Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Who Increased the National Debt?

I first saw the chart below on this subject on Facebook from Left Action. It purportedly came from the Democratic leader of the House.Link

I found the results so surprising that I verified the data for myself. I did not want to perpetuate a lie based on false data. I also wanted to go back further in history to see how earlier presidents fared on this measure. Of course we realize that it’s congress that actually spends the money but it very popular right now to identify debt by the president and his administration.

My source for data was the OMB (Office of Management and Budget), specifically their Historical Tables, Table 7.1 Federal Debt at the End of the Year 1940 -2016. The data for 2010 was still estimated when I did this analysis. Gross Federal Debt is the sum of Public Debt and Debt Held by Federal Government accounts (other agencies).

The results I got are shown below:

While the actual numbers differ a bit from the chart on Facebook, the overall trends are the same. Reagan still is the greatest contributor on a percentage basis of any of the presidents from 1940 to the end of 2010.

I wondered what the chart would like rationalized by the GDP (Gross Domestic Product). The results are shown below:

Our national debt was over 90% of the GDP at the end of 1940, and it fell steadily until the Reagan administration. It’s been growing ever since except for the Clinton administration when it decreased.

When these data are looked at in the same way as the increase in debt, the results are shown below:

From this perspective Clinton’s financial management appears remarkable.

Other sources of information:
National Debt by Presidential Terms, Wikipedia
Presidents and the Federal Debt, zFacts
National Debt by President, The Big Picture

Click here to print a copy of this analysis

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Texas on the Brink

Texas on the Brink: How Texas Ranks Among the 50 States
February 2011 ~ Fifth Edition

"Since 1836, Texas has stood as an icon of the American dream.

Blessed with land, rivers, oil, and other abundant natural resources, early Texas welcomed everyone from cattle ranchers to braceros, from cotton farmers to Chinese railroad workers. These pioneers built a great state, and together we fulfilled a destiny.

From humble beginnings, we built a state with the firm belief that every Texan might rise as high and as far as their spirit, hard work, and talent might carry them. With education and determination every Texan might achieve great success – home ownership, reliable healthcare, safe neighborhoods, and financial prosperity.

In Texas today, the American dream is distant. Texas has the highest percentage of uninsured children in the nation. Texas is dead last in the percentage of residents with their high school diploma and near last in SAT scores. Texas has America’s dirtiest air. If we do not change course, for the first time in our history, the Texas generation of tomorrow will be less prosperous than the generation of today.

Without the courage to invest in the minds of our children and steadfast support for great schools, we face a daunting prospect. Those who value tax cuts over children and budget cuts over college have put Texas at risk in her ability to compete and succeed.

Let us not forget that the business of Texas is Texans. To ‘Close the Gap’ in Texas, we must graduate more of our best and brightest with the skills to succeed in a world based on knowledge. If we invest in our greatest resource – our children – Texas will be the state of the future. If we do not, Texas will only fall further behind.

Texas is on the brink, but Texas can do better. The choice is ours."

The video below is one I made from the rankings given in this report. It's ten minutes long.

Texas, Our Texas from Paul Schumann on Vimeo.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

When Truth Hurts

When Truth Hurts: How to Have an Honest Conversation about the Future Without Losing Hope, Robert Jensen, Utne Reader

"We live in the midst of multiple crises—economic and political, cultural and ecological—posing a significant threat to human existence at the level we have become accustomed to. There’s no way to be awake to the depth of these crises without emotional reactions, no way to be aware of the pain caused by these systemic failures without some dread and distress.

Those emotions come from recognizing that we humans with our big brains have disrupted the balance of the living world in disastrous ways that may be causing irreversible ecological destruction, and that drastically different ways of living are not only necessary but inevitable, with no guarantee of a smooth transition.

This talk, in polite company, leads to being labeled hysterical, Chicken Little, apocalyptic. No matter that you are calm, aren’t predicting the sky falling, and have made no reference to rapture. Pointing out that we live in unsustainable systems, that unsustainable systems can’t be sustained, and that no person or institution with power in the dominant culture is talking about this—well, that’s obviously crazy.

But to many of us, these insights simply seem honest. To be fully alive today is to live with anguish, not for one’s own condition in the world but for the condition of the world, for a world that is in collapse. What to do when such honesty is unwelcome?"

As a result of his research Jensen reports on several reactions to concerns about the future:

  • "First, we often feel drained by it."
  • "Second, we encounter those who don’t want to face tough truths. Many wrote about isolation from family and friends who deny that there are reasons to be concerned."
  • "Sometimes people accuse those who press questions about systemic failure and collapse of being the problem."
Daniel Boorstin had something to say about this 50 years ago. He wrote in The Image, "We suffer primarily not from our vices or our weaknesses, but from our illusions." And, illusions cannot be broken by the truth.

He wrote, "Never have people been more the masters of their environment. Yet never has a people felt more deceived and disappointed. For never has a people expected so much more than the world could offer.

