Welcome to my blog where I will post commentary on issues ranging from fiction to public policy. Tucked away in the Idea Boxes are “how to” tips on a variety of projects that have become part of our family’s culture over the years. I hope you’ll find some useful ideas there. My blog will take you through the fantastic journey of writing fiction, as well as the decisions I will be making about publication of my first novel One Summer in Arkansas. Thanks for your interest.

Monday, September 12, 2016

If Mother Teresa Ran against Hitler for Congress...

I am deeply disappointed in the way the media is covering the U.S. presidential election and in their abdication of responsibility to instill critical thinking into the political process.

There are two problems at the root of our media’s role in the deterioration of the electoral process and ultimately of democracy itself.  The first rests at the foot of the colleges and graduate schools who teach ethics in journalism.  The second is a by-product of a capitalistic economy run amok.

Today’s newspaper reporters and television producers have been indoctrinated with an odd theory relating to a journalist’s responsibility to present news without personal bias.  The method being taught directs the journalist to give equal time and credibility to each side of every issue and to every political candidate.  And since the media apparently cannot afford their own research on complicated issues, they meet this requirement by bringing in two partisans representing each extreme side of the issue and letting them go at it, each making full-throated arguments for their particular self-interested view of the world, without any kind of screening by the anchor or producer.

If Mother Teresa were running against Adolf Hitler for Congress, for example, you’d bring in a Catholic nun (who, in addition to her seminary credentials, holds a law degree from Harvard), on one side, to argue against, say, Joseph Goebbels on the other.  They would each get equal time and equal respect and nobody would try to interpret what they said.

Whoever thought this up, what on earth made you think anything useful to public understanding of complicated issues could come out of it?

The second cause of the pathetic state of critical thinking among the American electorate is the single-minded profit-driven focus of television news (and, to a lesser degree, every other source of political news) to make everything a controversy, blowing up every molehill into a mountain, keeping viewers glued to the channel no matter how ridiculous the overplay of conflict and chaos.  I first figured this out when I would check the weather channel before going somewhere, packing in anticipation of hurricane and tidal wave, only to find sunshine when I arrived.  You may think one channel or another is excessively biased, and while it’s true most of them are trying to attract a particular base, the truth is they all want to see a close race.   The only loyalty these guys have is to their quarterly profit. 

Is anybody surprised that so many of our citizens are conspiracy-theorists who believe anything they hear on talk radio?

These two candidates for president are nowhere near comparable in their capability to serve the nation and it just makes me heart-sick that the citizens of this once-great democracy no longer have access to the necessary education or to a public-interested news source to help them understand what’s going on.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Meritocratic Parenting

In yesterday’s New York Times, David Brooks writes about “Love and Merit” in a column describing child-rearing in the 21st century.

Brooks talks about two essential features of parenting today:  unprecedented praise and unprecedented “honing.”  He seems to be okay with the first part, in spite of the overused mantra that each child is special.

But he sees today’s anxious parental pressure as a kind of merit-based honing for success that belies the illusion of unconditional love.  Acknowledging that this pressure is intended to promote the child’s happiness in the future, Brooks fears that children who don’t excel in the classroom or on the field are left feeling somehow unworthy and perhaps unlovable.  And while manipulation of behavior may bring short-term results, the effect over the long run makes children risk-averse and insecure.

It wasn’t all that much different back when we were raising children.  But in today’s winner-takes-all economy, parents are more anxious than ever about whether their children could fall through the cracks.

It’s worth keeping in mind that the effort to manipulate children towards success runs the risk of doing more harm than good in the long run.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Medicine and What Matters in the End

One of the great advantages of living in a university town is access to free lectures and discussions on campus.  On any given night, you can find an event going on at Stanford that will stimulate a new way of thinking about something.

Last night, we went over to the medical school to hear Atul Gawande talk about his book Being Mortal:  Medicine and What Matters in the End.  Gawande, a surgeon, researcher and writer for The New Yorker, has emerged as one of the country’s most articulate voices for a more humane and responsive system of health care and end-of-life care for an aging population.
His lecture, like his book, explains today’s “medicalization” of dying and of caring for the aging.  Our elder care facilities emphasize health and safety at the expense of personal autonomy and pleasure.  And, although people generally would prefer to die at home surrounded by family, most of us leave this world connected to hospital equipment at the end of a string of procedures that make us feel worse rather than better.

After his talk, Gawande was joined by an outstanding panel of experts, including the CEO of Kaiser Permanente, Berkshire Hathaway Vice-Chair Charlie Munger and Stanford doctors and researchers expert in health care, aging and dying.  Speaking to an overflow audience that included many from the medical school, the panel acknowledged that pressure from children and malpractice lawyers, coupled with the doctors’ own instinct to “fix,” not to mention financial incentives, all contributed to too much treatment too late in life.
There was also general agreement that we have too few general practitioners and too many specialists, thus encouraging more surgery, more chemotherapy and more specialized treatments.  But, until somebody figures out a way to give general practitioners competitive wages, young doctors who have to pay off mountains of debt from their years of training are necessarily going to choose the highly compensated specialties.

One thing is clear.  All of us should give serious thought to end of life decisions and, no matter how much the kids resist, talk to them now about your personal preferences.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Brooks on Welfare and Character

In last week’s New York Times, David Brooks broached the highly charged topic of welfare and personal responsibility in an article entitled “The Character Factory.”

There are good reasons why politicians and pundits won’t talk about this. In Brooks’ own words, “Nobody wants to be seen as blaming the victim.” And, of course, there is no reason to believe that the poor have less character than the rich.

A perceived lack of compassion for the poor is the biggest obstacle facing the Republican Party and is probably the main reason conservative doctrine has so little appeal for young people, women and immigrants.  Caring for the weak is the most fundamental value of modern progressive political thought.

Brooks wades into this hazardous terrain with a simple premise.  He compares the way we interact with the neediest segment of our population with the way we raise our own children and grandchildren:

“Nearly every parent on earth operates on the assumption that character matters a lot to the life outcomes of their children.  Nearly every government antipoverty program operates on the assumption that it doesn’t.”
Brooks goes on to tap into his considerable knowledge of behavioral science to support the concept that the ability to delay gratification, work hard and control impulsiveness is more important to later achievement than pure cognitive skills.

It’s one thing to agree with this premise and to practice it by means of the influence we have over the children in our own families.  And quite another to assume there’s some way such skills can be imposed by a government agency.

That said, the discussion of character building shouldn’t be off limits in our political discourse.  Those of us who hope to improve our collective future by decreasing the wealth gap and ensuring equal opportunity should not ignore the need for strength of character, not only in our own offspring but throughout society.