


I am a Buddhist, because I have come to accept the value of Buddha Dharma as a vitally important aspect of my life. This was true when I first posted on this blog to explain why I am a Buddhist, and it remains true.

Four years ago, I wrote:

“Buddhism takes many forms, and involves many supernatural and religious beliefs in many of its human institutions, but at its core, it is not a religion at all, but a way of life, and a practice of philosophy and practical living. There is no essential belief in revealed truth of any kind, nor is there at the core of the system of thought known loosely as Buddhism any need for belief in a supernatural or supreme being, or any special forces shaping history in a miraculous way.”

I now realize that this is an incomplete view. Shakyamuni, the Founder of Buddhism on Earth, taught:

“Do not believe in anything simply because you heard it.
Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations.
Do not believe in anything because it is spoken and rumored by many.
Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books.
Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.
But after observation and analysis, you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept and live up to it.”
Kalama Sutra

The point of this is not that there are not what you might call supernatural beliefs inherent in the teachings of Buddha, but that one is not, as a lay student or practitioner, asked to take these teachings merely on faith, but you are encouraged to undertake very specific mental training practices, from which, if you follow the methods sincerely and open your heart to the transformation which can take place, you will come to understand the truth of many things that the ordinary mind of conventional thinking and conventional reality cannot perceive. Faith is very much present in Buddhism, and indeed is crucial to progressing to advanced stages, but it arises from confidence in the truth of the teachings, which in turn arises from experience.

Four years ago, I wrote:

“Even as a young child, I had serious reservations about the doctrines of Western Religion. I was told that God created the universe. I remember, even at 6 years old, finding this unsatisfactory. "Why, then," I thought, "where did God come from?" I've never had a satisfactory answer to that either. I was told (though not too emphatically by my more or less agnostic parents) that God gave his only son, and that only those who believe in him are "saved." This has just never seemed believable to me. I apologize to Christians reading this who are offended or who must condescend to pity me. But I don't ask for your pity, for I simply don't buy this story, and I never have. But what Jesus says, in the Sermon on the Mount, in the Beatitudes, is truly wonderful and transcendent. And I find that all of it, and more, the more being a lot of practical methodology, is present in Buddhism. So for me, the Dharma, or teachings of Buddhism, just make more sense and correspond to the reality I find myself living in.”

This is still my view, more or less. Buddha Shakyamuni did not offer an explanation of creation. It is said that when asked questions of this kind he remained silent. It is clear from what he did teach that he believed these kinds of concerns were the wrong questions, in the sense that they were not useful to the goal of a spiritual life, which is to transform the mind to turn away from obsessive self-concern so that delusions can be overcome and the practitioner can be of maximum benefit to other living beings. (This at least is the focus of Mahayana Buddhism, in which the goal of practice is focused on aiding others to achieve enlightenment, as opposed to merely on achieving liberation from suffering for onself.) In the process of practicing for the benefit of others, by its very nature, the sources of one's own unhappiness and suffering also fall away.

The issues that really matter are not things like, “where did the world come from?”...but concerns like the following:
  1. Buddha taught that suffering and unease are the essential nature of the world in which we dwell, the world of the cycle of birth and death, called by the Sanskrit word samsara. • This being so, what is the method to overcome and escape this state?
  2. What is virtue? Why is it important and how may one develop and cultivate it?
  3. Buddha taught that all phenomena arise from karma, that is, actions (of body, speech and mind), and the effects that arise from actions. • This being so, what is the correct view of karma?
  4. Buddha taught that there is no soul, or essential nature of self, but that the view of self as separate from others is the fundamental delusion in a conventional view of reality shared by all sentient (aware but non-enlightened) beings, that is entirely delusional. This fundamental delusion is referred to as “self-grasping ignorance.” All other delusions, from self-cherishing (the wrong view that one's own happiness is supremely important), through all the forms of attachment, aversion (anger), and ignorance (the “three poisons”), are in fact derived from this root delusional view, that causes us to set our own mind apart from the minds of others. • This being so, what is the method to overcome delusion?
  5. Buddha taught that mind is a continuum, without beginning and without end. • This being so, what is the nature of the mind itself?
  6. Buddha taught that the ultimate nature of reality is emptiness • This being so, what is the correct view of the ultimate nature of reality? How may one go about experiencing a direct realization of emptiness?
One could go on, because there are, in the conventional formula, eighty-four thousand teachings, but these issues, and the very specific and detailed answers to these questions that are taught in Buddhadharma, cover the main points.

I am not capable of giving a summary of the teachings of the Buddha on these issues; but here's a flavor:
  1. Samsara is overcome by developing method; which is the practice of the first five of the six perfections: Generosity (or giving), moral discipline (especially observing basic precepts of morality), patience, energetic effort, and mental concentration; and the practice of the sixth perfection, wisdom; or wisdom realizing ultimate truth. Entailed in this summary is the entire Buddhist path, whereby wrong views and deluded mind which cause unhappiness and suffering, including the sufferings of birth, aging, sickness, death, and what you might sum up as frustration, are actually overcome, and a transcendent state of enlightenment is achieved. The enlightened state is a mind in which the world is pure, the mind is free of all delusion and all suffering and ignorance, and one's entire being is necessarily devoted to helping others to attain the same state. All feeling is pleasing; attachment, aversion, and ignorance (including the root delusion, self-grasping ignorance), do not arise, and the mind experiences a union of great bliss and emptiness. In this state, sometimes referred to as no more learning, the mind is omniscient, sees all of reality clearly (including the union of conventional truth and ultimate truth, the emptiness of all phenomena of inherent existence). This mind is completely filled with perfect universal love and compassion, and it pervades all of space. (Clearly, this is in some sense supernatural, and the practice of Buddhadharma is indeed a religion.)
  2. Virtue is a word that points to states of mind and actions of body, speech and mind which lead to happiness, for oneself and others. In other words, virtue is a phenomenon which functions as the main cause of happiness. That's all there is to it, but of course, that's a very great deal.
  3. Karma is action, and effects of actions; thus all actions are causes. Since effects are also actions and causes, it is an endless cycle. Through the force of our intention, which is a mental factor, we perform actions of body, speech and/or mind, which produce effects. (The most powerful, by far, of these actions are mental actions). Intention, in fact, is the only way to break the cycle of negative karma, for only through intention may negative effects of negative causes be transmuted into positive effects and further positive effects from those causes. The effect of virtuous actions is happiness and the effects of negative actions is suffering. The mechanism for karma is the residence in the mental continuum itself of karmic potentials. These “seeds” are the only thing, apart from the mental continuum itself, that survives the death of the body, so karma is vitally important, and the purification (transformation) of negative karma is one of the main practices of a Buddhist. Buddhists also recognize that karma is tremendously subtle, and impossible for an ordinary mind to fully see clearly, and that it can operate over tremendously long periods of time. Buddha taught that the suffering of this life is largely the result of negative actions of past lives. This is a tough nut for most westerners to swallow, but as you become more familiar with Buddhist thought, it becomes less alien and more natural seeming.
  4. Various methods of meditation (which is merely focusing the mind on objects of virtue), taught by lineage teachers such as Atisha and Je Tsongkhapa (or others, in other forms), lead to abandoning self-cherishing, and learning to cherish only others. From this comes universal lovingkindness, universal compassion, and universal love. These qualities of mind naturally lead to the gradual erosion of delusion and bring us closer and closer to the enlightened state. These are the method practices of the stages of the path, called lam rim, in Tibetan. Together with transforming the mind, called lojong, and the actual practices of developing wisdom (a correct understanding of emptiness), these practices are the main causes of enlightenment. (In Indo-Tibetan Buddhism there is another element, tantra, which for simplicity can be thought of as visualization and self-actualization as the object of meditation, which functions as a quick path to enlightenment, but this is perhaps too technical to get into further here).
  5. Buddhist understanding of mind is very different from the conventional Western view. Mind has the essential nature of clarity, and it functions to cognize, i.e. to perceive or know objects, meaning those things which are perceived or known. It sounds circular, but it really isn't; we have to have a way to point to what mind does, which is necessarily in some sense beyond the capacity of language to specify exactly. Even with the essential nature of clarity, mind may become clouded by delusion; once the delusion is removed, mind has the capacity to perceive purely and perfectly; whereupon the true nature of reality is directly perceived. This is really all there is to it, but it's not easy for a deluded mind to overcome its habitual patterns of incorrect view and the cycle of karmic potentials ripening.
  6. The very heart of Buddhadharma is the doctrine of emptiness, the true nature of reality, as mentioned above. This is so profound a topic that it is virtually impossible to say anything meaningful about it in a few words. My Spiritual Guide, Venerable Kelsang Gyatso, has pointed to it with this deceptively simple formulation: The things that we ordinarily perceive do not actually exist. Once all clouded mind and wrong view are removed, the mind sees the reality of phenomena, which is that all phenomena lack inherent existence, (sometimes called “existence from their own side.”) Seeing this, the true nature of things becomes manifest. But since without first removing all delusion, one cannot have this experience, and since it is an experience which, by definition, cannot be described in words, it can only be glimpsed, with increasing awareness and understanding through meditation and practice, until finally it can be directly realized.
Eventually, from practicing methods taught by qualified teachers, one experiences considerable lightening of the dark clouds of deluded thinking, and comes to have great confidence in the usefulness of the Buddha's methods and the truth of his teachings.