We are ruled by extravagant expectations:
  • Of our power to shape the world. Of our ability to create events when there are none, to make heroes when they don't exist, to be somewhere else when we haven't left home. Of our ability to make art forms suit our convenience, to transform a novel into a movie and vice versa, to turn a symphony into mood-conditioning. To fabricate national purposes when we lack them, to pursue these purposes after we have fabricated them. To invent our standards and then to respect them as if they had been revealed or discovered.
  • Of what the world holds. Of how much news there is, how many heroes there are, how often masterpieces are made, how exotic the nearby can be, how familiar the exotic can become. Of the closeness of places and the farness of places.
By harboring, nourishing, and ever enlarging our extravagant expectations we create the demand for the illusions with which we deceive ourselves. And which we pay others to make to deceive us. "

The result of this expectation is an acceptance of pseudo-events and illusion:

"The American citizen thus lives in a world where fantasy is more real than reality, where the image has more dignity than its original. We hardly dare face our bewilderment, because our ambiguous experience is so pleasantly iridescent, and the solace of belief in contrived reality is so thoroughly real. We have become eager accessories to the great hoaxes of the age. These are the hoaxes we play on ourselves.

Pseudo-events from their very nature tend to be more interesting and more attractive than spontaneous events. Therefore in American public life today pseudo-events tend to drive all other kinds of events out of our consciousness, or at least to overshadow them. Earnest, well-informed citizens seldom notice that their experience of spontaneous events is buried by pseudo-events. Yet nowadays, the more industriously they work at "informing" themselves the more this tends to be true. "

Patrick Henry understood this about the nature of man when he wrote:

It is natural for man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts... For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth, to know the worst, and to provide for it.

Read More:
When the Truth Hurts
The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, Daniel Boorstin, Vintage Books, 1961, 319pp

The Corporate State Wins Again

The Corporate State Wins Again, Chris Hedges, CommonDreams

"When did our democracy die? When did it irrevocably transform itself into a lifeless farce and absurd political theater? When did the press, labor, universities and the Democratic Party—which once made piecemeal and incremental reform possible—wither and atrophy? When did reform through electoral politics become a form of magical thinking? When did the dead hand of the corporate state become unassailable?

The body politic was mortally wounded during the long, slow strangulation of ideas and priorities during the Red Scare and the Cold War. Its bastard child, the war on terror, inherited the iconography and language of permanent war and fear. The battle against internal and external enemies became the excuse to funnel trillions in taxpayer funds and government resources to the war industry, curtail civil liberties and abandon social welfare. Skeptics, critics and dissenters were ridiculed and ignored. The FBI, Homeland Security and the CIA enforced ideological conformity. Debate over the expansion of empire became taboo. Secrecy, the anointing of specialized elites to run our affairs and the steady intrusion of the state into the private lives of citizens conditioned us to totalitarian practices. Sheldon Wolin points out in “Democracy Incorporated” that this configuration of corporate power, which he calls “inverted totalitarianism,” is not like “Mein Kampf” or “The Communist Manifesto,” the result of a premeditated plot. It grew, Wolin writes, from “a set of effects produced by actions or practices undertaken in ignorance of their lasting consequences.”

Corporate capitalism—because it was trumpeted throughout the Cold War as a bulwark against communism—expanded with fewer and fewer government regulations and legal impediments. Capitalism was seen as an unalloyed good. It was not required to be socially responsible. Any impediment to its growth, whether in the form of trust-busting, union activity or regulation, was condemned as a step toward socialism and capitulation. Every corporation is a despotic fiefdom, a mini-dictatorship. And by the end Wal-Mart, Exxon Mobil and Goldman Sachs had grafted their totalitarian structures onto the state."


"We live in a fragmented society. We are ignorant of what is being done to us. We are diverted by the absurd and political theater. We are afraid of terrorism, of losing our job and of carrying out acts of dissent. We are politically demobilized and paralyzed. We do not question the state religion of patriotic virtue, the war on terror or the military and security state. We are herded like sheep through airports by Homeland Security and, once we get through the metal detectors and body scanners, spontaneously applaud our men and women in uniform. As we become more insecure and afraid, we become more anxious. We are driven by fiercer and fiercer competition. We yearn for stability and protection. This is the genius of all systems of totalitarianism. The citizen’s highest hope finally becomes to be secure and left alone."

Chris Hedges writes a regular column for Truthdig.com. Hedges graduated from Harvard Divinity School and was for nearly two decades a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. He is the author of many books, including: War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, What Every Person Should Know About War, and American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. His most recent book is Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.

Read Article

All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age

This book by Dreyfus and Kelly was enjoyable to read. However, it was difficult to comprehend.

The book covers the following topics:
• Our Contemporary Nihilism
• David Foster Wallace’s Nihilism
• Homer’s Polytheism
• From Aeschylus to Augustine: Monotheism on the Rise
• From Dante to Kant: The Attractions and Dangers of Autonomy
• Fanaticism, Polytheism and Melville’s “Evil Art”
• Conclusion: Lives Worth Living in a Secular Age

The authors begin the book with a quote from Melville’s Moby Dick, a novel that plays a critical role in their analysis:

If hereafter any highly cultured, poetical nation shall lure back to their birthright, the merry May-day gods of old; and livingly enthrone them again in the now egotistical sky; on the now unhaunted hill; then be sure, exalted to Jove’s high seat, the great Sperm Whale shall lord it.

