Monday, March 20, 2017

"Too Much Free Time?"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Too Much Free Time?”
March 20, 2017

The secret of being miserable is to have leisure to bother
about whether you are happy or not. The cure for it is occupation.”
                                                                                                            George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)

Walking into Chelsea Piers in Stamford, Connecticut a week ago, I remarked to my son how surprised my grandparents would have been with the amount of free time people have today. We were there to pick up his middle daughter (my granddaughter) who was playing soccer. The place is immense – an Olympic-size pool, two hockey rinks, batting cages, squash and tennis courts, lacrosse fields, food courts, viewing stands and, of course, soccer fields – all housed in a 465,000 SF building, on a 33-acre campus that was once the world headquarters for the hair-coloring company Clairol. Hundreds of youngsters and oldsters were using the facilities – people with extra time on their hands, something rare 120 years ago.

In 1900, when my grandparents were young adults, the average person working in manufacturing spent 60 hours a week on the job. Farmers – 41% of the labor force – had longer hours. Forty percent of working women labored outside the home, many in factories where $4 for a 70-hour week was not unknown. Others worked as servants, for even less and with longer hours. About 80% of all jobs in 1900 required manual labor. Average annual income was about $457, a little less than one percent of what it is today.

Apart from 10-hour work days six days a week, family heads had to ensure a roof overhead and the putting of food on the table, activities that consumed most of their free time. Only 2% of homes had electricity, so labor-saving devices we take for granted – blenders, refrigerators, coffee makers and toasters – were unavailable. The U.S. fertility rate in 1900 was 3.7; it is now 1.8, the lowest ever recorded here. Life expectancy in 1900 was 46.3 years for men and 48.3 years for women. Today those numbers are 76.9 and 81.6 respectively. Except for those in cities or those who could afford horses, travel was difficult. Mass transportation – trains, trollies, ferries, steam boats, and a few subway systems – was available in some urban areas. As 1899 became 1900, there were about 8,000 cars in the U.S., many of which were not much faster than a horse. All were owned by the wealthy. Free time was a luxury, unknown to all but a few.

There was a leisure class in 1900, albeit small. Then, there were greater numbers of poor and a smaller middle class than today. Fifty-six percent of families lived in poverty. Today, the number is 13.5%. Wealth was more concentrated than today. According to census reports, there were 5,000 millionaires, or about 0.00007% of a population of 76 million. The sons and daughters (and grandsons and granddaughters) of the wealthy constituted the leisure class. While some of those helped build schools, colleges, opera houses, museums and provided funds to protect the environment, others did little for themselves or mankind. In Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen, in an amusing expiation of the phenomena, has young Edward Ferrar explain his torpidity at age nineteen and why he was unfit for the military, law or the church. He concludes: “I was therefore entered at Oxford and have been properly idle ever since.”

In comparing hours worked, life expectancy and time-saving consumer products and conveniences, there is a lot my grandparents would find unrecognizable today, even though they lived through a time that produced many of those changes. Today’s average household has just over two people, less than half the number in 1900. Our average workweek, at just under 40 hours, is a third less than it was. Life expectancy has risen by almost 50%. We are freer to go when and where we want, because we can afford to and technology allows it. There are 253 million cars on American roads today, almost one per person. Two percent of today’s population feeds the other ninety-eight percent. And, incidentally, many of those engaged in agriculture are illegal immigrants. The average age of retirement in the U.S. is 63, suggesting the average person will spend fifteen years in retirement. In 1900, death usually preceded retirement.

Microwave ovens and electric vacuums and have given people freedom from chores in the home. Cable TV and iPads provide entertainment, while smart phones make it easier to communicate. In 1900, in the U.S., only six hundred thousand homes had telephones. Today, there are as many cell phones as there are people – 328 million. Central heat and air conditioning add a level of comfort inconceivable back then.

But, have we lost something with our growing wealth and greater free time? In 1844, Alfred Vail, who was at the Baltimore Rail Road Station, sent a message back to Samuel Morse, who was at the U.S. Capital: “What hath God wrought?” We might ask the same question today. Has all this leisure time improved our lot? The short answer is yes, when we consider the many ways in which our lives are better – longevity, health care, comforts and communication. A college education is more widely available. Travel has widened our horizons, and time for athletics has improved our physical well-being.

But the long answer is not so straight forward. As a society (with thanks to the civil rights movements of the late 1950s and early 1960s), we are more accepting of those physically and culturally different from ourselves. But we have become less tolerant of those whose ideas do not conform to our own, as was seen at Middlebury College three weeks ago. We have gained knowledge, but have we lost wisdom? We have substituted government-centric compassion for individual caring, as Professor Robert Putnam wrote about in his 2000 book, Bowling Alone. Politically, we have moved away from the concept of a melting pot (E Pluribus Unum) to become a salad bowl of distinct and separable identities, and we have become more polarized. Children mature physically as fast as they ever did, but with a lessened sense of personal responsibility and accountability. There has been a rise in drug and alcohol abuse and recently in opioid usage, especially in small towns and cities. We live in an environment where the young know how to use the internet, but fail to understand the consequences of posting photos and videos that others might use to their detriment, as nude photos of female marines circulating around the internet show.