Kelsang Gyatso, after the horrendous attacks of 9/11, made the remark that as long as samsara persists, events of that kind would continue to happen. Seeing this, we should know that Dharma is truth.

This may seem to be a nonsequitur, but with awareness that the whole of Dharma is the only means to overcome the karmic cycle of birth and death, which is by its very nature suffering, one learns to learn from everyday life the truth of Dharma. All phenomena become Dharma teachings to an advanced practitioner (I'm told... not there yet).

Four years ago, I tried to recount the story of the Buddha:

The Buddha was a man, and not a god. He was born as Siddharta Gautama, the prince of small kingdom called Shakya (hence one of his designations, Shakyamuni, the Shakya prince) in northern India or present-day Nepal. Traditionally, until he was 29 years old, he lived the life of King's son - that is to say, he partied a lot, ate a lot, probably had sex a lot, and he remained protected from the seedier side of life outside the palace walls.

The story goes that one day the pampered prince accidentally saw a old sick man in the street, and Siddharta was overcome with horror at this unaccustomed sight of ugliness, disease, and decay. How could people ever be happy knowing that all life must end in death and decay? Siddharta remained in this deep funk until he one day encountered an ascetic holy man. In the midst of all the working-class depression, this man somehow managed to maintain a serene attitude. The prince became a follower of this holy man, and thus embarked on his spiritual career.

In Siddharta's day, being a beggar monk, or mendicant, was an acceptable lifestyle; people respected these mendicants for giving up earthly ambitions and devoting themselves to a virtuous poverty. They received shelter and handouts of food from pious folk everywhere. There was a lot of disagreement, however, as to what exactly it means to be holy and virtuous. Ask a dozen different gurus and you'd get a dozen different answers. Which was the right way? Siddharta, having become a poor monk, joined the school of ascetics, who believed that mortification of the body leads to the purification of the mind and spirit. This is a major theme in spiritual practice of many religions. Starving yourself, sitting upright for days without sleep, poking needles through your body - this was all pudding and lollipops to the ascetics. Siddharta pursued this path to paradise with varying degrees of success until the age of 35 [36]. But finally, having reduced himself to a almost skeletal proportions, he realized that this self-denial wasn't any more rewarding or productive of englighened mind than his original lifestyle of ignorant hedonism had been.

Siddharta abandoned his vows of asceticism, much to the disgust of his fellow practitioners, and he strengthened his body and sat down under a fig tree to meditate. And that's when it happened: Siddharta Gautama realized the Middle Way between hedonism and asceticism, and came to understand completely how to train the mind to avoid the pitfalls of desire and attachment, and became, in the traditional formulation, enlightened. He was now the Buddha. Buddhist philosophers have espoused and developed on the teachings of the Buddha contained in the sutras, in a phenomenologically extremely subtle and complex system of thought, but the essence of it is not intellectual or terribly hard to understand: it is the process of recognizing the impermanence of phenomena and letting go of attachment to them, and of opening the heart to compassion, lovingkindness, joy in others' joy, and equanimity (see the brahma-viharas, below).

In India of the Buddha's time, there was a background of belief in reincarnation. the law of karma, and a variety of deities. These beliefs form a backdrop to traditional Buddhism. For modern Westerners, however, the literal belief in reincarnation and supernatural entities is easily dispensable.
The Buddha made no fuss about his experience of enlightenment, according to traditional accounts, but his former holy man pals, who were still annoyed with him for abandoning his ascetic vows, noticed that he seemed to be peculiarly serene and that his eyes seemed to shine with the light of understanding. So they gathered one day and asked the Buddha what was going on. That was when the Buddha gave his first talk as the Awakened One, the lecture which explained the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. These noble truths are the core of the Buddhist belief system; the only way to reach enlightenment (which is good) is to accept these Noble Truths.

I have little to add to this. This story is inspiring, but less important to my way of thinking now than it was perhaps four years go. The story of Shakyamuni's life is not as important as the profound wisdom of his teachings.

Buddhist doctrine is often summed up in the formulation taught by Buddha as the Four Noble Truths. Below is what I wrote about the Four Noble Truths, in brown text. I have added a few comments.

The First Noble Truth

Life entails suffering. All human beings experience pain, loss, anguish, fear, hunger, disease, and death.
Comment, 2008: Life doesn't entail suffering. Suffering is the essential nature of deluded existence. All happiness actually results from blessing of enlightened mind. This is a profound realization in itself, akin to the Christian view that all good is from God.

The Second Noble Truth
The origin of suffering is the craving for pleasure, existence, and non-existence. You get it in your head that you want things, and your mind then becomes an instrument for chasing those things. The actual objects you desire are irrelevant; wanting things - anything - severely circumscribes a person's capacity to be at peace and to experience happiness, which is what all people want. The body needs sustenance, but it's the self that craves pleasure, existence and non-existence, and it's the self that in wisdom will come to be seen as insubstantial. This is the Buddhist doctrine of anatman, no-self.

Comment: The origin of all suffering is delusion, and the fundamental delusion is self-grasping ignorance, as noted above. Otherwise, what this says is true.

The Third Noble Truth
Some people say that all this talk of suffering makes Buddhism a pessimistic religion; and in a certain sense this is true. However, the pessimism is tempered by the Third Noble Truth, the truth of the cessation of suffering; that there is a way to rid yourself of this suffering. This is the “Good News” aspect of Buddhism.
Comment: The “good news” is that there is Dharma; Buddha's eighty-four thousand teachings, which enable us to transform our minds and become exactly like him. This sometimes sounds creepy to people who are not yet familiar with the concept of self-grasping ignorance and the reality that our view of ourselves as separate and individual is in fact, delusional, i.e., contrary to reality. But the reality is that this method is the only source of happiness; all happiness arises from it, even in those who are not intentionally practicing it.

