Sunday, April 25, 2010

Imagination: A Citizen's Responsibility

Years ago, someone remarked to me that the difference between a good driver and a bad driver is a good imagination. In a democracy, the same is true of its citizens (who, after all, are ultimately the ones driving the bus).

A driver with a good imagination can look beyond the immediate circumstances to what could happen. In a residential neighborhood, a child could pop out between two parked cars, chasing a ball. A good driver proceeds slowly, “seeing” the child that isn’t there. On the highway, a car or truck just ahead could blow a tire, swerve to avoid an animal, or just suddenly and inexplicably slam on the breaks (a situation that I witnessed on a freeway some years ago). A good driver anticipates the unexpected, leaving plenty of room between vehicles. Without regular servicing, tire changes, and other maintenance, a good car could become a menace on the road. A good driver takes steps to maintain the vehicle, even when it’s running well.

Just as good drivers are deeply aware of our shared responsibilities on the nation’s roads and highways, a good citizen is conscious of the effects of government action and inaction. After all, we’re the ones who choose the leaders who act in our behalf. We hire the drivers.

Compassion is nothing more than applying the imagination to the circumstances of others. In the recent interminable health care debate, good citizens were moved by the stories about people who lost their lives, their livelihoods, or their homes because of lack of insurance or escalating premiums. Putting themselves in someone else’s shoes, they took into account the 40 million Americans who so desperately needed insurance (and will now get it). In discussing social programs, good citizens take time to consider life from the perspective of those members of society least able to help themselves—children, the poor, the disabled and mentally ill.

By the same token, good drivers are calm, rational, and realistic about the world outside their windshields. They don’t deny what’s there (like bad weather—or climate change), no matter how convenient it may be to ignore them. Good drivers know their limitations and don’t assume they know more than they do about the road ahead or what might be waiting around the next bend: if the sign says slow down, they do so, trusting that engineers and highway planners may have known something that the driver cannot. Good drivers know that they themselves don’t know everything, but they expect and demand that the experts they hire know what they’re doing.

My experience in living through the previous administration was like being a white-knuckled passenger in a car driven by an emotional driver. That driver had the power to fill all jobs involving highway safety and maintenance, and he did so regardless of the employees’ qualifications and motivation for doing the job right. All that mattered was that they displayed a suitable loyalty to the driver and his policies and beliefs.

Determined to finish his daddy’s war, the previous president didn’t focus his constructive imagination on the real problem: defeating al Qaida (which, at the time, was not operating in Iraq). Ignoring the feelings of others, he apparently didn’t bother to imagine what it’s like to drown—denying until the bitter end that water-boarding is torture. Getting richer and richer, like his cronies, he refused to pay attention to economic warning signs that the road ahead was washed out. The examples of recklessness and incompetence could go on and on.

From the time of the Revolution, Americans have tended to be distrustful of government. That distrust is built into our cultural history and maybe even our genes. After many years of irresponsible government, it’s no wonder that many people have given up all together on government as a tool for solving human problems and ensuring prosperity.

But this president is different. His administration is filled with people who have true expertise in their areas of responsibility. The vehicle is finally being maintained. Many Americans have decided that if they can’t have their old, familiar driver back—regardless of his incompetence—they’d just as soon walk.

Those of us now studying the map and enjoying the ride are thinking about the possibilities that lie ahead and what we can do with this newer, safer, well-maintained vehicle of state.


Catlover said...

Ok C. Jane I will take the first bite.

How about using that good imagination of yours and figure out how we as a country are going to pay for all this maintenance and compassion of which you write.

Any two year old has the imagination to come up with a wish list of a bunch of goodies that can be promised to the people in order to get votes. That is about the level of leadership this administration is fuctioning at, two year old level.

What we need is for the adults to take over and tell the truth to the people. The country is broke and there will be no more goodies for some time.

Please do not say tax the rich for the funding. There are not enough rich and the "rich do not pay taxes" anyway.

(I could expand on that last point if anyone is interested).


Citizen Jane said...

Good to hear from you, Catlover.

After the passage of every major piece of social legislation to benefit real, flesh-and-blood human beings--from Roosevelt's New Deal to health reform--the political right has predicted that the country would go bankrupt. And we're not broke yet.

There are things we can't afford, of course, including unnecessary wars, maintaining huge inventories of nuclear and chemical weapons, letting other countries corner the market on clean energy technology--the list goes on and on.

These are matters of values and foresight. How to balance the scale between human issues and what Eisenhower referred to as the "military-industrial complex" is really what politics in America is all about. But if we ignore the needs of real people, what good is government?

Ultimately, what's good for people is good for business. The opposite should also be true.

Six said...

You are right CJ - there are things we cannot afford, like uncessary wars. So why has your man basically proceeded with status quo on them?

Idna said...

Seems to me that the current 'driver' of this administration hadn't even earned his driver's license before he was put behind the wheel. And now he has appointed many of his playground pals to positions they have no business having. The white-knuckle ride you describe has increased by at least tenfold since Jan. 2009.

