The Casual Blog

Tag: great blue heron

A modest proposal for reining in the plutocracy: the decency test

Osprey this week at Lake Jordan

These last few months of the Covid-19 pandemic have been a crucible of sorts.  We’ve all been tested in various ways, and learned a few things.  If we didn’t know already, we’ve learned that our President has no idea what he’s doing, or even the idea that he should be doing something.  Instead, faced with a serious problem, he looks for a scapegoat to blame (China . . . the World Health Organization . . . Obama).  He still thinks like a reality TV huckster, uninterested in anything except getting as much attention as possible.   

He is what he is, and with any luck we’ll soon vote him out and our heads will stop spinning from his crazy rants.  But we’ll still have the question, how did this happen?   How did we elect as President the rottenest person ever?  The common wisdom these days tends to focus on the unholy alliance of right wing evangelicals and economically frustrated blue collar workers, with both groups fearful of social change and angry at diminishing opportunities.

But there’s clearly another important element that hasn’t been examined as much:  super rich Republicans.  In a recent piece in The New Yorker,  Evan Osnos attempted to uncover why Republicans in the richest part of Connecticut decided to support Trump.  He focused on Greenwich, CT, the epicenter of homes of the hedge fund moguls and other Wall Street financial types who make annual sums that stagger the mind, reaching the hundreds of millions of dollars.  

It comes as no surprise that these people are mostly Republicans, but their value system as recently as a generation ago had an element of modesty, charity, and noblesse oblige.  Osnos’s investigation indicated that their support for Trump went hand-in-hand with a loss of those values.  

Eaglets this week at Shelley Lake

To the extent there’s a theory underlying the Trumpism of the super rich, it appears to be an extreme libertarianism in which the only unit of measure is the individual, and the only value is wealth accumulation.  They think there’s no such thing as the public interest, and greed is, for them, good.  The public issue of primary concern to them is lowering their own taxes — that is, keeping as much as possible for themselves and contributing as little as possible to the public good. 

I am not without sympathy for the super rich.  A few of them are not Republicans and did not support Trump.  A few of them are intelligent, thoughtful, and funny.  And they all have some problems (divorce, cancer, having teenagers) that are as miserable for them as for the rest of us. But it’s a huge mistake to think that the super rich are somehow deserving of their advantages.  

We’ve been deeply conditioned to think that being wealthy is a good indicator of attributes like intelligence and hard work.  But it’s not true.  Most intelligent, hard-working people never get rich.  The truth is, getting rich is mostly a matter of luck.  If you’ve made it, chances are you hit your first jack pot the day you were born by having the right parents, who had  excellent genes to bequeath and fine positions in the existing pecking order.  

You probably kept on your lucky streak with good schools, good summer camps, and top-drawer undergraduate and graduate schools.  You may have worked hard, and it may have felt like your accomplishments were simply the result of all your own hard work. But you had a lot of people helping, showing you what was required — what to work on, how long, and how hard.  Also, you may not even have noticed, but there were a lot of not very prosperous people all around you making sure you were well fed, clothed, housed, and otherwise prepped for success.  

Great blue heron at Shelley Lake

Of course, it helps to be in the right place at the right time, like starting a Wall Street career just as regulatory oversight of financial institutions was geared way down.  There are many different kinds of luck that combine for mega wealth.  Though it should be noted, as Osnos does, that insider trading and fraud also helped in building some of the most fabulous fortunes.     

But even if being wealthy were a good indicator of inherent superiority, rather than mostly luck, there would still be good reasons to call out the super rich Trump supporters.  Their value system is deplorable — self-centered, like those of a young child in Kohlberg’s system.  Their orientation is exclusively on their own advantage; other people don’t matter.  This is unfortunate for them, of course, since they miss out on a lot of what’s really beautiful and rewarding in life.  But once they decide to take a role in public affairs, it’s a problem for all of us.  

