Saturday, November 16, 2013

Robert Reich on Inequality and the Steps to Fix it

A thank you chocolate note from organizers

I've been worn down by the economy” was the entry line of Robert Reich, the renowned economist who served both under Presidents Clinton and Obama. It was a clever remark because not only did he set a succinct tone of humor from the onset, but he dissolved the first impression that was on every person's mind, namely his height, or to put it bluntly, the lack thereof. By openly and humorously acknowledging it, he immediately shelved the issue and now the audience at the Orpheum Theater could fully focus on what he had to say instead of harboring on his physical height.

Apart from being entertaining, there were many points and observations of interest. His main concern was that our world though globalization and technology has re-shifted the labor force and that the current state of economic affairs - mainly in the US but also a growing worldwide trend - mainly benefits those who have-a-lot and who get almost all the gains, while everyone else is struggling hard to survive or get by.

This causes an ever-widening gap of inequality leaving most of us at a disadvantaged position. In the meantime, the government is too busy working out the best deals for the 1%, whereas the 99% have been unfairly designated to carry the burden. Reich explained that the sectors and jobs that are the most valuable and beneficial for society as a whole end up being underpaid. For instance, the American government does not invest sufficiently in education; in comparison to other jobs it pays very little to educators.

It was during his talk that I realized the gravity regarding the shutdown of the government at the time and the impending debt deadline. Reich said that it would have had disastrous effects on the economy, but it is a good thing that clearer heads have prevailed since. However, Reich also pointed out that American politics is often too entrenched in ideology and what's worse name-calling and laying blame. The best thing would be to put those conflicts aside and to try to make veritable progress.

Reich also pointed out that there are a number of practices that used to work in the past but are not followed due to misplaced and shortsighted greed. The United States economy was continuously growing until the 80s when it suddenly swerved and started taking a nosedive.

Yet according to Reich the best economic practice for an owner was to treat the workers well and to pay them good salaries. One of the most pronounced examples in history was Henry Ford. His decision to give his workers more than decent wages forced other companies to try to keep up resulting in an overall much healthier and balanced economy.

That in turn led to more profits for Ford since his workers not only produced more, but, more importantly, they were able to afford Ford's own cars. Although some have disputed that particular claim, this wage increase helped solve the problem of turnovers because workers who get paid well are willing to work harder and produce more, and they do not want to lose their jobs. Hence that extra incentive or effort could only benefit the economy.

This was the best case scenario, a win-win situation. Relying on natural resources and exports is tricky because they are dependent on a host of factors outside of one's control. But if your consumers are your own people, then everyone would benefit, and this would create not only economic but also political stability. There would be no need for radical groups on either the left or the right since most people will be content with what they have.

To get to that point of progress and stability, we need to also compete with other countries. Both the US and Canada need to ensure that they have a particular and very valued resource, namely, skilled trade. This is where education would pay off dividends and a nation can indeed profit from it. 

By turning one's people into valuable and sought-after assets and resources, one would also be able to weather the technological storm that is making certain jobs, such as cashiers and bank-tellers more and more obsolete. There are many things that machines cannot do as well as humans and that is where most focus needs to go on. In other words, this brings us back to the caring professions, such as nursing or teaching.

One of my questions was that if there are people like Reich in influential positions, why are things not changing. My own answer is that things might be more complicated than that and even good people may not be able to make a definitive and lasting change. 

However, as Reich claimed if people start taking more political action, if they are more aware of the issues facing them, then they could make the government more accountable, and that is how real and lasting change might occur after all. So as they say, crisis represents opportunity, and this would be our time to bring about those necessary changes and to diminish the gaps of inequality that our North American societies are riddled with.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Being a Father – Five Years Later

Boy showing five fingers to his father

It seems both baffling and amazing that a handful of years have already passed since that fateful and fortunate day fatherhood with all its thrills and responsibilities was heaped upon me. My son has started his path of formal education this year, his kindergarten. And I am thrilled to say that he has a general and overall liking and enthusiasm for learning and that he enjoys being in an educational setting. (I myself was never able to sever my ties with education, which is why after my own studies I embraced teaching, an occupation that continues to be my passion.)

On the down side, we have been plagued with a number of diseases and infections that resulted from the sudden social mingling of many kids in closed spaces. It took its sad toll on the health of my son, who very regrettably missed most of the first two months of school because of it. I sometimes wonder whether it is a good idea to start school in the fall right in the midst of 'flu season.

In terms of my relationship with my son, I must say that I find it even more pleasurable and satisfying than a few years back, my last post chronicling events and happenings around age three. My son's reasoning skills and imagination have taken interesting leaps and bounds, and I often find myself more on the defensive when confronting his many questions.

To give an example: My son has been told and is aware that pregnancies mean that there is a baby inside. We told him that he too appeared from his Mommy's belly. Now since I as a father need my share of contribution as well we told him that it was I who put him there. This explanation seemed to satisfy him ... until recently.

The moment and question I had been afraid of had come: Daddy, so how did you put me in Mommy's belly? Through hugs and kisses was I believe my answer. Now I am awaiting more grueling questions on the subject perhaps sometime soon.

He also surprised me with the observation that certain animals are meat. He claimed that cows and chickens are forms of meat and hence different types of animal altogether, whereas dogs and cats are simply animals and not meat. Part of me shuddered as we are decided non-vegetarians at this point of our lives, but he took it as a matter of fact that some animals are meant to be eaten, and that's that.

The other day the matter of tails came up. My son expressed the desire to have a tail, so I told him that we used to have one at some point of time. That must have been cool, he claimed, but so what happened then? This led me to introduce to him the theory of evolution. I said we have evolved from apes and monkeys and all he did was look at me with a quizzical look and say: You are kidding, right, Daddy?