The Fourth Noble Truth
To rid yourself of suffering, you need to follow the Eightfold Noble Path pioneered by Gautama. The way is available to anyone, and effective, although difficult. It is not, however, impossible, and, unlike many ‘religions,’ there exists a large body of extremely practical methodology for progressing along the way to the transformation that can result in the cessation of suffering. What the Buddha himself said, on several occasions, is that it is difficult, and requires great effort, but that he would not ask it of his followers if it were not possible, and that he, having followed this path himself, could testify to it.

Comment: The Fourth Noble Truth is the whole of Dharma, the actual method, realized by the enlightened mind of Buddha, for overcoming suffering of oneself and others. Even for someone who does not now believe in such a thing, they can think, what could be more wonderful? Even this thought is virtuous, and is a cause of eventual enlightenment.

The Fourth Noble Truth is often referred to as The Eightfold Path. This is what I wrote about it four years ago:

The Eightfold Path
The whole reason for becoming Buddhist is to make happiness possible, through enlightenment, which may be thought of as “opening of the heart.” In order to do this, you must follow the Eightfold Path. The eightfold path is not a recipe, but it is a method, and it works in baby steps. Like the “steps” in 12-step programs, it can be like a spiral, where you keep returning to and deepening your understanding of each of the stages.

  1. Right Knowledge: Strive to comprehend the first three Noble Truths. The Four Noble Truths are not at all simple, and require much insight and understanding.
  2. Right Thinking: Consciously dedicate yourself to a life in harmony with the Noble Truths elucidated by the Buddha. The intentional direction of thought towards working on the path is right thinking (see right effort below, for the conscious direction of action in general).
    Comment: The key here is intention. I would not now put this in exactly this way, but it's accurate as far as it goes. Thought is specific to reforming the processes of the mind; there are many methods associated with this process, and all are very explicitly elucidated for the practitioner by Buddhist lineage teachers, whose teachings we are blessed to have available to us, even in these degenerate times, far from their origins in space and time.
  3. Right Speech: Use speech not to cause harm to others, but to direct them towards an open heart and the virtues.
  4. Right Conduct: For lay Buddhists (meaning Buddhists who aren't monks), Right Conduct means following the Five Precepts(see below). If you're a monk, there are some more rules for conduct, which detail how to conduct yourself in order to be free of impediments to serious progress. Lay people inevitably are compromising their spiritual path and settling for achieving peace and harmony, but not the cessation of all suffering.Comment: Right conduct is more than just the five precepts. It is sincere dedication to avoiding harming others, and to turning one's activities towards helping others.
  5. Right Livelihood: Go peacefully into the world and do no harm. This involves choosing a vocation or profession that does not cause harm to others. (Easier said than done).
  6. Right Effort: Conquer the flow of negative thoughts, replacing them with good thoughts. Direction of one’s efforts towards achieving these goals.

    Comment: Effort is sincere dedication to actually putting the teachings into practice. This can be one's entire life work, filling all one's time, or it can be less than this, but there needs to be actual effort; progress to englightenment does not come naturally, but requires intention and effort, i.e., a little push. Get out of bed and sit on the cushion and try sincerely to meditate. Open the book and read. Get in the car and go to teachings. Try sincerely to understand and put into practice what you hear.
  7. Right Mindfulness: Achieve an intense awareness of your body, emotions, and mental states. Quiet the noises in your head and dwell in the present. This is the meditation of everyday life, in which you cultivate the awareness of your life in the context of the efforts to follow this path.

    Comment: The main issue with mindfulness is retaining Dharma in your consciousness. Our habitual patterns will re-emerge spontaneously and overcome virtuous intention without the effort to maintain mindfulness. This is so critical to successful practice that it is a separate stage of the path in its own right.
  8. Right Concentration: Learn about (and practice) various kinds of meditation, for which detailed procedural systems are in place, and which have a proven track record. There is nothing mystical here: meditation is nothing more than (or less than) a complete system of training the mind.
I wrote this four years ago about the Five Precepts, which are the core of the rules of living for lay people, or Pratimoksha, in Sanskrit.

The Five Precepts
The Five Precepts are the basic rules of conduct for lay Buddhists--as opposed to monks and nuns, who have additional complex rules. The Five Precepts aren't commandments given to you by an angry God who threatens you if you disobey; rather, they are guidelines meant to improve your karma and help you along the Eightfold Path to enlightenment. These few rules keep you out of the worst kinds of trouble, ultimately making you happier. They are like, and yet unlike, the ten commandments; their goal is the happiness of people and the cessation of harm and suffering.
  1. Avoid the taking of life. This is at its most basic level a proscription against murder, but in deeper terms it means a reverence for all life, and the avoiding of unnecessary destruction of life of any kind, and a prescription to love the Earth and living things, and to protect them.
  2. Avoid the taking of that which is not given. This has deeper levels too… unnecessary ownership of resources others need is seen as causing harm.
  3. Avoid falsity of word and deed, and use of words to cause harm. Again, this contains deeper levels. Not only not to lie, but not to use language to manipulate, or to gossip about people to their detriment; or to conduct oneself so as to cause deception or to take advantage. This is a prescription for basic honesty, and minding of one’s own business.
  4. Avoid sexual conduct which causes harm. Room for interpretation here, but the main thing is to recognize that sex and sexual behavior are dangerous if great care is not given to ensure that others are not hurt by your actions.
  5. Avoid intoxicants, which cloud the mind and cause heedlessness. On its face, this is simple; but it can also apply to avoiding toxic thought and foods, as they work in the same way as drugs and alcohol to poison the mind and heart.
I still think this is a good summary.

The following is my earlier commentary on the Brahma-Viharas. I would no longer say that these are the essence of Buddhist thought, which is more than this. Rather, they are the essence of what are called method practices, as referred to above. By turning our minds towards these virtuous states, we increase the causes of enlightenment for oureselves and others. What could be more wonderful than that?
The Brahma-Viharas

An essential quality, or set of qualities, of all of the stages of the Eightfold path are the Brahma Viharas, or sublime conditions. These are the essence of Buddhist thought: they pervade everything, and are the essential condition, or quality, of bodhicitta, the heart of enlightenment. It is this bodhicitta that develops in you as you enter the stream and follow the teachings of the Buddha, and is itself the essence of the teachings as well as what makes them possible. The Four ‘Sublime Conditions’ are:

Metta (Pali; Sanskrit, Maitri): caring, lovingkindness. Toward all you meet or reflect upon, your heart feels caring and lovingkindness.
Karuna: compassion. This is the sympathetic pain upon encountering the suffering of others (or of oneself; karuna begins with oneself).
Mudita: sympathetic joy, the happiness of seeing happiness in others.
Uppekha (Upeksa): equanimity; the ability to accept others, as they are; and reality, as it is. Tricky sometimes, for it involves the phenomenon of karma. You are not responsible, and cannot possibly be responsible, for the suffering of others or the condition of the world. You do what you can (right effort, right mindfulness, the other brahma viharas), but you don't allow them to overwhelm and destroy you. Another way to think of this is "letting go."
Comment: Equanimity is more than this. It is also, primarily actually, the transformation of the mind that sees others as either attractive, unattractive, or indifferent, and learns to cherish all living beings without exception or distinction. All these qualities in an enlightened being become truly universal. A Buddha has perfect love, compassion, and sympathetic joy for all living beings, and thereby has perfect equanimity. Training in these qualities is a cause to become like a Buddha. How wonderful!

Friedman: Time to Reboot

I have been occasionally rather critical of Tom Friedman, especially for his longtime support for the Iraq war (finally abated recently), but I have to say, he has it exactly right today in this article saying America needs to reboot.

Caroline Kennedy overplayed hand?

See this from NYT. Seems Caroline Kennedy may have overplayed her hand a little. It'll be interesting to see what transpires.

23 December 2008

Why I am a Buddhist ... update forthcoming

Almost exactly four years ago I posted this on this blog, entitled Why I am a Buddhist. I will be editing and reposting an updated version in the (I hope) near future.