As the Koch brothers and their rich buddies have proven, it’s surprisingly easy, if you have unlimited funds, to spread disinformation and buy influence.  With personal wealth as a primary value, they change the laws so they can more easily make and keep more money.  They get other laws that minimize the chance of any progressive change in public policy.  For example, they pay for and get lower taxes, deregulation, sycophantic judges, and gerrymandered elections.  

As the super rich contribute less and less in taxes, public infrastructure and institutions, like roads, bridges, and schools, are defunded and fall into disrepair.  Crumbling infrastructure is actually helpful, since it provides them with another argument “proving” government is ineffective.  Interestingly, according to Osnos, Connecticut, with so many super rich citizens, has some of the worst roads in the country.  Perhaps that’s not a problem, if you’ve got a helicopter, a yacht, and a jet.  Meanwhile, they make sure nothing gets done to address the worsening existential disaster of a planet getting steadily hotter.

The extreme inequality in American society is disturbing, but it wouldn’t be as frightening if the super rich had a different value system.  It’s possible to imagine super rich people using their wealth not just to seek further comforts and advantages for themselves, but also to address the needs of other humans less fortunate and a planet in dire peril.  Before the Reagan years, that was the norm, and it could be again.  Or else we could proceed along our current path towards a Hobbesian war of all against all,  The Hunger Games, and Blade Runner 2049.   

So how do we stop the bleeding?  Elizabeth Warren’s idea of a wealth tax made a lot of sense, but I have a simpler and more fun idea:  a decency test.  Every head of household making more than three hundred times the median annual salary (that’s around $10,000,000 a year) would need to give non-reprehensible answers to five simple questions.  First, we give a little shot of truth serum.  The time allowed for the test is 2 minutes.  You may start now.

Using a number 2 pencil, please answer each of the following questions by choosing just one of the four possible responses.

  1.  I believe the most important policy objective for our government is to:

a.  Implement a fair system of public health.

b.  Assure a quality education for all children.

c.  Protect public safety and stop useless wars.

d.  Cut my taxes.

  1. My greatest objection to our current public policy is:

a. Not enough is being done to reduce infant mortality.

b.  There’s no system to assure adequate basic nutrition.

c. We don’t have reliable public transportation.

d.  There have not been enough cuts to my taxes.

  1. The moral quality that best describes the way I relate to other people is:

a.  Honesty.

b.  Reasonableness.

c.  Kindness and compassion.

d.  Greed and indifference. 

  1. If I could have just one wish to improve the world, it would be to:

a.  Eliminate the risk of nuclear war.

b.  Stop global warming.

c.  Eliminate racial prejudice and work to correct the harm it has caused.

d.  Eliminate all taxes.

     5.  Other than lowering taxes, my chief hope for making this country a better place for all is that we:

a.  Consider the welfare of those less fortunate.

b.  End the unequal treatment of women.

c.  Improve the fairness of our justice system.

d.  This question makes no sense. 

If you answered d to questions 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5, you are going to Hell.  Just kidding!  But you will have to pay a special tax of 95% of all your accumulated wealth, with new yearly assessments until you pass the decency test.  These funds will be used for improved health care, better schools, more reliable public transportation, green energy, and other desperately needed public initiatives.  We hope you see the light, but if not, we won’t feel too bad, since we’ll see your money doing good things.  Good luck!  

Happy 50th Earth Day, and calling out the plutocrats

Great blue herons at Jordan Lake

I went out to Jordan Lake a couple of mornings last week, including on Wednesday, which was the fiftieth anniversary of the first Earth Day.  I managed to get my photography gear down the loose rocks to the river side, set up the tripod, tested exposures, and waited to see what would happen.  I enjoyed watching the birds, and especially the ospreys and the great blue herons. 

The GBHs are really good at catching fish!  It happens so fast that you can barely even see the catch.  Looking at the pictures afterward, I felt sad for the unfortunate fish, but still happy for the birds.  They aren’t cruel; they fish out of necessity.    

On the drive, I listened to more of the Scene on Radio podcast,   which I’ve found very thought-provoking.  The producers and scholars discussed libertarian ideas, including the notion that all government is bad and individual wealth is the highest good, and explored how those ideas relate to race and politics.  

