Letters from the Street

Philosophy, theology, and whatever else crosses my mind.

Category: Meta-tools

Quaker Plain VI: Money — The Wealth Didn’t Go Anywhere

[This is the first of, I think, two posts on money and finances. Both will be short, but have something important to say that I rarely see elsewhere. They will not seem terribly Quakerly; I won’t be using typical Quakerese because I’m not addressing issues that are specific to the Society of Friends. And so some of my Quaker readership may not find them as interesting as the posts, for instance, on plain dress. This is just a guess, and I would like to be wrong, for these posts are of as much importance, and directly relevant to the heart of plainness, as any others I’ve posted. Which is why I’m giving them the “Quaker Plain” topical title that has prefaced all the other posts in this series.]

Since late 2007, the world has struggled with a vast, deep and long recession. Somehow, it seems as though there is less to go around. For those who lost jobs or homes, that is accurate to a point. That point will be discussed further down. For many of us in industrialized countries, the “less to go around” is a matter of perception. Perhaps even of hypnotism. We’ve been sold a bill of goods.

Let’s understand one thing: the media — all media, not just the “mainstream media” which my conservative friends like to decry — have self-interest as their primary concern. For large media outlets, of no matter what stripe, the principal purpose is not to publish the news but to make money for the stock-holders. I’m sure not the first one to notice this; my oldest brother’s first journalism professor said that, if I have the story straight, on the first day of class. For the kind of micro-media, like this blog, which the Internet has made more powerful and ubiquitous than ever before, the self-interest lies in self-expression. I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t want to share what is on my mind, and I expect that is true of micro-media in general. If I have some influence in some small way, I’m glad, but I have no inflated ideas along that line.

And what does this have to do with money, or the recession? Well, in order to sell newspapers, to use the old-fashioned phrase, they have to publish stories with drama and human interest. Doom and gloom are big sellers. “If it bleeds, it leads.” Not much incentive for advertisers to buy ads if no one reads your copy.

They can’t just totally make up stories, though. (Okay, tabloids do, and the New York Times on occasion.) There has to be some kernel of truth. Most of the drama comes in how you spin it. So, there was a huge bubble in the real estate market, for instance, in which properties were way over-valued and mortgages lent to people who were way over-risky, and when that bubble popped it had ripple effects — tidal wave effects perhaps — which eventually had an impact on all sectors of the economy.  That really happened. The rest, however, is spin. Much of the “disaster” took place because people started acting like a disaster had taken place. Any clear observer of the stock market, to give only one example, knows that psychology has an enormous impact on the stock market. When people get scared, values go down. The companies themselves didn’t change; the perception changed.

This applies to the economy as a whole. Strong emotional reactions such as fear or anger have impacts on our behavior, including our buying/saving/investing choices, and that adds up to real effects on the macro economy.

But the wealth didn’t go anywhere, only the faith in it did.

Wealth is not money. Money is just a marker. An important marker, to be sure; I’ll address that in the next post. But money is not wealth. Wealth is found in three things: natural resources, such as minerals and oil and arable land and water; the infrastructure, the tools we use to do things with natural resources, from the factory to the railroad to the carpenter’s hammer; and most importantly, in the creativity, intelligence, and hard work of people. That’s it. That is what real wealth is composed of. Lack of any of the three produces conditions which are more conducive to poverty than to wealth, although an abundance of two can overcome a deficiency in one. Look at Japan and its relative lack of natural resources; they more than make up for that in their brilliant application of the second two.

Let’s take this understanding of wealth, then, and apply it to the current recession. What receded? As the title of this post says, the wealth didn’t go anywhere. When stocks drop and real estate values plunge, it doesn’t mean that the land is worth less or the factory is suddenly unable to produce. Something else has happened. And, while I am no economist and cannot describe the intermediate financial steps by which this plays out, what has changed in the main is faith. Faith in the system. Faith that needs will be met, that there will be enough to go around.

