Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Science and the economy and karma

 I'm not an economist. But I think I'm not the only one these days who's trying to give themselves a crash course in economics just to be able to follow the politics and cut through the BS spinning.

I believe in keeping an open mind to all ideas, and to always try to understand your opponents' point of view, now matter how ridiculous it sounds at the outset. At the very least, you will strengthen your own position and resolve.

So, in that spirit, I've been trying to understand why all the diehard conservatives and Republicans are so against Pres. Obama's stimulus plan; besides just the obvious motivation of being contrary to whatever the new administration says--that's a time honored role that I think politicians believe is a mandatory requirement of their job.

The thing is, I'm not a hypocrite; I practice what I preach (or, at least, I try to). I examine the claims that I agree with even harder than those I don't, and I've found a lot I don't like about Obama's plan. But the Republicans don't seem to be against the bill for the same reasons I am... in fact, they don't seem to mention all the bad parts of the bill that allows fat cats to keep their cake and eat it too; at least, so far as I've heard. Instead, they just complain that spending is wrong because, well, that's what "the other side" does, so it must be wrong. They use plenty of standard political rhetoric that means a whole bunch of nothing--no surprise, that's what all politicians do.

So I'm trying to look at what the Repubs would do differently. What is their solution to the economic crisis? What would they do if they had control of both congress and the White House?

And the answer, so far, has been: Pretty much, nothing. Cut taxes some more. Deregulate some more. And sit back and let the "Free Market" sort itself out.

I find this position striking. Let the Free Market work itself out? While how many families loose their jobs and get booted out of their houses because fat cats in Washington and Wall Street made short-sighted decisions? How many people have to suffer because of the mistakes of the few? I find it absolutely remarkable that the rhetoric from conservatives about greed keeps talking about "people who bought a house they couldn't afford" or "ran up credit card debt because they were greedy." What? Visa and Mastercard brought the world's economies to their knees? There is a fundamental lack of awareness about the nature of this recession evident in that kind of thinking. Now, despite the fact that I am pretty sure I know the reasons behind what they're thinking, I don't believe in making claims about people's intimate thoughts; I can't read minds.

Buuut, I was raised Republican, and I was a Republican myself for many years before I started thinking for myself, so I can tell you what I used to think. I used to think that, when bad things happened to people, somehow, they deserved those bad things. If I was still a Republican in this economy, when someone lost their home to a foreclosure, in my mind it would never have been because the housing values plummeted around them through no fault of their own and they couldn't refinance because the banks were scared and their job was laying off employees--no, it was because the person racked up too much debt living "above himself," or he wasn't working hard enough, he should take some more jobs. It was vital that I believed this, because if it wasn't true (at least the majority of the time), then terrible things happen to good people all the time, which meant I was vulnerable to the same random happenstances, and that if I would want help in those circumstances, then I would have to help other people who found themselves in those circumstances. But if someone got themselves into a jam through their own greed and/or stupidity, then they would have to get themselves out of it, and any government assistance that person received was my tax dollars bailing a fool out of problems I was smart enough not to create for myself.

I'm not so naive as to think that every fiscal conservative believes this. But as I read over the comments on my Facebook friends' pages and on blogs and news sites, I'd have to be a fool to think this isn't the opinion of "Joe the Plumber" on the street.

The fact of the matter is, bad things happen to good people. Stop the presses! Real shocker there, I'm sure. But while I understand the GOP looking to score browny points is going to be anxious to toss "Joe Foreclosure" on the street, what I can't understand is why so many of my fellow "Main Street" Americans are ready to see their neighbors jobless and homeless because of some sort of deluded "survival of the fittest in the free market" scenario. Here's a little factoid: survival of the fittest worked great for 3.5 billion years to create new species... and 99.9% of those species are now EXTINCT.

We are all connected. That's not some sort of spiritual woo-woo, that's a fact of the 21st century. It's not just a pun to say that our fortunes are linked. What happens to autoworkers in Michigan effects whether I can run a small business in North Carolina. What happens on the Stock Market on Wall Street effects what happens on Stock Markets in Tokyo, or London, or Beijing. Remember those little charts we made in 3rd grade, where the cricket eats the grass, and the frog eats the cricket, and the snake eats the frog, and the eagle eats the snake, etc.? Yes, the Circle of Life is not just for Simba anymore, folks. What happens to the Bulls and the Bears affects whether you get to keep your job, or whether your neighbor can go to college or has to flip burgers instead. Survival of the fittest worked great to get us here, but it's time is done. We have to move forward. We have to adopt bigger ideals, or we're ALL screwed, not just your imaginary welfare bogeyman.

So, to wind up this incredibly long and rambling post, let me just quote Jesus as he spoke to the money-changers in the temple: "Take your Free Market and shove it."

