Where did we go wrong? A mid-mortem on America

There’s plenty of hand-wringing about the future of the United States these days. About two-thirds of us believe the country is on the “wrong track”. Meanwhile, academics observe evidence of a free-fall in our democratic institutions. Others are more somber, likening the current environment to the beginnings of a sort of diffuse, decades-long civil war. I, personally, do not find any of those assessments to be overly alarmist. In other words, I think we are in deep trouble.

When I say “deep trouble”, I’m not talking about our public policies. Indeed, there is cause for deep frustration there: we are doing too little to curb global warming and other forms of environmental catastrophe, our tax code and other economic policies are still heavily slanted towards the very wealthy, healthcare and higher education costs are ballooning, and on and on.

In fact, what’s even more worrying is that the capacity of the American society to assess, discuss, and ultimately solve difficult problems seems to have been destroyed. The degree of political polarization has become so intense that it is already starting to manifesting itself occasionally in the form of violence. As I and countless others have written, a culture of perpetual anger, outrage, and finger-pointing has become endemic. It is no wonder that our elected officials refuse to negotiate and compromise with one another. If they are truly representative of us, then why would they?

Everyone, of course, has their own ideas of what has, and is still going, wrong. Here are mine, in deliberately simplistic terms:

  1. We all have a deep-seated spiritual and emotional problem. This is not unique to the American people, and it is not unique to the year 2020. Call it whatever you will. “Selfishness” is all-encompassing enough. “Narcissism” is not overly harsh. As I’ve argued on this website countless times, we tend to think we (or those in our group) are always right, and we make little effort to question our own thinking, consider the opinions of those we disagree with, or ponder how we might improve ourselves.
  2. Technology has probably made it worse. It used to be the case that we all listened to and read the same news. Those days are over. Social media now makes it such that information that is pleasing to our egos gets pushed in front of our eyeballs, while uncomfortable things are sent to the back, thereby hardening are existing beliefs and prejudices. Meanwhile, the IT revolution has made sensationalism the only way for news outlets to make money. Cable news has become a form of reality TV, and newspapers struggling to stay afloat are reduced to clickbait factories. This is how so many of us eventually come to embrace irrational, myopic, and — in some cases — extreme beliefs.
  3. Elections in America have become extraordinarily expensive. It costs a tremendous amount of money to win higher office in this country now. The election that just passed cost $14bn, more than doubling the election of four years ago, and exceeding the entire annual economic output of 81 countries. A significant contributor to this has been the weakening of constraints on campaign finance, and of requirements to disclose the origins of campaign money. The effect is that political candidates’ tone and messaging are pushed to the extreme in a bid to excite those who are actually inclined to donate, a subset of voters who are less likely to be moderate and more likely to be highly partisan.

There are plenty of people out there who are eager to tell you about points #2 and #3, but few that are ready to acknowledge point #1: We have a deep-seated spiritual and emotional problem. Not surprisingly for anyone already familiar with the Baha’i Faith, I see this as the main issue. It is the actual fire; the other two things are simply its accelerants.

Baha’u’llah, the Founder of the faith whom Baha’is revere as a Messenger of God, essentially asked all human beings to efface their own egos, put aside their prejudices, and embrace a culture of love, unity, and fairmindedness. He asked these things of us not simply for the sake of goodness and virtue, but because without making these changes, human civilization is prone to destroy itself. Likening God’s teachings to the prescriptions of a divine Physician, he wrote: “Witness how the world is being afflicted with a fresh calamity every day… Its sickness is approaching the stage of utter hopelessness, inasmuch as the true Physician is debarred from administering the remedy.”

Making these changes is not easy. Rather, it requires the individual to truly humble him or herself and seek the assistance of the Divine, in a similar way that a participant in Alcoholics Anonymous defeats addiction by humbly calling on the assistance of a Higher Power.