This is a good summary of the book. The authors trace the development of the great philosophical ideas through the writings of Western authors from the polytheism of Greece to the monotheistic religions of the Mid East to the nihilism of the modern West. They end the book with a new type of polytheism appropriate to our times that the authors believe will restore purpose to our lives.

All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, Free Press, 2011, 254 pp

Read Book Review

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle

Before the beginning of the book, Hedges quotes James Baldwin. “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.”

The purpose of this book is to attempt to awaken the conscious of America to its true reality. He covers five topics:

• The Illusion of Literacy
• The Illusion of Love
• The Illusion of Wisdom
• The Illusion of Happiness
• The Illusion of America

His message is urgent, as he writes later in the book, “Cultures that cannot distinguish between illusion and reality die.”

At the beginning of the first chapter he quotes two other writers:

Now the death of God combined with the perfection of the image has brought us to a whole new state of expectation. We are the image. We are the viewer and the viewed. There is no other distracting presence. And that image has all the Godly powers. It kills at will. Kills effortlessly. Kills beautifully. It dispenses morality. Judges endlessly. The electronic image is man as God and the ritual involved leads us not to a mysterious Holy Trinity but back to ourselves. In the absence of a clear understanding that we are now the only source, these images cannot help but return to the expression of magic and fear proper to idolatrous societies. This in turn facilitates the use of the electronic image as propaganda by whoever can control some part of it.” John Ralston Saul, Voltaire's Bastards

“We had fed the heart on fantasy,
The heart's grown brutal from the fare.”
William Butler Yeats, The Stare's Nest By My Window

His metaphor for study the illusion of literacy is professional wrestling, and how the story being told has changed over time. I found this a very effective and convincing metaphor.
He also uses Plato and Boorstin effectively:

In The Republic, Plato imagines human beings chained for the duration of their lives in an underground cave, knowing nothing but darkness. Their gaze is confined to the cave wall, upon which shadows of the world above are thrown. They believe these flickering shadows are reality. If, Plato writes, one of these prisoners is freed and brought into the sunlight, he will suffer great pain. Blinded by the glare, he is unable to see anything and longs for the familiar darkness. But eventually his eyes adjust to the light. The illusion of the tiny shadows is obliterated. He confronts the immensity, chaos, and confusion of reality. The world is no longer drawn in simple silhouettes. But he is despised when he returns to the cave. He is unable to see in the dark as he used to. Those who never left the cave ridicule him and swear never to go into the light lest they be blinded as well.

Plato feared the power of entertainment, the power of the senses to overthrow the mind, the power of emotion to obliterate reason. No admirer of popular democracy, Plato said that the enlightened or elite had a duty to educate those bewitched by the shadows on the cave wall, a position that led Socrates to quip: “As for the man who tried to free them and lead them upward, if they could somehow lay their hands on him and kill him, they would do so.”

We are chained to the flickering shadows of celebrity culture, the spectacle of the arena and the airwaves, the lies of advertising, the end-less personal dramas, many of them completely fictional, that have become the staple of news, celebrity gossip, New Age mysticism, and pop psychology. In The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, Daniel Boorstin writes that in contemporary culture the fabricated, the inauthentic, and the theatrical have displaced the natural, the genuine, and the spontaneous, until reality itself has been converted into stage-craft. Americans, he writes, increasingly live in a “world where fantasy is more real than reality.”

He warns:

“We risk being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so "realistic" that they can live in them. We are the most illusioned people on earth. Yet we dare not become disillusioned, because our illusions are the very house in which we live; they are our news, our heroes, our adventure, our forms of art, our very experience.”
Boorstin goes on to caution that

“An image is something we have a claim on. It must serve our purposes. Images are means. If a corporation's image of itself or a man's image of himself is not useful, it is discarded. Another may fit better. The image is made to order, tailored to us. An ideal, on the other hand, has a claim on us. It does not serve us; we serve it. If we have trouble striving towards it, we assume the matter is with us, and not with the ideal.”

Those who manipulate the shadows that dominate our lives are the agents, publicists, marketing departments, promoters, script writers, television and movie producers, advertisers, video technicians, photographers, bodyguards, wardrobe consultants, fitness trainers, pollsters, public announcers, and television news personalities who create the vast stage for illusion. They are the puppet masters. No one achieves celebrity status, no cultural illusion is swallowed as reality, without these armies of cultural enablers and intermediaries. The sole object is to hold attention and satisfy an audience. These techniques of theater, as Boorstin notes, have leached into politics, religion, education, literature, news, commerce, warfare, and crime. The squalid dramas played out for fans in the wrestling ring mesh with the ongoing dramas on television, in movies, and in the news, where "real-life" stories, especially those involving celebrities, allow news reports to become mini-dramas complete with a star, a villain, a supporting cast, a good-looking host, and a neat, if often unexpected, conclusion.