As the podcast noted, what drives the hard-right plutocrats is not just pure greed, but also a kind of twisted idealism.  They believe that the individual is supremely important, and individual success is the highest good.  There is no point to social organizations or communities other than as a platform for high achievers.  Wealth is a sign of virtue, and poverty a sign of vice.  Greed is good, and only the wealthy matter.   

Osprey with fish

These people generally admire the work of Ayn Rand, a third-rate writer and pseudo philosopher whose awkward and sad novels idealize grotesquely rugged individuals.  Admiring Rand is more than a sign of poor literary taste; it indicates moral immaturity.  In the Randian libertarian view, it is not just understandable, but desirable, to cultivate indifference to the welfare of others.  The poor are by definition unworthy, and deserve whatever misfortune strikes them.

Preventing minorities from voting is an important political objective for the libertarian right.  The plutocratic leadership  expects to always be a minority working to benefit itself, and so an actual democracy where everyone is allowed and encouraged to vote would not work for them.  

If there were a level playing field and an informed electorate, the majority would never vote for such a system, since it doesn’t serve the best interests of most people.  But of course, we do not have those things.  Instead, we have massively-funded disinformation campaigns, gerrymandered electoral districts, and laws discouraging the non-rich from voting.  And if that is not sufficient, they cheat.  This could all be viewed as wrong, but they view it as well justified, since they believe (or at least some part of them believes) that all that matters is their own welfare and success.  

It is hard to believe how pervasive these libertarian, anti-government ideas have become, especially given how much they conflict with traditional American norms of fairness, equality, and representative democracy.   This helps explain why we in the US lack some of the basic attributes of advanced democracies in Europe, such as a health care system that works for people other than the rich and safety net programs for ordinary people.  Such programs would involve government action.  And in this extreme libertarian view, government action is always bad.  The same for taxes.

This is one of the rays of hope of the coronavirus pandemic:  it exposes the narrowness and moral degeneracy of these ideas.  It could hardly be more obvious that government action is needed to address the pandemic, and it seems crazy to argue otherwise.  To be sure, some still do.  Some are so in love with their ideas, or desperate for income and food, that they have been marching in protest against business closures, at the risk of their lives.  But others are not so fanatical, and are moderating their views to accommodate reality, and survive.    

Perhaps we’ll emerge from this crisis with a more realistic view of the importance of government, and more compassion for those less fortunate.  We might rediscover the significance of the natural world, and cultivate more appreciation for animals other than humans and the fascinating interrelationships of living things.  If we can get started down that road, there’s still hope that we won’ t ravage the planet completely  before Earth Day 100.        

 

Thinking about animals: puffins and other wild things

Yates Mill Pond

Last week I was notified that I had a spot on a nature photography trip to Lubec, Maine, after waiting for some months on the wait list.  The trip, sponsored by the Georgia Nature Photographers Association, has as a prime objective shooting Atlantic puffins, which nest on nearby Machias Seal Island. They’re comically beautiful little birds. With only a week to get organized, I joined the GNPA, booked a room,  bought a plane ticket, arranged for a rental car, and started cramming on Maine and puffins.  

On Saturday, Sally did a hike at Yates Mill Pond park, and saw a family of 5 red-headed woodpeckers.  I took my equipment there on Sunday, and couldn’t spot the woodpeckers, although I’m pretty sure I heard them.  With our hardwood trees now fully leafed in, it’s hard to see birds, but there were plenty singing there on Sunday.  I’ve been refreshing on my bird song ID skills, and recognized perhaps a dozen familiar songs and calls. There were perhaps a dozen more that I couldn’t identify, so I’ve got a lot to learn.  I also took some pictures there of a great blue heron.

A great blue heron

Also last week, I went out to Anderson Point park east of Raleigh on the Neuse River.  It had been a long time since my last visit. The place used to be one of the best places to hear and see birds in Raleigh.  But, as I discovered, the park is now completely gone, replaced by single family homes. It made me very sad to think of the wild creatures that used to thrive there which lost their habitat and their lives.  