Among the things that the Baha’i teachings asks us to change about ourselves which, in my opinion, are directly related to this country’s current predicament are:

Not pointing fingers at others. “Breathe not the sins of others so long as thou art thyself a sinner.” We can stop indulging our own personal fantasy that we are somehow woke, and it is others who are in need of education.

Being fair-minded about what is true and what is not. “[B]e adorers of the sun of reality from whatsoever horizon it may appear.” And: “[S]ee with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others… know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor.” No matter how good it feels to see messages on social media that confirm what we already believe, we must actively question ourselves, and seek out and consider the views of others.

Never seeing another human being as an opponent. “See ye no strangers; rather see all men as friends, for love and unity come hard when ye fix your gaze on otherness.” We have got to stop talking about people who disagree with us as somehow on another team, or even worse, as members of some enemy army.

To start to turn around American society does not require all of us to instantaneously become Baha’is, or even for us all to start believing in God. But we must somehow start living and breathing these principles, and thus begin to regenerate our culture. If we do, then the flames that have been fanned by technological and political changes might start to die out. In practical terms, the social media algorithms pulling us towards narrow-mindedness will begin to dull, our neat intellectual echo chambers will start to become more porous, and the inflammatory rhetoric of our politicians will eventually to fall upon deaf ears.

Incidentally, Baha’i scripture itself tells us that this type of awakening is not only possible in American society, but it is in fact inevitable. “May America become the distributing center of spiritual enlightenment,” prayed ‘Abdu’l-Baha in 1912, asserting that the nation would one day come to “lead all nations spiritually”. Shoghi Effendi later clarified that America’s lofty spiritual destiny would be attained only after considerable hardship. “Then, and only then,” he wrote, “will the American nation… be able to fulfill the unspeakably glorious destiny ordained for it by the Almighty.”

That last passage was written during the unparalleled darkness of the Second World War. The world’s challenges are different now, of course, but in many ways they are equally daunting. The forces of technology and political division in this era of history are immense, and many people are now coming to recognize the terrifying abyss that those forces threaten to pull us down into. The task before us as Americans is to pull ourselves in the opposite direction, with even greater force, towards things like humility, fair-mindedness, understanding, and togetherness. Let those principles guide us, and perhaps we’ll be worthy of our noble destiny.

Don’t believe in God? You should still think about becoming a Baha’i.

milky-way-1023340_960_720Much of what I’ve written on this blog of late hasn’t been directly connected to the Baha’i Faith and issues of spirituality. Well, this post is going to be an exception.

This post is, first and foremost, for people who consider themselves agnostics and atheists. If you consider yourself in that broad category, please keep reading.

I am going to make this as direct and straightforward as possible: I think more people with ambiguous or even skeptical feelings towards the existence of God should think about becoming Baha’is.

How could this possibly be, given that a bedrock principle of the Baha’i Faith is that God exists? It’s because, as I have written about before, the concept of God in Baha’i doctrine is purposefully mysterious. God is described as ultimately “unknowable”, even as we are encouraged to cultivate our own sense of spirituality, and to “know and love” our Creator.

The best way I could think to articulate this is through a dialogue between two people. So, if you will indulge me, here is an entirely fictional discussion between “Jack”, a once-agnostic person who came to call himself a Baha’i, and this blog.

Note that Jack is not a real person, but much of what you’ll read below is inspired by numerous individuals I’ve met over the years who became Baha’is, some of whom had some measure of spiritual inclination and belief before they found the Baha’i Faith, and others who were pure atheists. I tried to capture the spirit of some of those conversations in the rest of this post. Note also that though Jack is depicted as someone with a Christian background (I had to pick something), the spirit of the conversation I hope applies to people of all backgrounds.

Enjoy. Continue reading

Is the world getting worse?

holding-earth-1-1414853Frequent readers of this blog know a big chunk of time here is spent discussing the world’s great problems, as well as the moral and spiritual changes we need to make to meet those problems head on. Oftentimes this exercise gets to be a downer, mostly because it serves as a reminder of just how daunting those problems truly are.