Update: See above.

22 December 2008

Josh Marshall on Cheney: exactly right

Good Riddance, saith Josh.

Greenwald on Cheney's latest claims that the Congress was consulted and uniformly approved illegal warrantless surveillance. Tiring, but necessary reading, especially since it's hard to credit much this utterly despicable man says. It's easy to just say, let's put this behind us, but we owe to the future making sure: (a) the new administration understands that this unconstitutional illegal spying on Americans must stop, and (b) that it doesn't happen again. And that means prosecution, and accountability, for past law-breaking.

The Day the Earth Stood Still: high concept sci-fi movie

No attempt at a proper movie review, but I'd advise folks who at least tolerate science fiction to go see The Day the Earth Stood Still. Some of the criticism of it is misplaced, I think. It's high concept, and takes the original only as a starting point. I commented to my companion afterwards, "this is the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind should have been."

Still cutting Barack slack

A bit out of context perhaps. This is the end of an exchange I was having about l'affaire Warren. (See here).

This one seems to have legs, as they say in the news biz. I'm pretty sure the Obama people aren't entirely deaf to the criticism. They won't undo this, because it would be seen as a gaffe, but maybe they'll learn from it.

I am still cutting Barack a lot of slack. The huge stinking pile of poo that is landing on his desk; certainly the most complicated, if not actually the most threatening, set of problems to face an incoming prez in history; is just so dreadful that we have to hang with this guy and try to help him start on a road to recovery. Even if he does say and do some things that are, to say the least, troubling.

19 December 2008

Cheney bucking for pardon? Nah.

Michael Latt in HuffPo is claiming that Cheney is trying to force Bush's hand in his admission in an interview with Jonathan Karl of ABC that he approved waterboarding:

There are those who see the vice president's admission as part of a strategy to force the president to pardon him and all those named in the Senate Report: Rumsfeld, Meyers, and Rice. If Bush doesn't pardon them, they will certainly be pursued by those in the new administration who will not let-bygones-be-bygone.

Since Bush has been famously reticent to grant pardons both as governor and president, then Cheney's ABC interview with Jonathan Karl is a way of provoking Bush to act while he still can. If Cheney is pardoned then he'll have it both ways: maintaining that what was done was legal and being protected from prosecution.

I don't buy it. Cheney's a true-believer, who cannot conceive that he needs to be pardoned for anything. Also, a pardon is excuse from a particular crime, and its acceptance is legally considered an admission of guilt. Somehow I just can't see either Bush or Cheney going this route.

Auto bridge loan

I already strongly expressed my view that of all the various "bailouts," doing something to make sure that the U.S. automakers don't just collapse is critically important. The plan announced by Pres. Bush this morning no doubt has many flaws, not least of which is that by all accounts it is maddeningly vague and will no doubt be interpreted to effectively prevent control and direction from the public sector, which it seems to me is essential right now to mandate major changes in direction. But at least it kicks the can down the road so that the Obama administration can do whatever it takes to ensure the long term survival of an auto industry in this country. To my way of thinking, this is of vital, actually strategic importance, and is more important than three quarters of the Pentagon budget to the security of our country.

18 December 2008

Franken v. Coleman down to the wire • Franken favored

TPM is reporting that ongoing counting now has Franken down by only 5 votes, with expectation that if this trend isn't reversed, he will pull ahead in counting tomorrow and likely win. Of course, there will probably be litigation afterwards, but if the Elections Canvassing Board declares Franken the winner, as now, for the first time, seems likely, the Senate will seat him. I'm not sure about the historical precedents, but I gather that once that happens, it's extremely likely that whoever is seated by the Senate will serve out the term.

Update: The Minneapolis Star-Tribune now (12/19 11:00 PST) has Franken ahead by 188 266, and projects he will remain ahead, by 78 75, when all challenges are resolved.

If this proves true, or even if Coleman pulls it out, it will be remarkable that a Senate election where nearly four million votes were cast will apparently be decided by less than 100 votes.

War Crimes Prosecutions essential

This is an important post by Glenn Grennwald. I think he makes the point very well that the demand for war crimes prosecution isn't coming from some shrill vindictive minority, but is the reasoned position of millions of people who believe strongly in the rule of law, and in the principle that prosecution of official crime is the only effective deterrent.

See TPM today, too, for a video interview snippet with Center for Constitutional Rights president Michael Ratner, explaining exactly this.

Chuck Todd to White House beat

I guess we won't be seeing Chuck Todd so often on Keith Olbermann's Countdown on MSNBC, now that NBC has announced he's being slotted to replace David Gregory as White House correspondent.

Todd is an analyst, a skill he won't be able to display quite as much in this new job, but he is definitely one of the best reporters of his cohort (more on point and incisive than Gregory, certainly).

A sober perspective from a financial professional

My friend who made his career understanding markets writes:

...from my perspective, the current financial crisis is getting worse, not
better. The FEDS continue to pursue a policy of fixing the leak by adding
more water. They think that if they can fill up the pond faster than it is
draining it will somehow repair itself. Clearly a mistaken perception.

The corporate debt market, and now the markets for state bonds, are
completely dysfunctional. Next quarter I fear we will see bankruptcies
mushroom. I don't see the FEDS doing things that will encourage investors
to take on corporate obligations. And without these funds available,
America cannot finance itself.

Unfortunately, I can't find any reason to disagree with any of this.

17 December 2008

Schütz: Geistliche Chormusik, 1648

I've not mentioned music much on this blog, which has been primarily devoted to politics. As part of an occasional foray into other topics, I introduce my few (or is it zero?) readers to my eccentric musical tastes. I tend to look askance at conventional popular music. I like a lot of it, especially from before about 1950, but it just isn't interesting enough to me to spend time with. Some so-called "World Music" and Jazz (especially with piano) is interesting, but for me, the mainstream of Western music is my main bread and butter, starting in the early Renaissance and running up to, say Bartok. I'd mention a certain disdain for the later Romantics (except Wagner and Mahler), and an emphasis, compared to most Classical music aficionados, on music before 1750.

You may have noted the famous portrait of the very serious 17th century composer Heinrich Schütz on the sidebar. Schütz was tremendously gifted, but all of his instrumental, and most of his other secular music, was lost, so we have only his formal vocal church music to go on. He was, I think unquestionably, the most talented German composer of his century, and probably second only to Monteverdi in Europe of the time (Monteverdi was about 20 years older). Oddly, although he lived until just over a decade before Bach's birth despite being almost exactly 100 years older, Schütz had next to no influence on Bach.*

I recently bought a fairly new recording of the Geistliche Chormusik of 1648, one of Schütz's most spare and serious sets of choral compositions, performed by Hans-Christoph Rademann, cond; Dresdner Kammerchor; & Cappella Sagittariana [CARUS 83232, 2 CDs, about $36]. A 1962 recording by Mauersberger is a bit too stolid for my taste, and I believe it's out of print. There are quite a few recordings of just some of the motets, but few complete sets.

There was a pretty decent 1970s era recording made (still available last I checked), by the Westfälische Kantorei under Wilhelm Ehmann. Some of these suffer from a thick texture owing to Ehmann's theory that all the vocal parts were to be doubled by instruments (there are no independent instrumental parts in these conservative, even for their time, motets). Rademann's approach, and the recording itself, are clearer and preferable, except for one or two of the motets, where his tempos seem a bit too fast to me.

See this for a review, mentioning several recordings, by J.F. Weber in Fanfare.
*(Bach was more influenced by lesser lights like his own uncle, Johann Christoph Bach, and Buxtehude and Pachelbel. Compare Bach's Motets, which are very conservative compositions for his time, to the Geistliche Chormusik, to hear the point).