This has faint echoes of Marshal McLuhan, although the author never mentions his work. In The Wave of the Future I summarized McLuhan’s work. Of interest here is his discussion of the three great ages – preliterate, literate and post literate. An excerpt from The Wave of the Future:

"In fact we can look back at 3000 years of differing degrees of visualization, atomization and mechanization and at least recognize the mechanical age as an interlude between two great organic eras of culture. The age of print, which held sway from approximately 1500 to 1900, had its obituary tapped out by the telegraph, the first of the new electric media, and further obsequies were registered by the perception of curved space and non-Euclidean mathematics in the early years of century (20th), which revived tribal man's discontinuous time-space concepts - and which even Spenger dimly perceived as the death knell of Western literate values. The development of telephone, radio, film, television and the computer have driven further nails into the coffin. Today, television is the most significant of the electric media because it permeates nearly every home in the country, extending the nervous system of every viewer as it works over and molds the entire sensorium with the ultimate message. It is television that is primarily responsible for ending the visual supremacy that characterized all mechanical technology, although each of the other electric media have played contributing roles," observes McLuhan. (Note this is a quote from him in 1969.)

Tony Schwartz summed this change succinctly. "Since the introduction of the telephone, radio and television, our society has undergone a dramatic qualitative change: We have become a post-literate society. Electronic media, rather than the printed word, are now our major means of non-face-to-face communication."

I don’t think that there is any question that we are a in a post literate world.

In The Illusion of Love, the author uses the example of pornography to make his point. I am not a prude, but I found this chapter hard to read. It’s not the sexual explicitness of the discussion but the utter and absolute degradation of the women through the $96B pornographic industry (13,000 porn films made every year in America) and the abysmal self esteem the women have.

The porn films are not about sex. Sex is airbrushed and digitally washed out of the films. There is no acting because none of the women are permitted to have what amounts to a personality. The one emotion they are allowed to display is an unquenchable desire to satisfy men, especially if that desire involves the women's physical and emotional degradation. The lighting in the films is harsh and clinical. Pubic hair is shaved off to give the women the look of young girls or rubber dolls. Porn, which advertises itself as sex, is a bizarre, bleached pantomime of sex. The acts onscreen are beyond human endurance. The scenarios are absurd. The manicured and groomed bodies, the huge artificial breasts, the pouting, oversized lips, the erections that never go down, and the sculpted bodies are unreal. Makeup and production mask blemishes. There are no beads of sweat, no wrinkle lines, no human imperfections. Sex is reduced to a narrow spectrum of sterilized dimensions. It does not include the dank smell of human bodies, the thump of a pulse, taste, breath or tenderness. Those in the films are puppets, packaged female commodities. They have no honest emotions, are devoid of authentic human beauty, and resemble plastic.

Pornography does not promote sex, if one defines sex as a shared act between two partners. It promotes masturbation. It promotes the solitary auto-arousal that precludes intimacy and love. Pornography is about getting yourself off at someone else's expense.

In the Illusion of Wisdom, Hedges criticizes the elitism of the universities. He begins this chapter with a quote from Sinclair Lewis, “Men die, but the plutocracy is immortal; and it is necessary that fresh generations should be trained to its service.”

I’m going to quote a long section of this chapter because he summarizes his views in it:

The multiple failures that beset the country, from our mismanaged economy to our shredding of Constitutional rights to our lack of universal health care to our imperial debacles in the Middle East, can be laid at the door of institutions that produce and sustain our educated elite. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Oxford, Cambridge, the University of Toronto, and the Paris Institute of Political Studies, along with most elite schools, do only a mediocre job of teaching students to question and think. They focus instead, through the filter of standardized tests, enrichment activities, AP classes, high-priced tutors, swanky private schools, entrance exams, and blind deference to authority, on creating hordes of competent systems managers. Responsibility for the collapse of the global economy runs in a direct line from the manicured quadrangles and academic halls in Cambridge, New Haven, Toronto, and Paris to the financial and political centers of power.

The elite universities disdain honest intellectual inquiry, which is by its nature distrustful of authority, fiercely independent, and often subversive. They organize learning around minutely specialized disciplines, narrow answers, and rigid structures designed to produce such answers. The established corporate hierarchies these institutions service-economic, political, and social-come with clear parameters, such as the primacy of an unfettered free market, and also with a highly specialized vocabulary. This vocabulary, a sign of the "specialist" and, of course, the elitist, thwarts universal understanding. It keeps the uninitiated from asking unpleasant questions. It destroys the search for the common good. It dices disciplines, faculty, students, and finally experts into tiny, specialized fragments. It allows students and faculty to retreat into these self-imposed fiefdoms and neglect the most pressing moral, political, and cultural questions. Those who critique the sys-tem itself-people such as Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Dennis Kucinich, or Ralph Nader-are marginalized and shut out of the main-stream debate. These elite universities have banished self-criticism. They refuse to question a self-justifying system. Organization, technology, self-advancement, and information systems are the only things that matter.

In 1967, Theodor Adorno wrote an essay titled "Education After Auschwitz." He argued that the moral corruption that made the Holocaust possible remained "largely unchanged" and that "the mechanisms that render people capable of such deeds" must be uncovered, examined, and critiqued through education. Schools had to teach more than skills. They had to teach values. If they did not, another Auschwitz was always possible.

"All political instruction finally should be centered upon the idea that Auschwitz should never happen again," he wrote:

This would be possible only when it devotes itself openly, without fear of offending any authorities, to this most important of problems. To do this, education must transform itself into sociology, that is, it must teach about the societal play of forces that operates beneath the surface of political forms.'