Humans are extremely dangerous to non-human animals.  Even when we’re not killing them to eat or just for the fun of it, we hardly give a thought to eradicating them by taking their territory.  This is bad for humans, inasmuch as it makes our world less varied and beautiful, but, obviously, worse for the victims.   

We’re taught from an early age to regard humans as inherently superior to other beings, and as somehow having an unlimited right to exploit and murder those beings.  But the support for this position is dubious.  We tolerate this situation because we’ve been deeply conditioned  to avoid and ignore it.  But it doesn’t take a moral genius to see there’s something not right here.  Once you see it, it’s hard to unsee, and also hard to know how to address it. 

Christine Korsgaard has a go at it in her recent book, Fellow Creatures:  Our Obligations to the Other Animals, which I’ve been working my way through.  Korsgaard, an eminent philosophy professor at Harvard, comes out of the Kantian tradition, but disagrees with Kant’s view that non-human animals are not entitled to moral recognition.  After a multi-stage analysis, she concludes that there is no principled justification for treating the lives of non-human animals as having less value than homo sapiens’ lives. The great Thomas Nagel gives a good summary and endorsement of Korsgaard’s book in The New York Review of Books (subscription required).  

Resetting in retirement, new animal photos, new music, and reading The Uninhabitable Earth

A white-tailed deer at Lake Wheeler

My transition from a corporate schedule to a non-corporate one has been fairly undramatic.  I find myself smiling more and carrying around less stress. But it’s been sudden, and a little disorienting.  On Sunday night, I found myself starting to think about getting up early to get to the gym for the start of a new corporate work week, when there wasn’t going to be one.  Old habits die hard.

But I’m starting to develop some new routines that I like.  Instead of rushing out early to the gym, most days I’m starting with 20 minutes of mindfulness meditation.  Then I head out to one of our local forests and lakes with my camera and look about for animals and plants in the gentle early light.  After a couple of hours of looking, I head to the gym for various types of cardio activity, resistance training, core work, and stretching.  If it’s not a swimming day, I either read or listen to podcasts while I sweat.

Back home, I get a shower and make a green smoothie for a late breakfast.  Then I’ll download and process my latest photographs. I’m experimenting with various software tools, including especially Lightroom and Photoshop, and also Topaz, Nik, Aurora, and Helicon Focus.  

When my eyes and neck start to ache from photo processing, I usually practice the piano.  Currently on the workbench are Chopin’s first Impromptu and the Op. 27, No. 1 Nocturne, Liszt’s third Consolation, and Brahms’s Rhapsody Op. 79, No. 2.  

I’ve also been working on a couple of dozen jazz standards, like Misty, Stardust, and All the Things You Are.  I got reasonably proficient at playing some of the great American songbook before law school, but afterwards put that music it in storage for most of the last 30 years.  Now I’m getting the dust and cobwebs off and enjoying it again.

A gray squirrel with a hot dog at Lake Wheeler

Speaking of music, I finished reading the new biography of the Robert Schumann by Judith Chernaik, which I found worthwhile.  Schumann (1810-1849) was a great composer, who adored and married Clara Schumann, a great pianist, and had several children. He struggled with mental illness for much of his life, but left an enduring legacy.

I also finished reading Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Machines Like Me.  It’s a sometimes funny but ultimately serious book set in the recent past but with a futuristic premise:  the protagonist buys an expensive new home gadget, which is a completely realistic super intelligent humanoid robot.  There are various practical problems with having this device, and even more moral problems. I find the trajectory of advancing artificial intelligence fairly worrisome, and McEwan gave me some new grounds for worry. 

Although I finished The Uninhabitable Earth, by David Wallace-Wells, I immediately began re-reading it.   I would not recommend this book to anyone struggling with depression. The unvarnished accounting of the global-scale disasters that, to a high degree of probability, are coming our way are hard to process.  But I’m hoping there are many healthy people who will read it and be inspired to action. As much as Wallace-Wells makes vivid and real the possibility of cascading climate disasters, he also explains that, just as this is a situation that humans have created, it is one that humans have it in their power to address.