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Dawinpada

So, I've been working on another post that's actually about sex (shameless teaser plug (and yes there will be a lot of bad innuendos like that)), but February 12th is the 200 year anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, and I can't let Darwin Day go by without saying something about it.
Turns out, there's actually a lot to say. The more I learn about Charles Darwin, the more he becomes a hero in my mind. Of course we all know the "Christmas version" of his story, as I like to call it: he went to the Galapagos islands, saw a bunch of finches, and developed the theory of natural selection. Turns out, there's a lot more to the story... A lot more.
(Minor disclaimer here: I have completely inundated myself with Darwin lately--TV programs, internet specials, podcasts; so I can't remember the sources for all the facts I'm about to talk about--very unscientific and unprofessional of me, I apologize. Take what I'm saying with that in mind.)
There are a lot of amazing things to be said about Darwin... but there are a lot of amazing things to say about a lot of stories regarding science, and I try to leave that to the much better qualified blogs and news outlets out there. The purpose of this blog is to explore where science and Buddhism intersect. So, what does Darwin have to do with Buddhism?
More than I originally imagined, actually.
Charles Darwin was a very empathic man, who cared a great deal about the suffering of others. And not just "others" as in his peers, but beings all over the globe, from humans in slavery all the way down to birds and insects and even plants.
Charles Darwin was raised in a well-to-do family in Victorian England. This was the time of Jane Austin's works; if you've ever watched a movie adaptation of one of her novels, you know what Darwin's world looked like. And if you've ever read her works, you know how the people of that time thought: everything has it's rightful place, everything is ordained by God and was ordained that way since Creation began; to "rock the boat" of soceity was considered a grave, unspoken cardinal sin.
Yet England, at the time, was in a period of great social upheaval. Famines and disasters pushed more and more people into the city, scrounging for work so their children could eat. The aristocracy of the time had pity on the poor... But not too much pity; that would have been improper. They established a welfare system, but they forced those receiving the welfare into horrible workhouses, where they were seperated by gender and made to work 80 hours or more a week. This was the time of child labor and debtors prisons. It was widely believed, at the time, that such conditions were God's way of encouraging people to not reproduce; a little reminder from on high that God doesn't like sex. (Victorians. Ah, what can ya do with'em?)
The conditions of his fellow man no doubt broke Darwin's heart; this is a man who would berate a perfect stranger for abusing a donkey or a pig, who hated slavery and called it an "abomination" (haha, I have a source for this one!) But the attitudes (called Malthusian theory) on how population is kept in check by natural disasters and poverty were to plant the seeds in Darwin's mind for what would become natural selection. He wondered, If things are so bad for we humans, who can choose to excercise self-restraint, how much worse must it be for the lower animals, who always produce more offspring than their natural habitat can sustain?
It was this realization (ooo, another source!) that led Darwin to the conclusion that, in the natural world, where there is only enough food and room to accomodate a fraction of those born, the ones that survived would be the ones who more perfectly fit their niche-- viola, Survival of the Fittest.
Despite this monumental discovery, however, Darwin was hesistant to publish. He knew that the prevailing opinions of his time would be staunchly opposed to his ideas... including the opinions of his beloved wife. He continued collecting evidence and refining his theory for 20 years before he was pushed into publication by the appearance of one Alfred Russel Wallace, who had developed the theory of natural selection himself and was set to publish.
Charles Darwin was a man much concerned with suffering; and not just with the kind caused by clinging, which is what Buddhism mostly concerns itself with, but the general suffering of nature "red in tooth and claw." It led him to question the established ideas of divinely sanctioned order. He could not see how an omniscient and omnipotent creator could devise creatures whose sole means of living was through the painful death of other species (see here, midway down). He had to move his perspective back, zoom out his point of view from the petty English conceits of the time. When he did, he found enlightenment. And through his enlightenment, the world has never been the same.
Happy birthday, Mr. Darwin.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

A Look at Perspective, Part II

I've found an absolutely fantastic resource for anyone interested in the scientific bases behind Buddhism that I just have to share. Rick Hanson and Rick Mendius give a lecture on "The Neurology of Awakening" that is available for download (audio) here. They give some amazing information about the brain--it's complexity, it's evolution--as well as how it relates to suffering, self-concept, etc.

It's reaffirmed my original hypothesis--that we are not as in control of our brains as we think, that our brain has many left over "programs" from earlier in our evolutionary history that hold us back, and that the philosophy of Buddhism (or any very strict system of introspection) can help us to overcome and transcend those vestigial instincts.

Let's take perspective, for instance. A lot of things about our perspective make sense: our eyes evolved to see in the tiny spectrum of light we call "visible" because it gives us the greatest benefit when moving about and manipulating our world--a solid state world that is, at the atomic level, mostly just empty space. But we didn't evolve to see radio waves, because then we'd be bumping in to trees and rocks as the light waves pass through that space. No, visible light provides the best information for navigation (give or take a few wavelengths--I'm lookin' at you, bees and snakes!), so it makes sense that that's what we see; it's how we build our point of view.

But some things that shape our perspective of the world don't make sense anymore. For instance, our natural tendency to view the world in a sharp divide of "us" and "them" makes sense in a social species that must compete for resources in a pack vs pack (or, troop vs troop, as I discovered primate groups are called) environment. But in today's modern age of interconnectivity, this tendency is vestigial. Actually, I take that back; wisdom teeth are vestigial. The "us vs them" mentality is downright destructive. And while the danger might not be as prevalent as it was during the Cold War, this mentality still holds the potential to actually self-destruct our very species.

While I'm on the doom and gloom, I guess I should also mention our difficulty in making long-term plans. For our ancestors, "long-term" was "next season". The forager and hunter gatherer societies in which our modern brains evolved could not possibly have damaged their environment so much that not planning years in advance would be a detriment to their offspring surviving--the driving factor behind natural selection. But even with our lifespans quadruple that of our ancestors and our influence now able to shape the face of the planet, we still have enough problems planning for retirement; much less thinking about the consequences of our actions generations from now. What's more, we don't really care. It takes a conscious effort and a great deal of empathy to care what happens to future generations--again, that "us" and "them" thing.

But enough of the doomsaying--what about our day to day living? Everything, from our craving of fatty, sugary foods, to our general avoidance of change, comes from our ancestor's needs, not ours.

What does this mean for us? It means that if you've had your wisdom teeth pulled and your appendix removed, you're only halfway there.