Catlover said...

C. Jane
Your response to my challenge to use our imagination to fund all of your compassionate goodie bag spending falls woefully short. Really to the point of being delusional, both in your knowledge base of history and economics. Are you actually able to function day to day with your head in this cloud of misinformation and nonsense.

The country is most certainly broke. The definition being, in debt to the point there is not conceivable way that debt can ever be repaid. The past debt you speak of was stupid but at least there was a reasonable possibility it could be repaid, through growth, productivity, etc. Those days are over. The debt now on the books can never be repaid, meaning the country is broke. Bankruptcy, the actual pain you do not feel at present is yet to come. You and I both, your children and your grandchildren will feel that pain.

Read some history, it is always great during the borrowing, spending phase. It is the bankruptcy phase that hurts. Wait until China will not loan back any of the money we have given them to buy there lead paint toys. You will see what I mean.

True conservatives have and will always and correctly oppose any program that is not fully and reliably funded. No funding , no program. We are trying to avoid that coming pain.

It is a good trait to have hope for the future and you can live in your little cloudy, compassionate dream world all you want but, reality will catch you eventually. In my opinion it is immoral not to face this reality, for the sake of our children.

Your list of proposed spending cuts, while not specific enough to actually figure, would probably cover about 1/10 of 1% of the democrats spending the past 15 months. You need a lot better imagination. Give me specifics.

Citizen Jane said...

Hi, Catlover,

You said my response to your comment about the fiscal health of the country was inadequate, and you were right. Frankly, I’ve been reluctant to get into the subject of economics because it’s such a huge, complex topic. But it is relevant to everything we’ve been talking about, so here goes.

First, we’re not broke. We’re in debt. There’s a difference. In today’s world, all big entities, from corporations to governments, go into debt to make money. They make investments that pay for themselves later. For ordinary people who lead very simple lives, a “pay as you go” plan may be adequate. (If there’s anyone in America left wise enough to live like that since Bank of America invented credit cards.) Even then, though, just about everyone finances big items, like houses and cars.

Secondly, the human brain is extremely limited when it comes to grasping certain things, so that what seems intuitively obvious often isn’t. Here’s an example.

Say you were offered the opportunity to get $1 million right now, tax free, no strings attached. Or you could start with one penny and double the number of pennies you receive every day for one month. Which alternative would you take?

A person who has never seen a puzzle like this would virtually always take the $1 million. It defies all our instincts to think that mere pennies could add up to much in just a month's time. However, if you do the math, you'll find that the wise person who accepted the pennies would end up, at the end of 30 days, with almost $11 million!

When it comes to money, as well as certain other kinds of math, it's important not to become too confident in our own intuition—a faculty that may serve is well in other circumstances. The human brain evolved to be very good at linear thinking, which in terms of mathematics means adding and subtracting. When it comes to understanding the effects of nonlinear processes over time (including things such as compound interest), the untrained mind will mislead us every time. (That’s why even before the financial crisis hit, Americas were declaring bankruptcy at a phenomenal rate—1.7 million in 2005 alone.)

When it comes to math and science, we need to put our faith in people who have the specialized knowledge and training to understand the real implications. (As the case of Alan Greenspan indicates, even they can be led astray by the wrong philosophy.) It’s like the theory of relativity: I believe Einstein was right when he said that time slows down as speed increases. I believe that because many other highly trained scientists who understand the math have confirmed his findings. Similarly, in terms of understanding economics, we can’t expect to make direct judgments about whether the country is going the right way or the wrong way. To one extent or another, we have to trust the experts.

The “experts” George Bush was relying on all had their fists in the pie, and we can see where that led us. While “real” experts are still hashing over the best approach to financial health and stability, it’s obvious to any objective observer that financial disaster has been averted, thanks to the quick and decisive actions taken by the new administration: all the major economic indicators are on the rise, unemployment is on the decline, and the trust of the world has been restored.

Yes, trillions sounds like a lot. But neither you nor I have the expertise to take numbers out of context and understand what they really mean. But that doesn’t stop the ignorant and unscrupulous of the world from using big numbers to scare us, make us angry, and ultimately control us through our emotions.

Six said...

I would personally take the $1 million today... there is always a chance someone will change thier mind and break thier promise tomorrow! Give me that money today!

Catlover said...

C. Jane

Your last response really sums up the reason for our country's fiscal crisis.

You do not understand the concept of being "broke". You are stuck in equating being broke with being in "debt". They are not at all the same term. I do not know if it is an intentional feel good denial strategy or just pure ignorance on your part.

"Debt" has the the common meaning of "money that is owed", i.e. an amount of money $$. My use of the term "broke" is a shorthand slang for the fiscal position the federal government, and therefore all of us citizens, are now in.

The term broke means "being in debt to such an amount that debt can never be conceivably be repaid". It is important, you must be able to conceptualize that there is an upper limit, a point of no return or an amount of debt that an entity can never repay.