A great blue heron at Crabtree swamp

This week there was a good Ted Radio Hour podcast on this same subject.   It was inspiring to hear 16-year-old environmental activist Greta Thunberg, and get some ideas about carbon capture, animal agricultural redirection, and addressing climate change denial.  I’d like to think the dire reality of our situation is starting to sink in to public consciousness, and we may be starting to pull out of our death spiral.

In E.O.Wilson’s recent book Half Earth, on preventing more species extinctions (which I’m also re-reading), he points out another possible name for the coming era.  Instead of the Anthropocene, which emphasizes a biological world existing “almost exclusively by, for, and of ourselves,” he suggests calling it “the Eremocene, the Age of Loneliness.”   On our current trajectory, the earth will have fewer and fewer non-human species. This is, of course, disastrous for non-domesticated animals and plants, but also tragic for the humans who remain.

Carolina wren at Yates Mill Pond

It’s always seemed to me a simple thing to enjoy being outside in nature, but it’s starting to seem less common and more worthy of attention.  Now that I have more time to get out to our local parks, I’m spending more time with our still common animal neighbors, like deer, squirrels, and birds.  The ones here are from the past week. The deer at Lake Wheeler seemed shy but interested in having a good look at me. The squirrels there were having an after-picnic picnic.  The great blue heron at Crabtree swamp spent a long time hunting, standing still for periods, moving slowly, and striking quickly. It had several little fish for breakfast.

My surefire tax cut system, and some thoughts on the military and terrorism

Great blue heron at Shelley Lake, November 15, 2015

Great blue heron at Shelley Lake, November 15, 2015

Gabe had his birthday this week, and we went out for dinner at An to celebrate. Diane, who’s not been well recently, joined us, and seemed in good form, as did Gabe’s sparky redheaded girlfriend, Clark. I had a lychee cosmopolitan and veggie ramen, and enjoyed everything.

Gabe is about two-thirds through his first semester as an on-line grad student in graphic design at Parsons, and seems to be kicking it. Initially I was dubious about the on-line approach, but it’s working well for him. He’s getting challenging assignments and feedback that keeps him focused and motivated, working really hard. His projects look fantastic. He’s played some of the audio critiques he’s received from teachers and students, and they are trenchant and highly positive.
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Because of the birthday dinner, we missed the Republican debate, which I wanted to catch, because I really would like to understand the Republican mindset better. But from reading the press accounts, it didn’t sound like I missed much that was ground breaking. The candidates all are in favor of lower taxes, and most are in favor of a stronger military.

One exchange between Marco Rubio and Rand Paul was particularly revealing. I strongly agree with Paul on a couple of things (and disagree on many), and could probably agree with Rubio on something. But I was stunned to learn that Rubio wants to raise the military budget by a trillion dollars.

Our current military budget is around $615 billion , so raising by a trillion would be a 162 percent increase. Leaving to one side the obvious impossibility that this could be paid for while lowering taxes, there’s the question of why anyone would think this a good idea. We have the most expensive military in the world by far. Our military expenditures are currently greater than the next seven countries in the world combined. To state the obvious, our relative military power is unparalleled.
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Our military strength is wonderful, in a way, but also useless, in a way. It is of no help at all against a disciplined, determined cell of terrorists. Indeed, it could well be that our military activities of recent decades have inspired and invigorated more terrorists than they’ve destroyed. In any case, there’s no basis for thinking that even massive amounts of bombs and bullets could ever eliminate a fanatical, violent ideology. We’ve already tried that, and it doesn’t work.

I have written before about the havoc wrought by our military misadventures, and I still think there’s a huge disconnect between our ideals and our misdeeds in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. But for argument’s sake, forget all that, and just look at the finances. We’ve spent a huge portion of our wealth on those unnecessary and unsuccessful wars. And we continue to to spend sums that are barely conceivable on them. There’s an interesting graphic showing how we’re hemorrhaging money for military purposes here.