William Morris: News from Nowhere

At a friend's recommendation, I've been reading News from Nowhere (1890) by the artist, printer, and writer William Morris. An explicitly socialist utopian novel, it's no masterpiece, but it has its charms. Morris seems delightfully naive by today's sensibilities, but of course, we have the hideous events of the 20th century to reflect upon.

Blogs and Blogging

If you spend a few moments clicking on "next blog" on Google-blogger blogs (such as this one), you will be struck, as I was, by a couple of characteristics:
  • Fewer than half seem to be North American. A large percentage are Brazilian. Many are Asian.
  • By far most of them are obscure, narrowly directed to a tiny specialized audience, or just personal small talk, of no interest to anyone who doesn't know the blogger.

Fire Blackwater?

TPM reports that a State Dept. panel is recommending dropping Blackwater as the main provider of security for State Dept. personnel in Iraq. The decision will be left to the Obama administration, naturally.

This is an example of too little, too late. It's clear that there has been massive fraud and abuse by private contractors in Iraq, and that the whole scheme of privatizing services that once were, and should again be either handled by uniformed military or by civilian government employees, needs to be completely overhauled. In most cases, private contractors should be excluded entirely. Certainly those whose track records have been deplorable (and that's most of them), should be fired and excluded from eligibility for a good long time.

Of course, in conjunction with a top to bottom overhaul of American interventionist foreign policy all around, which I hope the Obama administration seriously pursues, we can hope that the need for private contractors in these kinds of functions will drop to practically zero in the fairly near future regardless.

16 December 2008

Guest Post by Nancy S.: Bush and Paulson Have It Their Way While America Reels

Did you know that while they had the Bailout Bill in signing, Bush and Paulson changed one tiny line to read " No special compensation or bonuses will be given to any executives of companies from whom Treasury buys toxic assets" So I guess we know why Paulson changed his mind about buying toxic assets. Now all the financial execs can collect all their bonuses etc on our billions.

This is the real legacy of the Bush administration. He has pretty much managed to transfer all the wealth and potential wealth of our democracy to his oligarchic comrades and war mongering cronies also known as his base. The military industrial congressional complex is doing just fine while our neighbors lose their homes and jobs. And the benefits to Wall Street are unspeakable. Bush did his job perfectly and pulled the biggest heist perhaps in world history to date from the citizens of the country he promised to protect. War on Terror 0 War on Citizenry 10. The real terror is the capture of so much capital in so few hands.

War Criminal Watch: Cheney continues to condone torture

I didn't see the entire Cheney interview with Jonathan Karl of ABC news, but here's a telling excerpt:
KARL: And on KSM [Khalid Sheikh Mohammad], one of those tactics, of course, widely reported, was waterboarding. And that seems to be a tactic we no longer use. Even that you think was appropriate?
Waterboarding, everywhere and always in modern times, except in Bush-era America, has been and is universally recognized by civilized nations as illegal torture. Even Bush ordered it ceased in 2007.

From the blog War Crimes, discussing the same interview:

When asked about the legality of harsh interrogation tactics conducted by CIA officers, and others, Cheney maintained water-boarding was not categorically defined as torture.

“I think those who allege that we’ve been involved in torture, or that somehow we violated the Constitution or laws with the terrorist surveillance program, simply don’t know what they’re talking about,” the vice president said.

In the same interview, Cheney unequivocally acknowledged having approved this treatment, specifically. What more do you need to know? I think history's conclusion will be inescapable: our vice-president is a war criminal, and if we didn't already have enough evidence, we now have his direct admissions to prove it.

To my mind, it's long past time to stop coddling and deferring to people who by their own admission have committed acts that can only be described by reasonable people as war crimes. Other political leaders should openly condemn these acts, and shun this despicable man overtly, until such time as an appropriate tribunal can investigate and prosecute him.

As for the notion that important information was gained through torture, this is just plain nonsense. Every responsible interrogator, in the U.S. military and outside of it, will say that coercive interrogation techniques do not work. They yield almost entirely incorrect and useless information (as Jane Mayer documents in The Dark Side with specific reference to KSM). Moreover, the use of these techniques reduces the ability of interrogators to obtain useful information, including from other prisoners as the reputation of the U.S. for torturing detainees spreads among the populations from which the detainees come. Of course, the moral standing of the United States has also been damaged so badly that it will take a very, very long time to repair, thanks to Mr. Cheney and his cohorts who authorized and condoned torture.

Another detriment to the torture of people like KSM in particular is that, once we finally abandon the unconstitutional and illegal detention of detainees without trial, or trial of them in kangaroo courts, in places like Guantánamo, the fact that these individuals were tortured will make it virtually impossible to convict them of their actual crimes in legitimate courts. This unholy mess is directly attributable to the banal evil and stupidity of people like Addington and Cheney.

In reality, when the law has been followed in the past, as in the Ramzi Yousef case, it has proven relatively straightforward to bring successful prosecutions of terrorists in the legitimate criminal justice system. But once the evidence is tainted by torture, it will be all but impossible.

Fred Armisen: bad taste

I'm usually pretty liberal about political humor, and I didn't see the original show, but from what I saw of Fred Armisen's evisceration of Gov. David Paterson on SNL, which ridiculed blindness and disabilities in general, it was in just plain execrable taste, and an apology is in order.

15 December 2008

Guest Post by Nancy S.: Automaker Industrial complex?

I am honored to be able to post on Gyro, my brother's blog. I have many opinions, some insights and commentary about the American scene as reported to me on Link TV, Free Speech TV, CNBC, Fox News, MSNBC and C-Span and various books and blogs.

Remember the military industrial congressional complex. How come defense contractors don't need bailouts...maybe because they already get such a gigantic chunk of the Pentagon's $800B budget every year? I don't know for sure...but maybe Congress could think about giving the automakers a budget like that and then we can buy our cars through our Senators. Of course they would have to have cute cars, sleek cars, roomy cars etc. The Car Czar could do some market research and get back to us.
Avalokiteshvara, the Treasury of
Unobservable Compassion

Picture of a Bodhisattva

I put a picture of Bodhisattva Langri Tangpa, the author of Training the Mind in Eight Verses, one of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism's chief lojong ("mind-training") root texts, on the masthead to the left. This is not intended to imply that anything posted on this blog is Dharma, or even reflective of awareness of Buddhadharma... only to remind me, and anyone else, to try to refrain from harming others, even as we express our oh-so-important opinions.

Keep Robert Rubin away from decision making of any kind

I should think that this, from Frank Rich's column in yesterday's Times, would be sufficient reason for Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin to be permanently excluded from consideration for any government post, not to mention any significant management post anywhere:

...if all bubbles and panics are alike, this one, the worst since the Great Depression, also carried the DNA of our own time. Enron had been a Citigroup client. In a now-forgotten footnote to that scandal, Rubin was discovered to have made a phone call to a former colleague in the Treasury Department to float the idea of asking credit-rating agencies to delay downgrading Enron’s debt. This inappropriate lobbying never went anywhere, but Rubin neither apologized nor learned any lessons. “I can see why that call might be questioned,” he wrote in his 2003 memoir, “but I would make it again.” He would say the same this year about his performance at Citigroup during its collapse.

12 December 2008

Senator Al Franken ? ?

Beginning to look like Al Franken just might end up being the 59th Democrat in the new Senate (58th if you don't count Fickle Joe from Connecticut).

Watch this Space

I've been asked to consider posting guest articles, which I'm happy to do, subject to editorial discretion. E-mail me anything you'd like posted; if I decide not to or want to edit it, I'll be in touch. You hafta give me a working e-mail address, and your real name, which will not be used unless you ask me to.