As such, you can tell that our conversations have become a genuine pleasure. I do not try to overburden him (if he still cannot embrace natural selection I am fine with it for now) and I am ready to merely listen to him and marvel at his ways of reasoning. The other day I told him that our dead goldfish was an angel in heaven; I was hoping to carefully tread or perhaps circumvent the painful topic of nonexistence, and he turned to me and said, Oh, I thought that sort of thing was just a fairy tale. On many occasions I get schooled by my own wee one.

Yet it is through his own desire that he has discovered the pleasures of reading or at this point, being read to. I know that some parents try hard to instill a love of books in their children and have their bedtime stories routine dating from the stages of infancy. I have never been a fan of that because I do not like forcing things upon my child even if it is meant for his own good.

So when he asked me to read the story of Chip, the little teacup from the Beauty of the Beast, I did not hesitate a second. For the past year we are taking out books from the library, and I read to him almost every night. His literary taste has gotten more sophisticated over time and now he has taken a liking to superheroes, ranging from Spiderman (who he dressed up as for Halloween) to Iron Man and X-Men; these days he is curious about all the characters of Star Wars, instilled and awakened by his most favorite game of Angry Birds.

Here is my five-year-old boy who listens to Abbey Road nonstop (love the album and choice of music but listening to it ten times every day is a bit too much) and who beats me when it comes to the iPad. I have told him that I cannot wait for him to take computer science classes so he can help me to try to make heads and tails of this thing called technology. I can't wait for that to happen, but at the same time, I enjoy the path there. No rush for my little one to grow big yet.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Meister Eckhart and the Constant Presence of God

Book Cover of an angel sculpture with clouds in the background

Dedicated to John O'Donahue (1956-2008)

Meister Eckhart's vision of religion is remarkably beautiful and simple. This enlightened master strips away the unpleasant and tedious bits of religious dogma and turns them into a mystical harmonious song. For the most part, the Christian religion, or rather its supposed spokespersons tend to focus on grave matters, such as penance, suffering, and death.

There is often too much emphasis on the pain and suffering that Jesus had to endure to wash away our endless and never-ending sins, alongside the harsh judgments that God will bestow upon us in the afterlife, the everlasting burning flesh and spirit that would await us if we stray from the righteous path. God's eyes and ears are always following us at every turn of life, evaluating and judging every thought that crosses our minds, while at any moment he that giveth can taketh it all away.

These views, if believed and harbored fervently, may make a sane person psychotic. The fear of God is incited within each of us, and we are told that we are worthless sinning machines that basically do not deserve his gracious love. To most of us, this God seems distant, high up there beyond the clouds, and he often turns a deaf ear to our pleas and desires.

But this is not Meister Eckhart's view and interpretation of religion. In fact, his God is always present, never far away from us. It depends on our willingness and decision to have contact and a personal relationship with him. All this time he is always there, either inside of us or at the door, waiting for us to invite him in. And he would never refuse an invitation even if it came from the lowest and most sinful persons.

Eckhart's views on sin are not tragic, heavy, or pessimistic compared to mainstream religion. God is both fair and loving and looks beyond the multitude of sins we may have committed. In fact, the most important thing is to be at peace with oneself and to disregard sins, acts of repentance, and atonement. Even a sinner or criminal who fully accepts their punishment as fair and just is blessed in the eyes of Eckhart's God.

Such a view is uplifting because it is all-embracing and inclusive. The focus here is less on one's actions, the Catholic idea of good works and acts of repentance, but rather on one's inner life. It is there that one can have a meaningful relationship with God; it is there where the true Church of God exists within each living being.

In fact, Eckhart's views are Buddhist when it comes to the sense of detachment. He says we need to be poor, not in terms of giving away all our wealth, but rather in spirit. We need to “empty” ourselves of all that is impeding a meaningful relationship with God, that could be, for instance, our own selfish wishes and desires, or our greediness and constant quest for pleasure and gratification; instead, we ought to accept and fill ourselves to the brim with God.

Because when we embrace God, our will unites in his. In a mystic sense, God and I become one, the same way husband and wife are meant to be of one flesh. In such a state, everything becomes a gift and a blessing of God, as he knows, tailors, and measures everything, good and bad, according to each individual need and capacity.

For example, not everyone is supposed to be or can be a saint. God will give you what you can handle and not overburden you with what is beyond your capabilities. We would need to accept and embrace what he gives us, both the good and bad because either becomes divine when it has come into contact with God.

Eckhart gives a beautiful metaphor involving food. He says we may feel that certain food is good and bland according to our taste buds. But when you are imbued with the light of God, then your taste buds become like his and everything will “taste” divine. You will master bouts of suffering equally well and easily as you do with periods of happiness. Your feet may be grounded on the earth but the face of your spirit is always looking towards heaven. And this applies to every single human being on this planet.

As we can see, Eckhart's view is of an upbeat, loving, and personal God, someone who does not impose himself upon us, who does not burden us with rules and laws of obedience, someone who neither punishes nor strikes back. It is rather a God that is there for us in times of need and in times of happiness, who always has an open ear and heart to our conditions, and who is always and everlastingly present and close by.

Postscript: It had been my intention to share this piece of writing with the late John O'Donahue, who apart from being a poet was also an expert in Eckhart's “Cathedral of thought.” In fact, his foreword to Eckhart's collection of sermons that I was reading was impressive and put many of Eckhart's views in clear perspective urging me to want to share my ideas with him.

Unfortunately, he has left us all too soon. So I would like to dedicate this post to him. John claims that the soul is our “door to the divine,” and I believe that he has passed through it to be where the vast silence of Being is voiced