If we do not grasp the "societal play of forces that operates beneath the surface of political forms," we will be cursed with a more ruthless form of corporate power, one that does away with artifice and the seduction of a consumer society, and wields power through naked repression.
I had lunch in Toronto with Henry Giroux, professor of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University in Canada. Giroux was for many years the Waterbury Chair Professor at Penn State. He has long been one of the most prescient and vocal critics of the corporate state and the systematic destruction of American education. He was driven, because of his work, to the margins of academia in the United States. He asked the uncomfortable questions Adorno knew should be asked by university professors. Giroux, who wrote The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex, left in 2004 for Canada.

"The emergence of what Eisenhower had called the military-industrial-academic complex had secured a grip on higher education that may have exceeded even what he had anticipated and most feared," Giroux tells me. "Universities, in general, especially following the events of 9/11, were under assault by Christian nationalists, reactionary neoconservatives, and market fundamentalists for allegedly representing the weak link in the war on terrorism. Right-wing students were encouraged to spy on the classes of progressive professors, the corporate grip on the university was tightening, as was made clear not only in the emergence of business models of governance, but also in the money being pumped into research and programs that blatantly favored corporate interests. And at Penn State, where I was located at the time, the university had joined itself at the hip with corporate and military power. Put differently, corporate and Pentagon money was now funding research projects, and increasingly knowledge was being militarized in the service of developing weapons of destruction, surveillance, and death. Couple this assault with the fact that faculty were becoming irrelevant as an oppositional force. Many disappeared into discourses that threatened no one, some simply were too scared to raise critical issues in their classrooms for fear of being fired, and many simply no longer had the conviction to uphold the university as a democratic public sphere."

The moral nihilism embraced by elite universities would have terrified Adorno. He knew that radical evil was possible only with the collaboration of a timid, cowed, and confused population, a system of propaganda and mass media that offered little more than spectacle and entertainment, and an educational system that did not transmit transcendent values or nurture the capacity for individual conscience. He feared a culture that banished the anxieties and complexities of moral choice and embraced a childish hypermasculinity.

"This educational ideal of hardness, in which many may believe without reflecting about it, is utterly wrong," Adorno wrote. "The idea that virility consists in the maximum degree of endurance long ago became a screen-image for masochism that, as psychology has demonstrated, aligns itself all too easily with sadism."

Sadism dominates the culture. It runs like an electric current through reality television and trash-talk programs, is at the core of pornography, and fuels the compliant, corporate collective. Corporatism is about crushing the capacity for moral choice and diminishing the individual to force him or her into an ostensibly harmonious collective. This hypermasculinity has its logical fruition in Abu Ghraib, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our lack of compassion for our homeless, our poor, the mentally ill, the unemployed, and the sick.

"The political and economic forces fueling such crimes against humanity-whether they are unlawful wars, systemic torture, practiced indifference to chronic starvation, and disease or genocidal acts are always mediated by educational forces," Giroux says. "Resistance to such acts cannot take place without a degree of knowledge and self reflection. We have to name these acts and transform moral outrage into concrete attempts to prevent such human violations from taking place in the first place."

But we do not name them. We accept the system handed to us and seek to find a comfortable place within it. We retreat into the narrow, confined ghettos created for us and shut our eyes to the deadly super structure of the corporate state.

In The Illusion of Happiness, Hedges criticizes positive thinking and positive psychology:

Positive thinking, which is delivered to the culture in a variety of forms, has its academic equivalent in positive psychology. Cooperrider touts what he calls Transformational Positivity. Transformational Positivity, he says, is the future of organizational change. Optimism can and must become a permanent state of mind. He has designed a corporate workshop that promises to bring about this change. It is called "Appreciative Inquiry." Appreciative Inquiry, he assures the audience, will spread happiness around the world.

Appreciative Inquiry promises to transform organizations into "Positive Institutions." "It's almost like fusion energy," Cooperrider explains. "Fusion is where two positive atoms come together, and there is an incredible energy that is released." His clients include the U.S. Navy, Wal-Mart, Hewlett-Packard, United Way, Boeing, the American Red Cross, the Carter Center, and the United Nations.3 Celebrities such as Goldie Hawn also promote positive psychology, designing workshops and curriculums for children and corporate workers. And Appreciative Inquiry, which is supposed to make workers into a happy, harmonious whole, is advertised as a way to increase profits.

Cooperrider, excited and at times sputtering, stands before a Power-Point demonstration. He slips into obscure and often incomprehensible jargon: "Positive Institutions are organizations, including groups, families, and communities, designed and managed for the elevation and the engagement of signature strengths, the connected and combined magnification of strengths, and ultimately, the coherent cross-level refraction of our highest human strengths outward into society and our world" [emphases are Cooperrider's]. He compares Appreciative Inquiry to a solar concentrator.

Happiness, Cooperrider explains, is achieved through "a progressive concentration and release of positivity-a 'concrescence' or growing together-whereby persons are 'enlarged,' and organizational or mutual strengths, resources, and positive-potentials are connected and magnified, where both (person and organization) become agents of the greater good beyond them.