An impassioned reaction to the failure of the Auto Industry rescue plan

In the wake of the failure of the Auto industry bridge loan, I sure hope the foolhardy Republicans in the Senate who blocked its passage are happy. They have probably ensured that the recession will indeed be longer, deeper, and more permanently destructive to the U.S. economy than any since the Great Depression.

The breathtaking stupidity of their rationale is so egregious that it makes me wonder about their patriotism. They and their ilk love to question the patriotism of people who civilly disagree with a particular foreign policy analysis justifying supposedly preventive wars, but when they act in ways that are directly, materially destructive to a strategically vital sector of the U.S. manufacturing economy, we're all supposed to say, oh, well, it's just a difference of opinion. But the fact is, actions matter, and votes matter.

Even the Bush administration came to understand how vital it is to keep the auto industry in business during a transition to a whole new management approach, product range, and set of long term goals.

Sure, the auto companies have been badly managed. Very badly. And I certainly support forcing them to revamp completely, towards efficient vehicles, away from fossil fuels; including ousting the current management, especially at GM, where they have been incredibly stupid for the past ten years especially.

Having said that, it's utterly beyond me how Senate Republicans can justify $150 billion in taxpayer funds to make high flying speculators whole in the AIG bailout; (people whose actions would be criminal if they had not been foolishly and destructively legalized); but they can't see their way clear to guarantee a tenth that amount for a historic and strategic manufacturing industry. I truly hope that the public comes to see just how destructive this is, and votes every single one of these fools out of office.

Of course, even moreso, I hope that we are able to avoid the worst of the likely destructive effects of this vote. There is, at least, hope that the administration will allow use of the TARP bailout funds to at least ensure that GM and Chrysler don't fold before January, when we can try again.

Chapter 11 is no solution. The effect on the confidence in the companies and the ripple effect on jobs in the region would create a downward spiral that I think it's unlikely either GM or Chrysler would survive at all. Get with it folks, this is an unacceptable outcome, which must be avoided.

Bail out finance but not industry. Disgusting. I fear we're likely to find out just how foolish this was, when its cascading destructiveness ricochets throughout our economy in the coming months and years. Maybe, somehow, this can be avoided. I sure hope so.

Update: The NYT is
reporting that the Bush administration may be open to using the TARP bailout money to help bridge the gap for the Auto industry. Credit where credit is due, if this proves true.

Update 2:
Hale Stewart in HuffPo agrees with me: "The Republicans want a Depression."

Update 3: It is particularly vexing to encounter the right wing argument, invariably placed first in the agenda, that the primary problem with the auto makers is their supposed failure to "negotiate" better contracts with (i.e., use the leverage of globalization to force huge givebacks from) their union workers and retirees. I reject this argument completely. The problem with the U.S. economy isn't overpaid workers. It's public policies that have intentionally hollowed out our manufacturing sectors, and made our industries uncompetitive.

Countries, like Sweden, that have ensured high wage rates, have not found this causes their industries to become uncompetitive. Quite the contrary. High wage workers produce high value products. This used to be the paradigm in the U.S., until Trickle Down economics became public policy and the heart and soul of our national prosperity began to be hollowed out from the inside, in favor of short term financial speculation. (Also, if the celebrated foreign manufacturers' plants in the U.S. weren't privileged with a legal structure that virtually outlaws unionization, the playing field would be a good deal more level: this is no accident). Read James K. Galbraith's The Predator State for more on just how all this has worked and continues to work, to our detriment as a nation.

Update 4: It starts. Already, news reports say GM is "temporarily" shutting 21 plants, and laying off all those workers. Let that slide into permanence, and we're well on our way to big-D depression. Thank you, Republican Senators, for screwing the entire country.

11 December 2008

NASA administrator non-cooperative with transition

The Orlando Sentinel reports that Bush appointed NASA administrator Mike Griffin is not cooperating with the Obama transition team, and is ordering staff not to criticize his baby, the "Return the the Moon" program. Personally, I think the policies at NASA in recent years have been awful. Obama should just quietly plan on asking for Griffin's resignation effective Day 1 and implementing a whole new management team. He could do a lot worse than asking former Administrator Dan Golding to return at least for a time; Golding at least had some kind of vision for the future beyond just replicating the past, and badly at that.

Fair disclosure: I think Golding's abiding interest in deep space exploration and fundamental science of extrasolar planets in particular was exactly the right approach for NASA right now, not so much expensive and largely unproductive manned missions, for which sufficient money is just not forthcoming.

10 December 2008

Relationships and Love: a Buddhist Perspective

I sent this to my farflung correspondents as an e-mail a while back.

All great spiritual teachers have taught that we should love one another, but it seems that few have made really clear exactly what love is. The Buddhist tradition is particularly explicit about this, but I believe what the Buddha taught on this subject is universal in application, regardless of one's particular faith, and that it is based on keen insight into the working of the human heart.

All relationships will flourish when they are based on love; whether acquaintances or collegial relationships, all the way up to spouses and life partners. They will suffer when pervaded by the antagonist of love, which isn't hatred, but attachment.

Love has three phases, or types:
  1. Affectionate Love. This is when you perceive the object of your love as beautiful, pleasant, attractive. There is no element of desire here. It is merely seeing the person or being as pleasing. This can be cultivated and brought out, when it doesn't arise spontaneously. All types of love, in fact, can be created in your heart, through practice. All living beings are in fact beautiful, so it's just a matter of seeing.
  2. Cherishing Love. Having come to see the object of your love as pleasant or beautiful, you come to feel he or she is important. Their happiness is important. They are precious, and you cherish them. This too can be cultivated.
  3. Wishing Love. Having come to see them as precious, you come to wish, with all your heart, that they not suffer, that they have not just happiness, but that they be happy all the time, present and future, that they have all good fortune, wisdom, and blessing. You keep this thought in your heart, until it's there all the time.

Notice that there is nothing in any form of love about I or me. Desire, your needs, your happiness have nothing to do with it. Relationships which are based on 'my needs' are relationships of attachment: you are important because you make me happy. I need you. My life depends on you. You are my world. These are not thoughts of love, but thoughts of attachment, and they destroy love.

If you move away from such thoughts and cultivate minds of the three types or phases of love, your relationships will flourish.

Try it. It's guaranteed (but not always easy). A spiritual practitioner strives eventually to love all living beings, but if you don't love those close to you, you can't do that, so it's the best place to start.

TPM reader: Blago, deadly combination: ignorance and arrogance

Talkingpointsmemo quotes this, from a reader:
Simply put, Blagojevich is that deadly combination of ignorance and arrogance. One or the other is survivable, but the two, combined,
are not. I know from speaking with many of my friends who have worked with him over the years (including on his campaigns) that he is as dumb as a box of rocks. (The campaign folks would never let him talk to the press, unscripted, à la Palin.) He also thought he was God's gift to the planet.

In recent years, his circle of advisers has shrunk to a miniscule three or four who make Bush's "yes men" crew look like a debate society. As a friend in state government told me recently, "Everyday Blagojevich gets up and says 'What can we do today?'" The point being, there is (and has been) no rhyme or reason for his governance. Fundamentally, the guy is an idiot, as the taped conversations prove. He is simply a jackass.
Seems quite credible to me. A key point here is that Blago surrounded himself with a very small number of cronies who were privy to his dumb, arrogant shenanigans. If that's true, he may go down without too much fuss or too many repercussions, especially for the new administration.

Highly Recommended: The Predator State / Jamie Galbraith

I finally got around to reading the last couple of chapters of The Predator State, by Jamie Galbraith, which I had set aside a few weeks ago after returning from a trip to France.