The next step is bankruptcy. However, the federal government can never go bankrupt, bankruptcy is a legal term. The two choices the feds have is to print money to pay debt or it can default on the debt. Both have been tried. History tells us both choices are devastating. The pain, death and destruction that results will be terrible.

You are in the common mode of just kicking this debt can down the road by borrowing more and more. A very immature, very immoral stance to take. You are resting on all the premature cries of the past to allow you to continue to support your borrowing spending spree. It reminds me of the "Boy Who Cried Wolf" story. The wolf will come.

You may not understand what a trillion dollars is, but I certainly do. A trillion dollars of debt means nothing but pain. Keep voting for leadership that thinks like you and we will all get to feel that pain. Educators with hopes of depending on state retirement funds will probably suffer more than others.

Citizen Jane said...

Hi, Catlover,

With all due respect, I don’t think you really grasp what “a trillion” is any more than I do. The human brain has not evolved to intuitively grasp really, really, really big numbers. That’s why astrophysicists and rocket scientists have to have special talent, many years of training, and practice in mathematical skills to do their jobs.

But the notion that x amount of debt has to be paid with sequential payments of x number of dollars is linear thinking—the very kind of thinking that misleads us into thinking that doubling pennies daily for 30 days couldn’t possibly result in $11 million!

Any financial advisor can tell you that no one ever got rich just by working and saving—nor do most people physically create their own money (a practice frowned on by the government). Rather, they invest. They contribute to diversified money market accounts. They buy property that appreciates. They bargain to reduce debts. (Ultimately, the United States is likely to discharge some of its debt to China by working with that country on joint projects, sharing technologies, and otherwise swapping mutually beneficial cooperation for money. For more on this subject, read Thomas Friedman.)

Catlover, I can see that you are worried and angry. I’m going to venture a guess: you watch Fox News (a special-interest media outlet that specializes in making people worried and angry). If that’s not the case, then please share your sources. I would like to know where you get your information.


Catlover said...

C. Jane

Just to comment back.

Paragraph 1.
The human brain can grasp really really big numbers.

Paragraph 2.
I have no idea what you are talking about.

Paragraph 3.
Plenty of people have gotten rich thru hard work and saving.

The only way China will discharge any of our debt is if the US pays that debt with something they want. I say give them California.

Paragraph 4.
Yes, I am worried and angry, nothing wrong with either emotion in moderation. People have solved a lot of problems utilizing anger and worry, two very human emotions. Try them sometime.

Everything I write is a based on live long experience and common sense. You will never live my life nor I ours. It would be impossible to list where I have gotten my "information". Common sense cannot be taught or learned you either have it or you do not.

Citizen Jane said...

Okay, Catlover! For now, why don't we agree to disagree,

Catlover said...

C. Jane

Here a taste of what could easily happen in US, plucked right out of today's headlines:

(I think you will have to cut and paste it).


Catlover said...

If the link doesn't here is a small excerpt from the above article about riots in Greece today.

""Anger has grown against the EU for insisting on tough austerity measures in return for a bailout worth an estimated รข‚¬45 billion (£39 billion) this year alone, and up to €120 billion (£104 billion) over three years.

Some young Greeks prefer to blame their elders for the mountain of debt that has resulted in Greece, like a wayward child, being placed under the tutelage of the men from the IMF.

“I cannot help but blame my parents a little for what’s happened,” said Achilles Zacharoulis, a 36-year-old cardiologist. “They were here all that time,” he added, referring to the past three decades of mismanagement and fiscal insanity. “But what did they do to stop it?”"

Citizen Jane said...

Thanks for that link, Catlover. Interesting article. I’ve never been to Greece, but people who have tell me that a large wad of cash for bribes has been a staple of doing business there. As in Mexico right now, it seems there were essentially two economies working against each other: the one officially sanctioned by the government and an underground economy that avoided taxation and funneled a lot of money out of the country. Whatever the corruption that existed for so long, there’s a big shakeup going on there now!

And talk about entitlements! I was stunned to read the following in the article you referenced:

“They and other public sector workers are virtually unsackable, can retire as early as 45 and get bonuses for using a computer, speaking a foreign language and arriving at work on time.

“Some of them get as many as four extra months’ salary a year, compared with the 14 months that are paid to other Greek workers. One of the most generous bonuses is paid to unmarried daughters of dead employees in state-controlled banks: they can inherit their parents’ pensions.”

I wonder how many daughters of Greek banking tycoons have avoided matrimony, living with partners ‘till death do them part while collecting their daddies’ salaries?

Clearly those rioting in the streets of Athens right now at least know what they’re losing: the opportunity to spend half their lives getting everything for nothing! That was a house of cards that had to tumble some time or other.

Governments should exist to help the citizens of the countries they represent. But as in family relations, it’s often necessary to determine where the line should be drawn between “helping” and “enabling.” Clearly the Greek government had been way out of alignment with reality and the true well-being of its citizenry for a long, long time!