Faith that was misplaced in the first place. Because if your faith is in money you are in real trouble already, even when you have a lot of it. If your faith is in wealth, you are a little better off but not much. If your faith is in a loving and caring Higher Power, you are much more likely to make the kinds of choices that will get you and others through this situation. I emphasize “and others” because selfless service is an important facet of the kind of faith I mean. So much of our economic life is done in hope of reward. I like getting paychecks. But the things we do for each other, without seeking any payback, are immensely important in life as it is lived (not as it is reported in the media), and do  not show up in any economic measurement because they fly below the radar.

Let me say that I am addressing the situation as it pertains to industrialized countries here. In the non-developed world, or whatever we are calling it these days (do we still say Third World?), the conditions of political and economic domination by both internal and external forces are such that much of this does not apply. The part on faith does, though. I wish I could be more explicit about that, because it is remarkably important, but I just don’t have enough information to do a credible job. If you look for it, the information is out there.

The Problem with Thinking

[This is not the post I thought I would put up this weekend. That one is pretty much in the can, and will see the light of day before long. In the meantime, here’s the thing about trying to be Spirit-led: sometimes a topic will just grab hold and insist on jumping to the head of the line.]

First question: What’s the problem with Cognitive Therapy?

(Waves hand in air:  Ooo ooo ooo, I know this one.)

Anyone? Arnold?

The problem with Cognitive Therapy is that it doesn’t go far enough.

(Right. Here’s your gold star.)

What does that have to do with “The Problem with Thinking?” Keep reading.

When I was a young social worker, trying to do a good job with just a decent liberal arts education (a very good starting place BTW ; highly recommended), a smattering of psychology, and some native intuition, I sat down after a couple of years and tried to sum up what I’d learned. The result was an essay which described a new form of therapy, which I called Empirical Therapy. I discarded the essay later, when I found out that I was late to this party. It had been done, 10-15 years earlier, and a lot better. It was called Cognitive Therapy. (I went to a Master of Social Work program at around this time because I knew I was wasting time and effort every day, re-inventing the wheel. Boy, was I.) I encountered Cognitive Therapy in a counseling class, and recognized it for the mature expression of what I’d been groping for on my own. Aaron Beck had done stellar work in this area. So had Albert Ellis, who called his version Rational Emotive Therapy.

In 1994 I was introduced to Dr. David Burns’ work in this field, called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). It was like putting on a tailored suit. I’ve been fortunate to have attended a 2-day seminar with Dr. Burns. I’ve been even more fortunate to have seen the results. I literally use CBT every day, in every professional interaction, in some way or another. It’s that good.

In 2006, I was lucky enough to be included in a pilot program run by the North Carolina Child Treatment Program, a joint venture of Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill. 60 therapists in eastern NC were taught Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. This was a fantastic educational experience, led by a group of talented young clinicians. Representing pediatrics, psychology, and social work, most were young enough to be my children. I got over that pretty quickly, when I saw how much they had to offer. The thrust of the pilot program was this: TFCBT had proven its worth over years of research. Could it be taken off campus, and taught on a wide scale to active clinicians actually out in the trenches? Yes, it could. Working with survivors of sexual assault has been a specialty of mine ever since sort of accidentally getting involved with a case in 1980. With TFCBT, I’ve seen the time it takes for good treatment reduced from a year or so to around 4 months, with very good results. Once more, CBT has proven its worth, not just in its effectiveness but in its flexibility as well.

I’ve said for years that CBT is the most important development in psychotherapy in the last 50 years. I stand by that today. I’m not as disdainful of other forms of therapy as some CBT practitioners are. Psychodynamic psychotherapy is a powerful tool in the hands of a well-trained clinician. It’s a lot harder to produce well-trained clinicians in that mode, though. Good old B.F. Skinner-style behaviorism is being used with good results too. Ericksonian hypnosis and its many offspring are superb, the psychotherapeutic equivalent of laser and arthroscopic surgery. And nothing has ever superseded Carl Rogers’ insights into the nature and importance of the relationship between therapist and patient.

I dearly love a good dream analysis, and watching the ensuing changes in mood, thought and behavior as they unfold.

But if for some dire reason we were forced to select only one mode, I would have to pick CBT. You can teach more providers to be more effective with this one system than any other I have used. And, once patients have learned how to use CBT, they can use it themselves, for the rest of their lives, without a therapist. Slam dunk.

