27 November 2019




I am an atheist. Have been nearly all my life. And I am one of those who, faced with the old saw that an agnostic is little more than an atheist who lacks the courage of his convictions, I gave it some thought. A personal God, that created and cares for the universe, answers prayer, keeps everything virtuous, etc. Well, nah. Don't see any evidence for that; literally none at all. Pretty sure that isn't the way it is, so I'll commit. Agnostic, no; atheist. But I make a distinction between religion, which to me is a belief in some supernatural agency like this, and spirituality, which does not, necessarily. An atheist is not required to be narrow minded, and to exclude consideration of the magisterium that is normally relegated to religion, just because of semantics. Indeed, an honest examination of one's circumstances, Aristotle's considered life, requires it.


For a time I studied, and gained a lot from, traditional Buddhism. Still think of myself as a Buddhist, albeit a secular Buddhist. There are basic truths, some spiritual and some actually objective psychological truths, in Buddhist thought. The idea that (at least most) suffering is caused by attachment to the delusion of "self" and the happiness of one's own being. That wisdom is not knowledge, per se, but a realistic view, almost literally, seeing  what existence really is. And that from such seeing necessarily flow compassion, lovingkindness, and a clear eyed understanding that one's own happiness is not something you gain by grasping at it, but, just the opposite, that well being of ones's self comes from caring for others and seeking well being of others.


When Buddhist teachers I associated with started talking about having "faith" in "holy beings," at first I thought of them as merely metaphorical paradigms for states of mind that are beneficial to seek to emulate. But after a while, I came to see it more as just the usual regression to norm: people have a strong tendency to seek out comfort and reassurance that the universe is not cold and indifferent, but actually caring and reassuring, filled with superior beings that look after us, answer prayers, etc. But, to me, this is a mistaken view. What Buddhists refer to as "precious human life" is precisely that quality that enables us to honestly perceive, and create realistic mental models of the way things are. So we have to be honest. Clear-eyed. The Buddha himself cautioned his followers not to believe what they were taught, perhaps out of respect for their teachers or the tradition they arose out of; but to believe what they perceived themselves, from their own practice of the proven effective and practical techniques of clearing the mind and really seeing what exists and is real. And, while I can imagine that some people honestly see the world as filled with supernatural, caring entities that help us in our hours of need, I don't. I see the universe as beyond humanity; essentially indifferent; existing on a scale so vast that our existence is of scant importance. The universal compassion, lovingkindness, joy, and balance of view that make up human wisdom are qualities of mind, not of existence beyond ourselves. It is these things that constitute what we call meaning of life; we should not, and will fail if we try to, find meaning in the cosmos, in the externality of our existence. The meaning of our existence is in our own mind, in our own ability to summon virtue, love, compassion, and other states of mind that make human life transcendent and significant. These things are not supernatural. But neither are they external, created by some intelligence outside ourselves. They are, in fact, our essence, our unique existence, available to us if we use our innate ability to develop genuine awareness, also called wisdom, to allow us to perceive the truth about ourselves, and not to wallow in delusion. We, our minds, our being, is what gives the universe meaning. I don't try to tell other people what they should believe, but, well, everyone of course prefers their own view of things, and mine is that the universe is contingent. Life arises from nonlife, over time so vast we cannot imagine it, and, through processes which are not supernatural but which we, as limited and finite beings, do not fully understand here we are. We don't need a magical mystery religion to have a profound and abiding sense of the mystery and wonder of existence, and to have a genuinely spiritual outlook.


Which brings me to Thanksgiving. The "thanks" in Thanksgiving are traditionally thought of as thanks to God. We thank thee, God, from whom all blessings flow, and all that. So what meaning does gratitude have for an atheist? It's a good question. We atheists have to face and address the natural human inclination to feel grateful. And I do. Very much so. My theory is this. We humans have evolved, over the depth of time, a highly developed ability to construct reasonably accurate models of reality. Of course, we easily delude ourselves, but we are much better at this than other animals, and it has led us to the civilization we have, because we would not have it but for our ability to figure out how systems work. Including the whole shebang, the cosmos. Not that we have final answers, but we have more knowledge and ideas about it than any other living things we know of. And what we learn, from personal experience as well as systematic investigation, is that the universe is contingent; that the laws of physics, particularly entropy, make the success that is the enterprise of life on Earth remarkable in so many ways, and unlikely in so many ways, that it is a genuine marvel that we are here, and that we are able to sustain ourselves and live in any degree of harmony at all with the other living systems of our world. And this makes us feel, if we are paying attention, very, very fortunate. Which is, I think, a pretty good definition of gratitude. We don't have to posit the existence of a personal God, or believe in anything supernatural, to be suffused with a powerful feeling of gratitude to be alive, and to be able to experience existence, in a vast cosmos of which we are only a tiny flicker.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.