We are blessed to live in this age, where the poor live better than the middle class did 100 years ago, where our homes keep us comfortable in all seasons, where we can see who is knocking on our front door from 3000 miles away, where disease is better combatted and where labor-saving devices give us time and energy for leisure activities. Because of the time-saving products produced by those who came before, we have hours more for ourselves. We have the time to improve ourselves, in a way inconceivable to our grandparents (and their parents and grandparents). But, have we used that time wisely? Are we improving our minds, or do we spend too much time in front of video and TV screens? Are we suitably involved with our families, friends and in our communities? Individually, we must answer these questions. Work we must, if we want a roof over our heads and food on the table. Aristotle once said (allegedly!): “The end of labor is to gain leisure.” To the extent that is true, the Genie of progress has granted us our wish. We have been provided the opportunity. It is our responsibility to use wisely the free time we now have.

On balance, though, Margaret’s great-great grandparents would be pleased she is able to pursue other activities, including indoor soccer, on a cold March afternoon at Chelsea Piers in Stamford, Connecticut.

Monday, March 13, 2017

"Trump, Russia and Lies"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Trump, Russia and Lies”
March 13, 2017

Oh, what a tangled web we weave
 When first we practice to deceive.”
                                                                                                Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832)
                                                                                                Marmion, 1808

Despite Sophocles declamation that “no lie ever reaches old age,” we will likely never know the truth about who is responsible for all that has been written about Trump and Russia, nor the truth of the accusation that Obama tapped Trump’s phone. FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) courts, at the request of the President, can implement wiretaps opaquely in the murky recesses of the intelligence world. Did Trump, or someone on his team conspire with Putin to affect the election, as has been claimed by some in the media and by many Democrats? Did former President Obama or his minions spy on Trump and his associates, with the goal of undermining his Presidency, as Mr. Trump’s recent tweets suggest?

It has always beggared belief to conclude that Putin would have preferred Trump (a political unknown and cited as mercurial) to Mrs. Clinton, a woman who had been part of an administration that had given him little push-back in Crimea, Ukraine and Syria. What we do know is that from the first hours after an election that surprised them, Democrats have been crafting a story to explain their (to them) inexplicable loss. Not willing to accept the possibility that responsibility may be theirs – a flawed candidate and/or identity policies that ignored middle class working Americans – they settled on Russia and Putin as scapegoats.

It was an inspired choice. Russia had become Mr. Obama’s nemesis. Mr. Putin, whatever his faults (and they are many), is not stupid. Remember how President Obama belittled Mitt Romney in 2012 when the latter suggested that Russia was the greatest threat we faced. Remember Mr. Obama’s comments to Mr. Putin that same year: “After the election I will have more flexibility.” Over the past several years Mr. Putin out-maneuvered Mr. Obama, Mrs. Clinton and John Kerry, in places like Crimea, Ukraine, Eastern Europe and Syria. Accusing the Trump camp of colluding with Russians deflected criticism of the Obama legacy. We all know that it is in Mr. Putin’s interest to discredit democracy. We know that the Russians had the means to interfere in the election, because they had hacked Mrs. Clinton’s private server, as well as that of the Democratic National Committee. And, because of Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks, we also know that our government has the means to listen in on and record phone calls, messages and e-mails. Regardless of what is the truth, Mr. Putin must be smiling at the discord he is accused of having sown.

 The New York Times recently reported that in July the Justice Department and the FBI considered a criminal investigation into the Trump organization based on possible connections to Russian financial institutions. When no criminal activity was uncovered, the Justice Department tried to convert the case into a national security investigation under FISA, but was denied. In October, Justice returned to the FISA court, this time with a narrower request for surveillance of three Trump associates: Paul Manafort, Roger Stone and Carter Page. After five months, this McCarthy-like investigation disclosed that Roger Stone admitted to a one-time Twitter response to Guccifer 2.0, following a piece he published last August in Breitbart. Guccifer 2.0 is a ‘mysterious’ online figure, ‘believed’ to be a front for Russian intelligence.

For those of us not part of the Washington-based Machiavellian machinations of our elected leaders, we must form opinions based on a biased media that we read, listen to or watch. It is no easy task, and one must scour multiple sources. The media’s goal is not to keep people informed, but to prejudice opinions. At the same time, politicians parse words. They also lie. Back in 2013, when testifying before Congress, James Clapper, Mr. Obama’s director of national intelligence, was asked by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) if the NSA collects any type of data on Americans. He responded, “No, sir.” We found out from Edward Snowden that the NSA does, in fact, collect that data. Disclosures from Wikileaks last week confirmed that assessment. Last week, FBI Director James Comey told the Justice Department to dismiss Trump’s charge that his phone had been bugged. Why was he so adamant? He knows the technology to do so exists. Mr. Clapper was also incensed at Trump’s claim. He had told Congress that, as far as he knew, there was “no evidence of collusion between Trump’s campaign and the Russians. Nothing. Nada.” Yet, how could he have been so sure unless Trump’s phones had been tapped? Technology has bettered our lives, but it has become dangerously ubiquitous. It has also made government more invasive. Wisdom, a counterbalance to intrusive government is, unfortunately, in short supply.