At the risk of over-simplification, here’s how it works: If you have negative thoughts, you will have negative feelings. Negative thoughts can be easily changed, with new information that either changes the thought itself, or calls the negativity into question. So if I think you are angry with me, and this makes me anxious, this can change either by finding out that you aren’t angry — new information — or learning that I can be calm even if you are angry at me — calling the negativity into question.

What, then, is the problem with CBT?

It doesn’t go far enough.

Why doesn’t it go far enough? Take, for instance, the problem of information. Computer folks have known from the dawn of time (computer time) that old saying, Garbage In, Garbage Out. CBT is like a computer program, software for the mind. The best program in the world cannot overcome bad data that is fed into it. As a grad student, I was introduced to a statistics program called SAS. SAS was marvelous. You could use it to slice and dice your data any way you chose. You could run all kinds of analyses, and turn out all kinds of charts and graphs. Here’s the thing: if your data collection was bad, SAS couldn’t point it out. It would give you wonderful stats and graphs that meant nothing, or were actually misleading.

Same with the mind. The information I have, from so many sources, affects my mood, outlook, ideas, opinions, etc. How can two people — patient and therapist — be certain that they are using the best information? They can’t. Neither can see past the blind spots they share. If I really think that women should never wear pants, and I am counseling a woman who is struggling with restrictions placed on her by a church that only allows dresses for women, where is the new information that she needs going to come from? Worse yet, if I only ever really talk to people who agree with me, will my basic fallacies ever be challenged?

Also, neither of us knows that there is needed information that we don’t know. It seems this goes without saying — you don’t know what you don’t know, duh — and yet it is seldom taken into account. As Thomas Kuhn pointed out in his landmark work “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, science advances when it becomes apparent that what we think we know is wrong. Scientific advance is held back by people who are certain that they know what isn’t so.

I see this all the time. It is a major factor in our public life. Liberals who only talk to liberals. Conservatives who only talk to conservatives. Religious people who only talk to other religious people, and atheists who only talk to other atheists. People who get angry and bitter when confronted with different beliefs than their own. People only read books and magazines, or watch TV shows, that support their own favored views. Things seem evidently correct, because “everyone agrees.” It reminds me of the Chicago socialite who couldn’t believe Eisenhower beat Stevenson, because “no one voted for Eisenhower.” No one she knew, that is.

Try it yourself. Take any random politically oriented post on Facebook. Say something that disagrees with it. Watch the fireworks.

Many people who are the most convinced that they have an open mind, have very closed minds. As A.A. Milne put it, “The third-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking with the majority. The second-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking with the minority. The first-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking.” There are so few first-rate minds. The other two are not really thinking at all. They are massaging their biases.

Which brings us to the second way in which CBT does not go far enough. The first is that it can’t guarantee that you will get better information than you have. The second is that it doesn’t really teach how to think. It does a very good job of pointing out some of the most common fallacies — perfectionism, taking things personally, etc. — but learning what constitutes the wrong way to think does not equal learning how to think.

For that matter, there are many ways to think poorly that are not covered in CBT. For these, you might need to take a basic course in logic. There, you would find out about the ad hominem fallacy, circular reasoning, “post hoc ergo propter hoc,” the straw man, and others.

It’s not a matter of intelligence. Not entirely. I know some people of average intelligence who are better thinkers than those of vastly greater intelligence. They are, however, limited in what they can think about; the ability to reason abstractly does not show up until somewhere around an IQ of 120. But having a big brain is no guarantee of being a good thinker; some of the poorest thinkers I know have very high IQs. They’ve learned how to use it in some ways, but not in this important way.

What does it take to be a good thinker?

1. High quality information, from a variety of sources. For instance, when a major world political crisis takes place — say, the fall of the Berlin Wall — don’t just watch your favorite news programs. Get a shortwave radio and tune in to news shows from around the world, such as Deutsche Welle, the BBC, Radio Canada International, Voice of Japan, Voice of China, and one of my favorites, Radio Prague. Shortwave radio listening is fun, too — check out all that different music. (If for some silly reason you don’t want to fool with a radio, many stations also livestream over the Internet. But this is cheating.) If you like Fox News, listen to NPR. If you hate Fox news, find one of the more reasonable conservative bloggers such as Victor Davis Hansen. Do whatever it takes to stay out of the “echo chamber.”