What’s particularly difficult is to get a sense of whether or not things are getting better or getting worse. I found some new perspective on this recently in an unexpected place, when, while sorting through a box of old books, I found the comic book V For Vendetta and opened it up to its preface:

My youngest daughter is seven and the tabloid press are circulating the idea of concentration camps for persons with AIDS. The new riot police wear wear black visors, as do their horses, and their vans have rotating video cameras mounted on top. The government has expressed a desire to eradicate homosexuality, even as an abstract concept, and one can only speculate as to which minority will be the next legislated against. I’m thinking of taking my family and getting out of this country soon, sometime over the next couple of years. It’s cold and it’s mean spirited and I don’t like it here anymore. Goodnight England.

That was the author, Alan Moore, writing in 1988. In retrospect the level of hyperbole is almost laughable. But that’s only because it’s hard to look back nearly 30 years and try and understand the things people back then were preoccupied with, even though they were legitimate. Back in the 80s people barely understood how HIV worked — Eddie Murphy’s standup routine famously joked about a lonely housewife contracting AIDS by kissing a gay friend on the cheek — and imagined a world epidemic of potentially bubonic plague-like proportions. The Berlin Wall was still a thing, and though the US and USSR were in a process of detente, people still contemplated the possibility of mass extinction from nuclear war. Here in the US, crack cocaine was exploding, as was violent crime in US cities; New York had more than five times as many murders in 1988 than it had last year.

I bring all this up only to make the point that every generation finds it far too easy to say that the world is hopeless and getting worse. In many ways, in fact, things are getting better. Continue reading

When “get rich quick” goes mainstream

A friend of mine from college tries to get me to join his fantasy football league every year. For the past decade or so I’ve declined. I used to do it when I was younger, and enjoyed it when I did, but it was such a time suck that when I went to grad school (and later, got married and had kids) I wisely elected to sit on the sidelines.

This year, for whatever reason, I succumbed to the pressure and joined the league. (I named my team “McNally’s Revenge”, after the alleged ball deflation equipment guy from my beloved New England Patriots). But pretty soon, I realized that fantasy sports has changed a lot over the past decade since I’ve been out of the game. For one, I’m trying to do the whole thing on my iPhone, which I find dizzyingly confusing, which in turn makes me feel dumb and old. But more significantly, the element of money — always lurking in the shadows of fantasy sports, of course — seems to have been shoved to the forefront. Fantasy sports, apparently, is no longer about talking trash to your friends and ripping eachother off with shady player trades — you know, good wholesome fun. Apparently, It’s now about becoming a millionaire overnight.

How else can I make sense of the fact that Boston’s South Station is completely plastered with Draft Kings advertising? These days one-day fantasy sports ads are inescapable, not only in places — both real and virtual — where young, male sports fans congregate, but places as universal and banal as the city train station. The sudden ubiquity of these ads — seriously, I had never heard of this concept a few months ago — should tell you something about the outrageous profitability of the one-day fantasy sports business, and the rapid ascendancy of Fan Duel and Draft Kings in particular, companies that have rocketed to prominence in the past couple of years. Continue reading

Am I just another dumb consumer?

Sale mannequins

My wife recently passed along a clever Atlantic article entitled “The 11 ways that consumers are horrible at math”, focusing on some of the mental mistakes that we tend to make in our economic decisions and how vulnerable we are to the influence of marketing. In true Atlantic fashion, it introduces no real new insight, but does a good job summarizing and explaining some of the existing research. Here’s a snippet:

(5) We do what we’re told. Behavioral economists love experimenting in schools, where they’ve found that shining a light on fruit and placing a salad bar in the way of the candy makes kids eat more fruit and salad. But adults are equally susceptible to these simple games. Savvy restaurants, for example, design their menus to draw our eyes to the most profitable items by things as simple as pictures and boxes. Good rule of thumb: If you see a course on the menu that’s highlighted, boxed, illustrated, or paired with a really expensive item, it’s probably a high-margin product that the restaurant hopes you’ll see and consider.