"In other words," he continues, "institutions can be a vehicle for bringing more courage into the world, for amplifying love in the world, for amplifying temperance and justice, and so on."
He ends by saying that this generation-presumably his ~ most privileged generation in human history. It is a generation t channel positive emotions through corporations and spread throughout the culture. The moral and ethical issues of corporatism, from the toxic assets they may have amassed, to predatory lending, to legislation they may author to destroy regulation and oversight, even to the actual products they may produce, from weapons systems to crushing credit-card debt, appear to be irrelevant. There presumably could have been a "positive" Dutch East Indies Company just as there can be a "positive" Halliburton, J. P. Morgan Chase, Xe (formerly Blackwater), or Raytheon.

Corporate harmony means all quotas can be met. All things are possible. Profits can always increase. All we need is the right attitude. The highest form of personal happiness comes, people like Cooper-rider insist, when the corporation thrives. Corporate retreats are built around this idea of merging the self with the corporate collective. They often have the feel, as this conference does, of a religious revival. They are designed to whip up emotions. In their inspirational talks, sports stars, retired military commanders, billionaires, and self-help specialists such as Tony Robbins or Cooperrider claim that the impossible is possible. By thinking about things, by visualizing them, by wanting them, we can make them happen. It is a trick worthy of the con artist "Professor" Harold Hill in The Music Man who insists he can teach children to play instruments by getting them to think about the melody.

The purpose and goals of the corporation are never questioned. To question them, to engage in criticism of the goals of the collective, is to be obstructive and negative. The corporations are the powers that determine identity. The corporations tell us who we are and what we can become. And the corporations offer the only route to personal fulfillment and salvation. If we are not happy there is something wrong with us. Debate and criticism, especially about the goals and structure of the corporation, are condemned as negative and "counterproductive."

Positive psychology is to the corporate state what eugenics was to the Nazis. Positive psychology-at least, as applied so broadly and unquestioningly to corporate relations-is a quack science. It throws a smokescreen over corporate domination, abuse, and greed. Those who preach it serve the corporate leviathan. They are awash in corporate grants. They are invited to corporate retreats to assure corporate employees that they can find happiness by sublimating their selves into corporate culture.

Some of the author’s strongest criticism is in the chapter on The Illusion of America.

The words consent of the governed have become an empty phrase.

Our textbooks on political science and economics are obsolete. Our nation has been hijacked by oligarchs, corporations, and a narrow, selfish, political, and economic elite, a small and privileged group that governs, and often steals, on behalf of moneyed interests. This elite, in the name of patriotism and democracy, in the name of all the values that were once part of the American system and defined the Protestant work ethic, has systematically destroyed our manufacturing sector, looted the treasury, corrupted our democracy, and trashed the financial system. During this plundering we remained passive, mesmerized by the enticing shadows on the wall, assured our tickets to success, prosperity, and happiness were waiting around the corner.

The government, stripped of any real sovereignty, provides little more than technical expertise for elites and corporations that lack moral restraints and a concept of the common good. America has become a facade. It has become the greatest illusion in a culture of illusions. It represents a power and a democratic ethic it does not possess. It seeks to perpetuate prosperity by borrowing trillions of dollars it can never repay. The absurd folly of trying to borrow our way out of the worst economic collapse since the 1930s is the cruelest of all the recent tricks played on American citizens. We continue to place our faith in a phantom economy, one characterized by fraud and lies, which sustains the wealthiest 10 percent, Wall Street, and insolvent banks. Debt leveraging is not wealth creation. We are vainly trying to return to a bubble economy, of the sort that once handed us the illusion of wealth, rather than confront the stark reality that lies ahead. We are told massive borrowing will create jobs and re-inflate real estate values and the stock market. We remain tempted by mirages, by the illusion that we can, still, all become rich.
The corporate power that holds the government hostage has appropriated for itself the potent symbols, language, and patriotic traditions of the state. It purports to defend freedom, which it defines as the free market, and liberty, which it defines as the liberty to exploit. It sold us on the illusion that the free market was the natural outgrowth of democracy and a force of nature, at least until the house of cards collapsed and these corporations needed to fleece the taxpayers to survive. Making that process even more insidious, the real sources of power remain hidden. Those who run our largest corporations are largely anonymous to the mass of the citizens. The anonymity of corporate forces - an earthly Deus absconditus - makes them unaccountable. They have the means to hide and to divert us from examining the decaying structures they have created. As Karl Marx understood, capitalism when it is unleashed from government and regulatory control is a revolutionary force.

Hedges is not exactly positive about our future.

Mass culture is a Peter Pan culture. It tells us that if we close our eyes, if we visualize what we want, if we have faith in ourselves, if we tell God that we believe in miracles, if we tap into our inner strength, if we grasp that we are truly exceptional, if we focus on happiness, our lives will be harmonious and complete. This cultural retreat into illusion, whether peddled by positive psychologists, Hollywood, or Christian preachers, is a form of magical thinking. It turns worthless mortgages and debt into wealth. It turns the destruction of our manufacturing base into an opportunity for growth. It turns alienation and anxiety into a cheerful conformity. It turns a nation that wages illegal wars and administers off-shore penal colonies where it openly practices torture into the greatest democracy on earth.

The world that awaits us will be painful and difficult. We will be dragged back to realism, to the understanding that we cannot mold and shape reality according to human desires, or we will slide into despotism. We will learn to adjust our lifestyles radically, to cope with diminished resources, environmental damage, and a contracting economy, as well as our decline as a military power, or we will die clinging to our illusions. These are the stark choices before us.
But even if we fail to halt the decline, it will not be the end of hope.