So, for those who believe the most important possible political reform is to lower taxes, wouldn’t it be appealing to take the largest single item of nonrecurring expenses – defense – and cut it by, say, twenty-five percent? Could anyone seriously doubt that there’s at least that much waste and useless spending in the existing defense budget? Admittedly, we might need to think more carefully before embarking on and continuing unnecessary wars, but that would not be a bad thing. So, for my friends who view the issue of lowering taxes as the preeminent public policy, could we agree on this: we’d be better off, in a lot of ways, if we stopped the financial bleeding of an out-of-control military?
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I wrote most of these thoughts before the horrible carnage this week in Paris, where the death toll from 8 suicide attackers now stands at 129. I lived in Paris for several months years ago, and feel a special affection for the city, and like everyone, I’m in the midst of shock and sorrow at the attacks.

We should be outraged. But these strong emotions may lead France and other countries to policies that cause many more deaths and ultimately increase the risk of terrorism, as happened after 9/11. Already President Hollande has characterized the attackers as “a terrorist army” that committed “an act of war,” and Nicolas Sarkozy has called for “extermination” of ISIS. But it wasn’t an army, and we can’t end jihad fanaticism by killing all the jihadists. As I learned in my rescue diver course, in an emergency, the first thing to do is stop, and think.

On Saturday I went out to Cary for a haircut with Ann, my longtime hair cutter, and then went for a walk in Swift Creek Bluffs park. The path was covered with brown leaves, and they crunched as I walked. A few leaves were falling. The colors were mostly yellows, browns, and pale greens.
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Big birds at Crabtree Swamp, and a first spin class at Flywheel

14 09 28_2902There’s a wide-but-shallow wide body of water to one side of Raleigh Boulevard which is fed by Crabtree Creek. It has no official name that I can find, so I’m hereby naming it Crabtree Swamp. CS is worth knowing about if you enjoy seeing birds, turtles, dragonflies, and other creatures. There isn’t usually much drama, though I once saw a doe leaping and splashing in desperate flight from a pursuing buck. It has a long boardwalk over it that allows for good views into the woods and out over the water.
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Sally had mentioned to me that she’d taken Stuart (our dog) for a walk up there recently, and seen a great blue heron and a great egret. They were still around fishing when I got there with my equipment last weekend. I used my long Sigma zoom lens (150-500 mm) with a 2x tele converter, a heavy set up that required a tripod.
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Both birds would stand frozen, watching, for periods, and then move almost imperceptibly, and then, suddenly, they would radically change shape and position. A hundred yards or so away, I stood on the boardwalk for well over an hour, watching them, working hard to get them in focus with proper exposure, trying to anticipate their next phase shift. It was absorbing.
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Happy as I was watching these brilliant creatures, later that day, when I downloaded the 423 new images, I wasn’t thrilled with the quality. Alas, I’d forgotten to switch on the lens’s image stabilization system. In any case, there were a few photos I liked enough to share.
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In contrast to the subtle joys of trying to capture the essence of the big birds, also last weekend I tried a new spinning experience — Flywheel, at Cameron Village. I liked it. Whenever I try to describe spinning to a non-spinner, I realize it sounds a little crazy. The basic situation is, you ride on a stationary bike as ordered by an outrageously fit teacher to thumping club music. What’s to like? Well, it’s an amazing workout. You quit thinking, just follow orders, listen to the music, sweat, become one with the class, and feel the endorphins.
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The new Flywheel operation has been successful in New York and other cities, and I can see why. They let you pre-register and reserve a bike. They figure out if you’re new the moment you walk in and take care to show you the ropes. They provide special shoes, towels, lockers, and (a great idea – it’s loud) earplugs. The bikes are set on risers, stadium style, and they’re nice, heavy non-vehicles that have digital read outs showing the amount of effort you’re putting in.
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Once the class starts, the room is dark. You can see the teacher at the front (very fit) and also a screen that lists (if you opt in) your units of effort relative to those of others. Yes, there’s a kind of race – who can spin the hardest? At the end of the 45 minutes, I managed, barely, to come in second (one unit ahead of the next male down). I felt tired but good.
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