As the paragraph above mentions, the influence of “framing” on individuals’ decisions can be powerful. That’s just one of many ways that we fail to even come close to performing rationally in our routine economic decisions (if we were perfectly rational, the framing effect would be nil), a point I’ve made on this blog many times in the past. Yet the passage above also contains another important point: framing and other strategies can be used for things we commonly think of as bad (like pushing restaurant goers towards higher-priced items), or for things we find good (like getting school kids to eat healthier foods).

This is the whole idea behind the recently conceived concept of “libertarian paternalism“, championed by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein and popularized by their book, Nudge. Thaler and Sunstein are keen to argue that while it’s wrong to force people into a particular decision that would benefit everyone, we can still “nudge” them with certain mental tricks. Organ donation is the classic example; most everyone agrees that the decision on whether or not to donate one’s organs should the individual’s own and never the government’s, yet the evidence suggests a country’s default setting — ie starting everyone out as donors and giving them the freedom to opt out rather than the other way around — has a huge impact on how frequently people actually participate. You can “nudge” people to be organ donors, that is, without forcing them or even providing any real incentives.

I’m a big supporter of libertarian paternalism, even though I think the term is a misnomer (it’s much more paternalistic than libertarian, if you ask me). I think it’s important to acknowledge its limits, though. Proponents of policy-led “nudges” or other public interventions are coming from the angle that since we humans do not behave consistently rationally and that markets are inherently imperfect, public policy can identify and fill in the gaps wherever markets fail.

That second part about the power of public policy is a fantasy. First, it’s technically tricky (figuring out exactly how much to spend on government-led efforts to encourage kids to eat vegetables, for instance). But secondly, government simply doesn’t have the firepower to offset all the purposeful “bad” nudging that private industry pumps out.

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When did we all get so sensitive?

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt recently wrote a stirring article in The Atlantic about the alleged culture of oversensitivity and emotional coddling at American universities. They write:

The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. More than [political correctness], it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness. It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.

The authors conclude that this environment could be contributing to higher rates of depression and other emotional disorders in young people. That seemed too big a leap for me to take at face value — really, I need someone with a psychiatry degree to weigh in on that one — but Lukianoff and Haidt’s other points are believable and powerful. The most frightening implication for me is that this cultural movement is at odds with what institutions of higher education are supposed to be: forums for free expression and the open search for truth in whatever form.

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This nation is built on trust and self-serve fountain beverages

A couple weekends ago I sat down with my laptop in a Panera where we live. I had a little bit of work to take care of, and Panera is my default choice to get stuff done. The wi-fi is free, the food is decent by casual dining/fast food standards, and you can get your tea or coffee in an actual mug rather than a paper cup (a rare treat). And the one I go to tends to have plenty of seats and never be overcrowded.

In any case, this particular visit got me thinking about something extremely important: fountain sodas. Usually when I visit places like this, I go for tap water instead of something sweet. I love soda and all, but for lunch I don’t really like paying the extra $2-3 for something I probably consume too much of anyway. At Panera, the way this works is that they give you an annoyingly small clear plastic cup that is completely different looking from the cup you get when you buy a fountain drink, and then allow you to fill this cup with water on your own at the fountain soda area.

I find that a lot of these casual chain do this now; that is, they give you a water-specific cup rather than one usually intended for a fountain drink. I suppose part of the reason is to encourage people to buy drinks rather than asking for free water with their meals, given that you can only fit what seems like 0.8 ounces of liquid inside one of those tiny cups.