I can't reccommend this book highly enough for the big picture of what's been wrong with the U.S. economy for some time, and where we could go from here. Definitely will not be agreeable to those who believe in the ability of "free markets" to solve all problems, but for those whose concepts range to the kinds of checks and balances necessary to make the economy work equitably and well for all the people, it's a welcome and useful synthesis. It was written before the current crisis, and contains nothing really shocking or radical, but it is a clear and systematic exposition of intelligent liberal thinking on the economy.

A Major Distraction for the Obama Administration

Although there is as yet no indication at all of any involvement on the part of President-elect Obama or anyone in his transition team with the debased shenanigans of Governor Blagojevich ("Blago," as he's becoming known), it is impossible to see these events as anything other than an extremely unwelcome distraction for the Obama transition and the commencement of his presidency. As a senator from Illiniois, there have to be normal contacts between the governor and his staff and Obama and his aides, and inevitably the prosecution and investigators will want to talk to people close to Obama to find out what they know.

The best outcome would be if it were to trun out that Blago was pretty much a loose cannon and rogue element, and the investigation turns up an open and shut case against him and one or two close aides, and that's it. The second best would probably be that for whatever reason the whole thing is delayed and slow to develop, so that whatever interviewing of Obama's aides and contacts takes place will not come until after the "hundred days" or whatever you want to call the critical first few months of the administration. The hope that there will be no serious distraction from what must be the greatest need for focus on issues a new administration has had to face in many decades is, unfortunately, forlorn.

09 December 2008

Towards Social Democracy in America: the Republic Window & Door Sit-In

I’m struck by the phenomenon of the Republic Window & Door sit-in in Chicago. Here are the pertinent facts as I understand them.

The company applied for a line of credit with Bank of America, which received a infusion of Federal funds for the purpose of freeing up credit as part of the bailout. The line of credit was in keeping with its past business models, and would have been approved but for the very tight market in credit which the Federal bailout was designed to address. The bank, due to lack of effective oversight in the Federal bailout program, was free to continue its restrictive lending practices, and refused the line of credit, causing the company to shut down.

Despite contractual obligations to union workers for sixty days’ notice and severance in the event of plant closure, the company gave its workers three days’ notice.

The workers are sitting in in the plant, demanding their severance, or better yet, a financial solution which will keep the company open.

President-elect Obama has expressed support for the workers.

Illinois’ Democratic governor has ordered that the state stop doing business with Bank of America unless and until it reverses its decision not to extend the line of credit.

I perceive a new current here. American working people are growing increasingly intolerant of the transfer of wealth from them to the richest. They are growing increasingly intolerant and angry about how the solution to all financial problems is seen by Wall Street as cutting jobs, never in doing more long term planning and changing public policy to keep the companies that make up the dwindling but vital manufacturing sector open and competitive, with a high priority given towards the shared societal goal of maintaining and growing high wage jobs. This approach flows from the forgotten understanding that constant expectation of short term returns at the cost of long term growth and stability have hollowed out our manufacturing economy, and that such short term returns are unsustainable, because the economy depends on consumer spending and only through high wage jobs, as Henry Ford understood, will the workers have enough purchasing power to keep the manufacturing economy functioning.

Also, there is no other word for the government equity stake in Bank of America than socialism. Socialism is perceived by conservative economists as all right if the beneficiaries are financial institutions, but not all right if its goal is to keep American workers employed, productive, and spending money. Hence the ease of approval by the Right wing in government of the financial bailout, and their resistance to the paltry-by-comparison emergency loan program to preserve the continued existence of the Auto industry.

I think there really is a major paradigm shift going on here. People see three quarters of a trillion dollars in borrowed Federal money going to bail out excessive risk-taking and leveraging in the financial sector… socialization of risk; privatization of profit. And they are getting mad as hell, and won’t be taking it much longer. They are coming to expect, and demand, that if there is going to be, as there must, public sector investment, it must go to saving jobs, saving homes, and saving the consumer economy.

I hope the sit-in works, and pressures B of A to capitulate and extend the line of credit. Maybe Republic Window & Door won’t survive, but the welfare of its workers is a more worthy goal of the Federal money that’s saved B of A than making side-betters on Wall Street whole. And it’s a case of regulation by popular uprising. I hope we see more and more of this until the public and private sectors get the message: it’s time to change the way the economy functions to see to it that more of the unearned wealth legacy that we all own is in fact made to benefit the bulk of the people, and not only a tiny sector of the very rich. Clearly, “free markets” as promoted by the economic conservative regime of public policy that has prevailed in this country in the last 30 years, have made matters vastly worse, and it is time to completely revamp the regulatory system and economic policy with these vital goals in mind.

Update: Right after posting this, I saw the news about Gov. Blagojevich's arrest on allegations of corruption in connection with the selection of a temporary replacement for Obama's senate seat. Just as two wrongs don't make a right, a wrong action doesn't negate a right one, either, so this doesn't affect the fact that the governor's action in connection with the Republic Window & Door sit-in is praiseworthy, in my opinion.

Further Update: H/T Barbara. Yahoo news reports: Workers win a big round in Chicago factory sit-in.

I would like to see the Bank forced to make enough available to keep the doors open instead of just enough to pay off fired workers, but it's better than nothing. I don't know the details of the viability of this business, of course, but it seems to me there is no better use for public funds than maintaining American manufacturing jobs in existence, as a bridge to a time when public policy changes make American manufactures more competitive again and the companies can survive on their own. And a lot of BofA's money is public funds.

05 December 2008

TPM Muckraker: Gonzo Prosecution?

TPM muckraker reports "it's looking more and more like prosecutor Nora Dannehy's investigation into the US Attorney firings has Alberto Gonzales in its crosshairs."

While I certainly applaud the Justice Department following the law and where the evidence leads (for once; Mukasey has proven only marginally better than Gonzales in this respect); I can't resist noting that there are far more serious crimes for which substantial evidence of administration guilt exists: in the areas of ordering and condoning torture, intentionally misleading Congress to induce authorization for military involvement in Iraq, and illegal surveillance of Americans, primarily.

Of course, that's not Dannehy's brief, but I'm just sayin'.

Pardon Power? I can think of more important constitional amendments we need

Josh Marshall asked for comments on the proposal by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) to introduce a constitutional amendment to limit the presidential pardon power.

This was my response:

Not exactly answering the question, but:

I'm not opposed to some well-thought out limits on the pardon power, but there are far more pressing needs in the area of constitutional reform. Right off the bat how about these?

1. Direct election of the president. 2000 showed as clearly as could be needed how necesarry this is. Even 2008 raised speculation about the uncomfortable possibility, it turned out far from reality, that Obama might have lost the popular vote but still won electorally. What's sauce, etc.

2. A carefully designed Anti-Gerrymander amendment. It's often occurred to me that some kind of modifiable-within-limits mathematical algorithm to ensure that the Congressional districts are not designed merely to re-elect incumbents would go a long, long way towards restoring meaningful public participation in policy decisions.

04 December 2008

Most Beautiful Desert Wildflower Notecards

Unquestionably the most beautiful California desert wildflower notecards are those based on paintings by Henry R. Mockel. They are available for $6.50 for 12, with envelopes, in several different sets (some animals too), from Henry R. Mockel's, P. O. Box 726, 29 Palms, CA 92277. Send for their order form (send a self-addressed stamped envelope; it's literally a mom+pop). Take my word for it, order them sight unseen... they're beautiful. Here are a few samples.