18 November 2019

Some interesting Supreme Court history and its implications, as uncovered by Thom Hartmann

 This is really interesting. Back in the early days of the Reagan administration, when the shoe was very much on the other ideological foot with regard to the Supreme Court, the Righties, in fact none other than CURRENT Chief Justice of the United States, John Roberts (then a DOJ lawyer), thought seriously about a fairly radical interpretation of the Constitutional provision whereby the Congress determines exactly what the Supreme Court has jurisdiction over, as a means of reversing landmark decisions like Brown v. Bd. of Ed. and Roe v. Wade. The truth is that the period from about 1935 to 1990 or so, when the SC was a force for progress and human rights in America, was the aberration. Since then, the court has mostly reverted to norm, and the Court is, as it was before FDR almost throughout all of American history to that time, a reactionary force that exists mostly to protect the interests of the already powerful. Wouldn't it be delicious, if perhaps too risky to actually contemplate doing, to use Roberts's idea against THEM, and undo not Brown and Roe but Buckley v. Valeo, Citizens United v. FEC, Heller v. DC, and Shelby County v. Holder?

If you don't know what all four of those cases stand for, look them up, because every citizen should know in detail just how and when the Supreme Court took our rights away, step by step.

Supreme Court History includes John Robert's memo how to bypass court by enacting statutes with provisions removing judicial review.

10 November 2019

PLEASE vote for the Future of our World

Posted this to Facebook.

I really hate Facebook. Its format seems to force discourse to devolve into quibbling over relatively unimportant details, and to invite name-calling. I regret having fallen into some of this kind of back and forth with people with whom I want to share insights and ideas, only to end up in futile bickering about the "little picture" details where we disagree.

But I want to try a different tack. So please don't add comments to this post quibbling about policy details. If you truly disagree with the thrust of what I have to say, please explain why, and how you believe what you advocate is more likely to be of benefit.

I believe that this upcoming election demands something more of us than conventional politics. And that is that we SET ASIDE our narrow self-interest, and vote as if the future of the world depends on our choice. Because it does.

The present regime in the United States has at its head an oligarch; a kleptocrat; a lawless would be dictator who, if re-elected, will probably do just about everything he can to undermine the long term interests of our country and subvert our democracy. I don't think it goes to far to say he is a traitor. His elimination from our body politic is a matter of the gravest urgency. Essentially any other political figure would be an improvement.

But in addition to that, the election of a Democratic Senate is equally important. We have, at present, a Trumpist party that will do nothing at all, other than continue (if they get the chance) to approve Right Wing judges who will do nothing to stop the continued subversion of Democracy. They might even try to repeat their one and only legislative "achievement" in Trump's term, which was a massive tax giveaway transferring even more wealth from the already hollowed out middle class to the tiniest tranche of the super-rich, who are their real constituency. Their politics is entirely based on lies, and it refuses to face facts or to take any action at all on the greatest existential crisis in the history of civilization, the Climate Emergency.

I see us as living on borrowed time. We have failed to take action on critical infrastructure, especially to do what is necessary to face this crisis. We have hollowed out our manufacturing economy, failed to maintain excellence in public education, failed to ensure the health care of all our citizens, failed to ensure that government works for the people and not for extremely narrow vested interests. We are at the abyss. We cannot go on with this. We must turn back, elect leaders who will base policy on facts, and who will be able to convey to the people the enormity of our predicament.

We will, like it or not, soon be faced with a full scale emergency on the scale, at least, of World War II. We cannot face this emergency with crooks, fools and liars in charge of the government. Even if we may disagree with details of the policies of some of our candidates, we MUST ensure that our government is returned to people who believe in science, who act on the basis of facts, and who will do their level best to represent the interests of the people of the United States. All of the people of the United States.