In the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs, Eugene Rumer, Richard Sokolsky and Andrew Weiss, all from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote an essay titled “Trump and Russia.” They noted: “Trump inherited a ruptured U.S.-Russian relation.” But, based on statements and Tweets, they have low expectations for Trump’s success. Perhaps they are right. But I suspect that in Mr. Trump Mr. Putin will face a quite different adversary than in Mr. Obama. Mr. Trump has called for increased military spending, and has been vehement in arguing that Europe must increase their defense spending. He has been vociferous in defense of NATO, but points out that Europe must up its contributions. In the Middle East, Mr. Trump knows that Mr. Putin’s interest is not simply in destroying ISIS, but in having a more prominent role in the region.

Putin should be confronted about any part he and/or Russia may have played in our election – a democratic people need to know that their elections cannot be undermined by outside influence. But we should heed our own advice. Mr. Obama was clear as to where he stood on Brexit. Leave the EU, he told Brits last April, and “you will go to the back of the line.” As well, Benjamin Netanyahu would not have described Mr. Obama as an impartial observer during their election two years ago. We should not interfere in other countries’ domestic policies, any more than should they in ours. The ability for nations of myriad religions and governments to co-exist is critical to world peace, which is best achieved predicated on respect, strength and will, not disdain, weakness and obeisance.

Mr. Trump has been accused of using Twitter with reckless abandon. I once felt that way myself. But doing so allows him to communicate directly with the American people, without his words being misconstrued by someone at MSNBC, the Washington Post or Fox News. We live in a world where news sources are under attack, truth is illusive, and where many of us find it difficult to discern fake news from real news. Both parties have mastered the art of agnotology.  A lie,” as Winston Churchill once said, “gets half way around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” Mr. Trump’s tweets come across like a stream of consciousness; yet I suspect they are more contrived than not.

As an armchair psychologist, I would argue that Mr. Trump is a deliberate man, no matter the image he portrays. He did not run a business with the success he had by letting sensibilities get the better of his sense. May he show the same discipline in dealing with Russia.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Burrowing into Books - "Sugar in the Blood"

Sydney M. Williams

Burrowing into Books
Reviews of Selective Readings
                                                                                                                                     March 7, 2017
“Sugar in the Blood”
Andrea Stuart

“…at the root of it all was fear.”
                                                                                                Andrea Stuart (1962-)
                                                                                                Sugar in the Blood, 2012

This is a story of cane sugar, slavery and empire. Ms. Stuart was born in Jamaica, where her father was a doctor, but both her parents were Barbadians. She descends from both Black and White, from slaves, as well as plantation owners. She was raised and educated primarily in England. The book was originally published in England in 2012 and short-listed for the 2013 OCM Bocas Prize and the Spear’s Book Award.

The story is told through what Andrea Stuart could gleam from her British family – beginning with her eight-greats grandfather, George Ashbury, who sailed to Barbados in the early 1630s – and from available history of the island, along with records detailing the capture, transportation and life of slaves in the New World. She tells the story of the terrible effects slavery wrought – of the punishing work performed and the inhumane treatment slaves suffered as chattel, and the effects on those that owned them. She writes of sugar cane – “white gold,” as it was known – that enriched planters, merchants and traders, and which, in turn, increased the demand for slave labor.

The riches that cane brought – produced on the backs of slaves – were beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. They helped build the Tate Gallery in London and All Souls College at Oxford.  (In the U.S., profits from slavery helped fund the Harvard Law School and ten of the twelve colleges at Yale.) We can hide from the consequences of slavery, as for years we have done, but we cannot expunge it from our history. Books such as this rightly make us confront its reality and legacy. But we should not let it subsume our lives. For it is the future – not the past – that is critical to all of us – white black or brown. Affirmative action has been around for 56 years and reparations are now being considered – complicated by miscegenation. However, and in my opinion, the best gift to offer descendants of slaves is to make available the best education possible. In public schools, that means offering choice, whether it is traditional public schools, charters, vouchers, religious schools or home-schooling. In colleges, it means providing scholarships based on meritocracy. As the Chinese say: it is better to teach a man to fish than to give him a fish.

Throughout her book, Ms. Stuart keeps the reader focused on the whole story. While the reader is left in no doubt as to the brutality of slavery and its tragic consequences, she writes not as a victim, but as a humane historian. She notes that the failure of the Busa Rebellion (1816 in Barbados) “proved a historical gift to the island when set alongside the terrible price Haiti paid for its successful revolution.”

History has a long arc. It is a continuum, with a beginning we do not know and with an end we cannot know. And there is no way to determine where we are on that trajectory. Sugar in the Blood is a reminder that history is not always pretty, but her story also leaves the reader with an optimistic sense that, in nations where the rule of law exists people and societies can and do evolve. Ms. Stuart writes beautifully. This is a book to read and to ponder. For one, you will be thankful you were born when and where you were.