Most Disgraceful Element of Bush Legacy

I suspect that the single most disgraceful element of President Bush's legacy (at least from an American point of view) will be the historical conclusion that thousands of American soldiers needlessly died as a consequence of the adminstration's use and tolerance of torture. This is the allegation of former military interrogator Matthew Alexander (pseudonym) in an op-ed in Tuesday's Sunday's Post (11/30). "Alexander" is the guy who got Sunni extremists to rat out Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, by using traditional confidence and rapport building interrogation techniques (the kind that actually work). He quite credibly says the number of American military killed as a result of the recruitment effect (on Arabs) of our country's torture policy will never be known, but it's reasonable to estimate it at close to the number killed in the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks.

Update: This comment from "Alexander" is telling, and chilling: "How anyone can say that torture keeps Americans safe is beyond me -- unless you don't count American soldiers as Americans."

In case it isn't self-evident, the mechanism for this tragedy is as follows: Arab nationalists, and such people as Iraqis displaced from their usual occupations and/or homes as a result of war, came to see America as a violent oppressor, which tortures captives (as do many Arab countries, but this was not America's former reputation). As a result, probably tens of thousands, or more, men became persuaded to fight against American forces. The results of the interrogations "Alexander" describes frequently included descriptions of precisely this process.

["Matthew Alexander" is the author of How to Break a Terrorist: The U.S. Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq, and his op-ed is presumably in conjunction with a book tour. He appeared on Democracy Now! and Countdown this week, but otherwise has garnered little attention.]

Ways and Means to undo the current economic mess

I didn't mean to create a false impression with the post below, which was intended to be forward looking and prescriptive. I had previously commented on the need for completely rethinking the ways and means used to deal with the current failures of financial institutions; namely, the preservation of the underlying transactions and the sacrifice of the interests in side-betting derivatives. Very probably, the only way to save the likes of Citigroup and others up to their eyeballs in CDO's and CDS's, is to let them go into Chapter 11 and appoint a special master to oversee the public interest while guiding them out of bankruptcy. The goal would be to force the speculators in these side bets, which in the memorable phrase of one recent commentator I linked to are to the real economy like fantasy football to real football, to just walk away empty handed, or nearly so, while renegotiating the underlying loans and transactional securities, and preserving the existence of the institutions themselves. (While firing the top management wholesale). (See this piece by Michael Lewis piece in portfolio.com).

This, while it will no doubt rock the markets further, is preferable to the altnernative, which is, again, to watch the whole economy wash away in a sea of debt. There just isn't enough money in the world to make all these bets good, and the sooner the economic team around Obama, and the pres.-elect himself, realize it, the sooner we can start spending the huge sums of money we don't really have, but continue to borrow, to some actual effect rather than just throwing good after bad.

I don't claim to understand all this stuff, but, like many Americans, I've been trying to figure out what's gone wrong, and to understand what's needed to get out of this historic mess. The outlines not only of what went wrong but of the way forward are becoming clear to me, and to many others. Whether the new administration will end up seeing the forest for the trees is yet an open question.

Strange Inversion of Economic Conservative and Progressive views

When thinking about economic policy and where it needs to go, I'm struck by how it's become typical of our world that terms are inverted: up is down and down is up. "Economic conservatives" is a label used for people who promote, with zeal sometimes amounting almost to religious fervor, licensed speculation and side-betting on the economy, and trade regimes that result in the wholesale dismantling of production capacity. Their rationales for such policies sound good, until you realize that they're based on false assumptions and demonstrably untrue principles, such as that tax cuts always result in greater net revenue, and many others.

Economic "progressives," on the other hand, tend to believe in old fashioned, tried and true economic postulates like these:
  • An advanced economy, with a rising standard of living for the majority of its citizens, cannot be sustained by trading alone, still less by financial speculation, still less by trading in derivatives from the actual transactions that take place in the "real" economy. Derivative trading creates bubbles and inevitable collapses, often huge ones, as is happening now. Production, not only of services, but of goods, is the real engine of economic growth and sustainable prosperity.
  • "Free Markets" are largely fictions, which, to the extent they exist at all, must be regulated to ensure that financial transactions are not only fair, and reasonably transparent, but that excessive leveraging and "side-betting" (e.g. credit default swaps) are not permitted. At all. These have been seen, very clearly in recent events, to have extremely deleterious effects on the proper functioning of the financial system (i.e.,the allocation of capital and the fostering of the utilization of capital to create growth and overall prosperity).
  • "Free Trade" is largely a fiction as well. Governments regulate trade in lots of ways, and the results should be controlled, to the extent they are controlled, not for the benefit of traders and speculators, but to foster the health of the production economy and its employed workers. This is a simple matter of national interest, and it is practiced by every successful and growing economy in the World.
  • An inevitable result of an economy based primarily on financial activity is increasing public debt, which is ultimately unsustainable.
(This is because, in a very real sense, the trade deficit and the budget deficit are inseparably linked in a positive correlation, and eventually the size of the debt will cause the collapse of confidence and cause this form of "growth" to lurch to a halt. Then, if we haven't developed energy independence and a program to restore a production economy, we will really find out what 21st century depression looks like).
  • Paradoxically, the only way out of a depression created by the foregoing problems is increased and sustained public spending, over the short and medium terms, but it must eventually be followed by recognition that the global economy depends on at least relative balance, and our trade and budget deficits cannot expand forever.

I am very concerned, as I've intimated elsewhere, that these are not the postulates, nor the implied goals, of the majority of the new president's economic advisers.

U.S. economic policy in the past thirty years has been an abysmal failure from this traditional point of view: it has tended to destroy the health of the production economy to the (temporary and unsustainable) advantage of the financial economy, resulting in huge wealth transfer from the former middle class to the plutocrat class. This looks from a long term perspective like nothing less than a giant rip-off. The middle class in America is on life support, as a result of this wealth transfer.

I've noticed that many very traditional "conservative" economic thinkers, while clinging to their belief in the panacea of so-called free markets, nonetheless have come around to agreeing pretty much entirely with the predicate of bullet point two above. Many people have come to recognize that even if you believe, philosophically, in relatively unrestrained capitalism, you have to have some rules to keep the transactions in the arena that actually results in positive economic activity, as opposed to simply gambling. Much of the activity that fueled the recently collapsed bubble was exactly that: side-betting on the outcomes of uncontrolled, unassessed, and incredibly risky securitized lending. This kind of activity is inherently destructive and must be eliminated from the universe of legal economic activity.

Some of what Pres.-elect Obama says is encouraging. He seems to favor investment in infrastructure and renewable energy to end dependence on fossil fuels. But I'm not sure he has a full-fledged commitment to, and understanding of, the need to restore the American economy to a production basis, or of the methods, in use in places like Scandinavia, to ensure that the economy is not only productive, but that it remains high-wage, and high standard of living, for the segment of the population which is actually engaged in production. Trickle-down economics has completely failed, and it's time to dump its paradigms and postulates entirely, and to adopt principles which have been shown to work elsewhere. We need to recognize that without some long term planning and, (quel horreur!) dirigisme, i.e., control over the direction of investment and such things as the health care "industry" and the energy and transportation industries (as examples) to promote public policy goals, there can be no successful restoration of a solid basis for long term prosperity. Also, of course, a regime of carefully balanced re-regulation needs to be imposed to control the financial markets.

Along these lines, the restoration of Glass-Steagall, which used to prevent banks, insurers, and investment houses from being the same people, needs to be a top priority, as do restoration of strict leveraging limits and the blanket outlaw of trading in transactions that amount to nothing more than wagering, involving no actual capital involved in production, which has been so destructive in the most recent bubble. As a friend who knows this stuff better than I do says, otherwise, we will simply "wash away in a sea of debt." (He undoubtedly doesn't agree with much of the above, especially about the necessary role of planning and direction of the production economy, or the necessity of suspending concern about the national debt for the duration of the worst of the emergency in order to inject money into the economy, but I think he'd agree with the other conclusions, and with the need for some serious sheriffin' to get the miscreants back in line).