2. Be aware of the signal-to-noise ratio. Signal is useful information. Everything else is noise. Most of what you get in daily conversation and via the mainstream media is noise. With just enough signal to make it seem worthwhile. This is a tough one! Recognizing good information from bad takes work.

3. Learn about the obstacles to clear thinking. CBT is very good at identifying the most common cognitive distortions — ways we let our emotions affect our thinking. And there are many websites, such as the Wikepedia article on logical fallacies, that describe ways in which we fail to keep our thinking straight in a more formal sense. Learn them. Learn to spot them when other people are under their sway. Your favorite commentator might look very different.

4. Learn to trust the limits of knowledge. Get comfortable with the idea that no one knows all there is to know about anything. We have to make decisions, even though there is never sufficient high-quality data for complete assurance.  That person you dislike so much just might know something you don’t — and it’s just as likely you know something he doesn’t. Live and let live.

5. In a special application of #4, but worthy of a spot all its own because it is so dang important, learn to accept the legitimate difference of opinion. Everyone who disagrees with you is not a fascist, or a communist, or whatever your bete noir may be. I’ve written a whole essay on this and posted it on this blog. It is the least-read of any essay I’ve posted. Many, many people just don’t really want to know how to think.

6. Practice, practice, practice. If you want to learn how to think, you have to read the works of great thinkers. Not novelists (although some of them were great thinkers), not poets, not biographers, not cookbooks. You can’t become a great musician without listening to great music, and practicing your scales over and over and over. You can’t become a good thinker without the company of other good thinkers.

7. Honesty. You have to be able to take an honest account of who you are, what you do, which distortions you allow into your thinking, what poisons do you allow into your data stream, and so forth.

As always, I know I will get comments that will add a lot to this. Good data stream!

All the Truth that Can Be Said …

All the truth that can be said in a certain way is in the Bible. Having been said in that way, it cannot be said in another way. But there are other ways.

All the truth that can be said in a certain way is in the Bhagavad Gita. Having been said in that way, it cannot be said in another way. But there are other ways.

All the truth that can be said in a certain way is in the Tao Te Ching. Having been said in that way, it cannot be said in another way. But there are other ways.

All the truth that can be said in a certain way is in the Diamond Sutra. Having been said in that way, it cannot be said in another way. But there are other ways.

All the truth that can be said in a certain way is in the Upanishads. Having been said in that way, it cannot be said in another way. But there are other ways.

All the truth that can be said in a certain way is in the Lotus Sutra. Having been said in that way, it cannot be said in another way. But there are other ways.

All the truth that can be said in a certain way is in the I Ching. Having been said in that way, it cannot be said in another way. But there are other ways.

And so forth.

People Are Corruptible

It’s a fact: people are corruptible. Everyone. The more principled a person you are, the less likely you are to fall into corruption. No one is immune.

I’m defining corruption fairly widely, perhaps, so I better explain what I mean.  There are many forms that corruption can take. The most obvious is taking money to do something you shouldn’t, or to refrain from doing something you should do. This is the sense we use the word when we talk about the corruption of public officials: exchanging favors for material benefits.

Similarly, they might exchange favors for something intangible, like sex, influence or power. Most of us don’t have these temptations,  or maybe not so magnificently.

But maybe we do it in little ways,  like when we look the other way at some office shenanigans for the sake of remaining on friendly terms with the shenaniganistas. Maybe we cut corners on our taxes. Maybe that harmless flirting is more of a thrill than we let on. And so forth.

I’m not saying we should or could be  better than this.  I’m saying, let’s just admit it. Let’s not pretend that things are going to get a whole lot better. We could see the dawn of a completely non-racist,  non-sexist, non-homophobic, non-violent society,  and there would still be ways in which people would be corruptible. And I’m not expecting to see that so-much-more-perfect society in my lifetime, anyway.