The forces we face may be powerful and ruthless. They may have the capacity to plunge us into a terrifying dystopia, one where we will see our freedoms curtailed and widespread economic deprivation. But no tyranny in history has crushed the human capacity for love. And this love-unorganized, irrational, often propelling us to carry out acts of compassion that jeopardize our existence-is deeply subversive to those in power. Love, which appears in small, blind acts of kindness, manifested itself even in the horror of the Nazi death camps, in the killing fields of Cambodia, in the Soviet gulags, and in the genocides in the Balkans and Rwanda.

And, he ends on a message of hope:

Our culture of illusion is, at its core, a culture of death. It will die and leave little of value behind. It was Sparta that celebrated raw militarism, discipline, obedience, and power, but it was Athenian art and philosophy that echoed down the ages to enlighten new worlds, including our own. Hope exists. It will always exist. It will not come through structures or institutions, nor will it come through nation-states, but it will prevail, even if we as distinct individuals and civilizations vanish. The power of love is greater than the power of death. It cannot be controlled. It is about sacrifice for the other-something nearly every parent understands-rather than exploitation. It is about honoring the sacred. And power elites have for millennia tried and failed to crush the force of love. Blind and dumb, indifferent to the siren calls of celebrity, unable to bow before illusions, defying the lust for power, love constantly rises up to remind a wayward society of what is real and what is illusion. Love will endure, even if it appears darkness has swallowed us all, to triumph over the wreckage that remains.

The Wizard of Oz endures because of the fundamental allegory it represents. Dorothy (representing the common man), joins with the Tin Man (who represents business without a heart who, by the way, requires oil to work), the Straw Man (who represents the farmers without a brain) and the Lion (who represents leaders and politicians without any courage) go off on an adventure along the yellow brick road (gold) to find the Wizard in the Emerald City (money). The Wizard represents the elite in Hedges book of illusion, the ones who know it all and control everything through fear. In the movie, it is the dog, Toto , who pulls back the curtain to reveal that the wizard is a “humbug”. Ah, if it were only that simple.

Well, who among us will step forward to pull back the curtain? Actually many writers are doing that including Chris Hedges. More importantly, who or what within us will “pull back the curtains of our minds” to allow us to perceive the reality that confronts us?

In Edgar Allen Poe’s “Descent into the Maelstrom”, the main character is on a boat in the grip of a giant maelstrom (whirlpool). The ship is helplessly caught in the flow downward and its destiny is destruction. His brother lashes himself to the mast assuring his death. However, the main character observes that some smaller items caught in the maelstrom are not being sucked down and are rising. He ties himself to an empty barrel and jumps from the ship. The barrel moves upwards and he escapes the maelstrom.

It’s his powers of observation and insight that allows him to survive.

I’m in no position to critique this book. I don’t know if we’re past the tipping point and are on the avalanching down slope. I don’t think we are on all the issues facing us. What I do know is if we do nothing to alter our perception of reality and then act accordingly we will be in an irreversible slide. So I am committed to continue the process of self awakening, and to share what insights I may have.

Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, Chris Hedges, Nation Books, 2010, 232pp

Click here for the ability to print a copy of this essay.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Spectator Bird

This was an interesting book for me to read. After reading it I remembered a comment from one of the Three Stooges, Curly who said, “I resemble that remark.”

It’s a novel about Joe Allston, a retired literary agent who is, in his own words, "just killing time until time gets around to killing me." His parents and his only son are long dead, leaving him with neither ancestors nor descendants, tradition nor ties. His job, trafficking the talent of others, had not been his choice. He passes through life as a spectator.

A postcard from a friend causes Allston to return to the journals of a trip he had taken years before, a journey to his mother's birthplace, where he'd sought a link with the past. The memories of that trip, both grotesque and poignant, move through layers of time and meaning, and reveal that Joe Allston isn't quite spectator enough.

Here are a few quotes:

“Some people, I am told, have memories like computers, nothing to do but punch the button and wait for the print-out. Mine is more like a Japanese library of the old style, without a card file or an indexing system or any systematic shelf plan. Nobody knows where anything is except the old geezer in felt slippers who has been shuffling up and down those stacks for sixty-nine years. When you hand him a problem he doesn't come back with a cartful and dump it before you, a jackpot of instant retrieval. He finds one thing, which reminds him of another, which leads him off to' the annex, which directs him to the east wing, which sends him back two tiers from where he started. Bit by bit he finds you what you want, but like his boss who seems to be under pressure to examine his life, he takes his time.”


“I can't see that Danish episode as an adventure, or a crisis survived, or a serious quest for anything definable. It was just another happening like today's luncheon, something I got into and got out of. And it reminds me too much of how little life changes: how, without dramatic events Or high resolves, without tragedy, without even pathos, a reasonably endowed, reasonably well-intentioned man can walk through the world's great kitchen from end to end and arrive at the back door hungry.”


“There is a feeling part of us that does not grow old at all. If we could peel off the callus, and wanted to, there we would be, un-touched by time, unwithered, vulnerable, afflicted and volatile and blind to consequence, a set of twitches as beyond control as an adolescent's erections.”