Look, we can worry about disruption to the economy of this or that policy. But we will not face recession or specific ruffled feathers of narrow self-interest, such as not being able to renew a particular health plan or having to pay higher taxes than we thought in this or that area, if we fail to overturn the Right Wing government we now have. We will instead be marching towards complete collapse. If we allow the Climate Emergency to go unchecked, as scientists tell us is right in front of us, actually happening right now, we won't have a recession, or even a depression. We will have a collapse. And the economy will be utterly destroyed. It is that stark. And the choice is that clear.

Please set aside whatever specific and narrow interests you may be worried about and consider the long term well being of our world, and coming generations. Vote Democratic, no matter who the candidates are, as if your future, and the future of your children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and everyone else's progeny depend on it. Because IT DOES.



09 November 2019

Why I support a securities transaction tax, and other tax increases primarily aimed at wealthier Americans

There's a great deal of discussion among Democrats these days about taxes. It is clear that Republicans are LIARS when it comes to taxes, as they basically just want to transfer wealth to the top and don't care a whit about long term debt, OR about investing in our nation's future. As the Trump Tax Giveaway to the Superrich proves.

One of the proposed progressive taxes Centrist Democrats object to is the idea of a securities transaction tax. Such Democrats have, over the past 30 years or so, largely bought into Republican economic theories, but it's time to return to an earlier view that realistic taxation is, as Justice Brandeis put it, "the price of civilization." First point. Proposed transaction taxes are TINY, and would probably be structured to not apply to IRAs and 401(k)s. But apart from that, the average investor would pay at most a few hundred dollars per year. MOST developed countries have these kinds of taxes, and in many cases higher than what is proposed here.

But, secondly, this is an example of a tax that's actually designed to disincentivize economically destructive behavior, namely large scale short term trading, which is basically gaming markets to take the equivalent of rents from the top, as opposed to the rational and original purpose of securities markets, which is to raise capital. Investors who are primarily interested in investing in successful businesses to build capital value and participate in a production economy tend to buy and hold stocks, rather than trade them short term, and this is better for the economy. Such investors would be little affected by a small transaction tax, and if it were deemed to be an issue, it would be a simple matter to exclude the first $1000 or even $5000 of tax, which would then mean that the tax would apply ONLY to people and institutions who are engaging in relatively massive short term trading. It is perfectly legitimate and actually a positive good to discourage this behavior, as it does not contribute to growth in the economy but only serves to transfer of wealth from production upward to the very richest.

Even with these considerations, which are an example of the use of tax policy to regulate the economy as opposed to raising revenue, it is estimated that the tax would in fact raise a fair amount of much needed revenue. Which brings me to a third point. WE NEED TAXES which fall more on wealthier people in this country. Wealthy people, even moderately wealthy people, NEED TO PAY MORE IN TAXES. This includes me, although I don't qualify as wealthy, just reasonably comfortable.

We have before us a truly desperate situation, where we must rebuild nearly our entire energy and transportation infrastructure in a fairly short period of time (because of deferred maintenance in part, but mainly to address the Climate Emergency). We must also revamp our medical care system to ensure that everyone is covered, because it is our national shame that alone among the wealthy nations of the world we have failed to do this, and there simply is no valid reason why we should not. Further, we must make up for a longstanding funding deficit for education and basic research. To name just a few key things. The enterprise of American civilization has been choked by greed and hoarding at the top, and it is time to come together as a people and make the decision to use more of our resources and economic strength as a nation to ensure not only our survival but our character as a country of social mobility and a robust middle class into the future. Much of this will come from policy reform, but some of it must come from MORE INVESTMENT. The ONLY way to do that is to increase spending on these critical factors. Given the Climate Emergency, it is no exaggeration to say that we need to mobilize in a way equivalent to the mobilization of World War 2, and sooner, rather than later. This cannot be done for nothing... everyone must contribute. But from those who have been rewarded with outsize, even excessive wealth, more must be asked. And from those who have modestly more, modestly more must be asked. It is time for us to ACCEPT THIS REALITY, and even embrace it, for it is the only path forward that makes any sense long term.