Well, then why bring it up? Here’s why: politics. Now, I promised myself I wasn’t going to get into politics on this blog. First thing you know,  my only readers would be people who have the same political outlook – and even if there were some, which there aren’t, how boring would that be? For me, I mean.

So I’m keeping that promise. No politics. So why am I bringing it up? Not to raise a political opinion,  that’s for sure. I want to talk about the process of political discourse. Meta-politics, if you please.

Next, I’m not taking about political discourse between politicians. I expect them to be crass, short-sighted,  self-centered,  and fundamentally dishonest. I’m talking about you and me.

Conservatives,  for instance, put a lot of faith in the free market. It will regulate itself,  because of self-interest. People will stop doing business with crooks and incompetents, and they will fade away. As if. How does that explain Enron or the sub-prime mortgage fiasco? Sure,  those idiots were eventually caught,  but millions suffered – are suffering – as a result. That’s not okay. And since people are corruptible, it will happen again, and again,  ad infinitum.

My liberal friends think the solutions all lie in government. They think there is some kind of virtue in the state that will eventually,  if we just do it harder next time,  lead us to the promised land. Somehow, we will install a class of politicians and bureaucrats who have only the public’s best interest at heart,  who really know what that interest is, and know exactly how to accomplish it. Wow. Does that fly in the face of observed behavior! I know devout Christians with less faith than this.

Here in America, the presidential campaign is in full swing. We’re going to hear a lot of gabble from the candidates. They are all going to promise us the Sun, Moon and stars.  They are all going to pretend to be principled, dispassionate tribunes of the people’s welfare, however their particular version of that utopia may run. We don’t have to take them seriously.

Support who you like. Vote for the best vision you are offered, even if you know it can’t be fulfilled. Let’s just not pretend that our guys are all good, while theirs are all evil. C’mon. We are all corruptible, and the greater the temptation, the more will fall. After all, they have to get re-elected, don’t they?

The Legitimate Difference of Opinion

If you don’t have the proper tools, you can’t get the job done. You can use a knife for a screwdriver, and get away with it some of the time, but sooner or later you will bugger the head on the screw and then what?
So, from time to time, I will talk about some tools that are needed for proper thinking.

Or, to be really clear, for doing philosophy.

The ancients understood that philosophy is the root of all understanding. What we now think of as “science” was called “natural philosophy” for instance. Yet the change in term, from natural philosophy to science, is revealing. Philosophy is not just about knowledge, it is love of wisdom. There is knowledge of a topic, and then there is wisdom about it. Much of our science has no wisdom at all. Our knowledge of how to do things has in so many cases far outstripped our understanding of whether or not they ought to be done. We can all think of numerous examples of technology gone haywire.

So, everyone does philosophy, whether they know it or not. Most people do applied philosophy — the search for understanding of one particular subject. When you learned to figure out unit prices in the grocery store — 4 quarts of milk costs twice what one gallon costs, although it is the same quantity — you were doing applied philosophy.

And then there is the kind of philosophy we think of when we commonly use that word: Socrates. Hume. Sankara. Nagarjuna. Wittgenstein. I’m not going to try to define it in this short post. No way. I’m just going to mention that and move on to the main point, having set it up.

So, tools for thinking. Tools for effective philosophy. Here’s one that is all too uncommon: the Legitimate Difference of Opinion. If I think a flat tax is the best way to balance the government’s need for money with the people’s ability to live free and prosperous lives, and you think that a progressive tax is a better way, we have an important difference of opinion. But it doesn’t mean that you are an evil usurper of people’s natural property rights, or that I am a greedy SOB who is insensitive to the human needs of my fellow citizens. You might care very much about fundamental rights as an important part of our national happiness, and I might be constantly on the lookout for ways to meet the needs of my neighbors. We just disagree about the way to get there.

All too often, in political debate especially but in most any arena you can think of, people do not recognize the legitimate difference of opinion. If you don’t agree with me, you are wrong, and furthermore bad. I see this all the time, in matters large and small. Among other things, such as displaying a certain kind of insecurity, and probably arrogance to boot, it is also intellectually dishonest.

And you can’t think straight — effectively — if you aren’t honest. Period.

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