"Never disparage Marcus Aurelius," I said. "Did you know he was one of the earliest environmentalists? You could quote him to the Sierra Club. Here he says, 'That which is not good for the beehive cannot be good for the bee,' and under that, in Allston's crabbed hand, is written, 'The world suffers from an increment of excrement,' which you might render into the vernacular as 'The world is full of shit.'''


“What did the Europeans gain by Columbus? The illusion of freedom, I suppose. But did they gain or lose when they gave up the tentative safety of countries and cultures where the rules were as well known as the dangers, and had been tailored to the dangers, and went raiding in a virgin continent that was neither country nor culture, and isn't yet, and may never be, and yet has never given up the dangerous illusion of infinite possibility? What good did it all do, if we end in confusion and purposelessness on the far Pacific shore of America, or come creeping back to our origins looking for something we have lost and can't name?

No sooner do I ask that than I have to admit that what brought my mother and a lot of others to the New World was precisely the hope of safety, not any lust for freedom. What do I want, a drawbridge between the continents, across which the cultures and hence the generations can meet, and pass, and meet again?”


“Today, among other junk mail, there was a questionnaire from some research outfit, addressed apparently to a sampling of senior citizens and wishing to know intimate things about my self-esteem. It is their hypothesis that a decline in self-esteem is responsible for many of the overt symptoms of aging. God knows where they got my name. Ben Alexander, maybe; his finger is in all those pies, and always stirring.

I looked at some of the questions and threw the thing in the fireplace. Another of those socio-psycho-physiological studies suitable for computerizing conclusions already known to anyone over fifty. Who was ever in any doubt that the self-esteem of the elderly declines in this society which indicates in every possible way that it does not value the old in the slightest, finds them an expense and an embarrassment, laughs at their experience, evades their problems, isolates them in hospitals and Sunshine Cities, and generally ignores them except when soliciting their votes or ripping off their handbags and their Social Security checks? And which has a chilling capacity to look straight at them and never see them. The poor old senior citizen has two choices, assuming he is well enough off to have any choices at all. He can retire from that hostile culture to the shore of some shuffleboard court in a balmy climate, or he can shrink in his self-esteem and gradually become the cipher he is constantly reminded he is.”


“They have lived on the campus ever since he retired as editor of the New Republic many years ago. Since retiring, he has had about three heart attacks and written about five books, and it is a cinch that at eighty-five Or whatever he is he still contemplates five books more, and may be halfway through the next one. His last Christmas letter contained a line that should be engraved above every geriatric door. He says that when asked if he feels like an old man he replies that he does not, he feels like a young man with something the matter with him. He has a sweet humorous face and an innocent resilience that make me ashamed of myself. As an apologist for old age he is better than Ben Alexander, even. And Rosie can make you feel good at a hundred yards, just by the sight of her. Bruce says she is always trying to help old ladies of sixty down steps.”


This is not a joyful read, but a thoughtful, introspective one. But it is well written and insightful. If you can handle the introspection of yourself it provokes, I’d recommend it.

The Spectator Bird, Wallace Stegner, Penguin Books, 1976, 214pp

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Guide to Becoming a Corporate Innovant

Innovation within a corporation (or any other enterprise) results from the productive application of creativity within a box. And, as anyone experienced in corporate life knows, innovating within the box is quite often more difficult than innovating outside the box. And, in truth, most corporations don't want out of the box innovations as they are generally too risky, disruptive and often misinformed.

Sir N. O. Vant originated as part of an innovation enhancement program in IBM in the 1980s. He was devised as a play on words and a metaphor easily recognized, a gallant knight. I apologize immediately to the females of the business world for it was not and still is not my intent to offend anyone or suggest that females could not be innovants. Sir N. O. Vant represents the limits of my imagination to create a character or set of characters that would be gender neutral. So, with apologizes to the women in business who are certainly more than damsels in distress, I offer our gallant knight.

The character of Sir N. O. Vant developed over the seven years that the innovation enhancement program ran, and were a feature in each edition of an internal magazine, Creativity!, with a distribution of over 60,000 technical profesionals. All of the cartoons are creatively drawn by Scott Byers. Each episode features our fearless knight, Sir N. O. Vant, undertaking some perilous activity to bring a new idea into a business. Each is accompanied by a short description expounding on the principle. The colloquialisms represented by the cartoons are drawn from my experience innovating inside IBM, research and experience as a consultant. They began when I was asked to share my personal experiences in IBM as an internal entrepreneur. They were part of a presentation I gave many times within IBM.

The context for these thoughts is an individual inside of a large organization with a strong and resilient culture, often portrayed as the dragon.

I hope in this series of cartoons and brief essays to show that there are some practices you can follow which will help you do what you have resoundingly said you want to do -- innovate, be a change master, an intrapreneur, an innovant.

Some definitions:
Innovant: Having innovations
Innovation: The introduction of something new; something which deviates from an established doctrine or procedure; something that differs from existing forms
Intrapreneur: A person within a large corporation who takes direct responsibility for turning an idea into a profitable finished product through assertive risk-taking and innovation

Paul Schumann
April 1, 2011
Austin, Texas

Guide to Becoming a Corporate Innovant