But another reason, I guess, is the idea that having different-looking cups would make it harder for the soda free loader types, the ones who ask for a free cup only to fill it up with something they were supposed to have paid for, simply because it would be more obvious when someone’s dumping Cherry Coke into a cup that’s clearly intended for water. That seems to be the thought process at Chipotle, which gives the same size cup for water as it does for soda, but slaps an mistakable label on their water cups to make it perfectly clear what’s what.

chipotle_cup2

The Chipotle water cup: yup, pretty clearly for water

The whole point of this is that there’s a clear element of trust involved here. Even with those simple deterrences in place to prevent people from stealing soda from fast food joints, it’s not like doing so is hard. We’re not talking Ocean’s Eleven here. In fact, at that particular Panera that I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the fountain drink area is way in the back, where no one at the front counter can see. Really, the only way to get busted is for some employee to pass by your table and spot you, and then of course to decide that, despite being exhausted and probably making just above minimum wage, it’s worth publicly shaming a customer into what cost the Panera shareholders about ten cents. In other words: not gonna happen.

But think to yourself: When was the last time you pulled off this sneaky trick, despite how easy it would be? Continue reading

America has a race problem. What am I going to do about it?

A couple Saturdays ago, my wife and I hosted a prayer gathering and discussion in our home on the subject of “race, society, and spirituality”. We read some sacred writings together and prayed, watched a short video, and had a discussion over some good food. People shared their personal anecdotes and experiences along with their heartache, their joy, and their concern about where we are going as a nation and as a human race. A friend whose dad is Kenyan, mom is white, and step dad is Persian told of a childhood of conflicted identity growing up in Upstate New York. A Polish immigrant shared her experiences of living in America for the past decade. A black neighbor told us about raising a daughter in an overwhelmingly white neighborhood in Greenwich, CT after growing up in Harlem. A Jew from Brooklyn shared his sadness over the needless suffering currently being felt in Israel and Palestine.

The two of us have hosted these prayer gatherings/discussions sporadically in our home for the past few years, but more recently we’d been contemplating dedicating an evening to the topic of race in particular. One reason is that unity is perhaps the single most important theme in the Baha’i Faith — Baha’u’llah once declared that “So powerful is the light of unity that it can illumine the whole earth” — and thus opposing racism and prejudice naturally becomes an important component of being Baha’is in America. But this wasn’t the only reason. The other was that the two of us have become tired of listening to friends and colleagues decry racism without an eye towards an actual solution, and in tones that seemed to accomplish nothing more than to fan the flames of suspicion and distrust.

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The problem with freedom

Gender and society satire from the 1890s

A satirical cartoon on gender roles in society from the 1890s

In the 1920s, tobacco companies sought to increase the number of women smokers. So for the Easter Sunday parade of 1929, a group of public relations and marketing experts hatched a brilliant plan on their behalf. They paid a group of young, attractive, fashionably-dressed women to march in the parade and, in unison, light up cigarettes. The women proudly exclaimed to the parade goers that they were smoking “torches of freedom“. Photos and stories of the women circulated wildly. Almost overnight, smoking had become a symbol of female independence and liberty.

I learned about this historical event years ago when I was in grad school. But it recently came to mind once again, amid the debate about freedom of expression following the attack on a French satirical newspaper earlier this month.

Rightfully, following that event there has been an outpouring of sentiment in favor of free speech and in defiance of terror and intimidation. I won’t get into my own thoughts on the specifics of this event, or some or the more controversial details — namely, the arrest by French authorities of dozens of individuals for hate speech following the free speech demonstrations, or the allegedly hypocritical policies of some of the demonstrating world leaders — subjects which have been covered ad nauseum already. (A good approximation of how I feel on these subjects is here.)

On the other hand, what I haven’t seen to this point, and what I personally am yearning for, is an intelligent discussion about not only our legal rights as citizens, but what it truly means to be “free” as a human being. And I think this is a discourse that religion, and especially the Baha’i Faith, can help move forward in a big way.

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Is kindness economically efficient?

When I was a sophomore in college my microeconomics professor talked about gift giving as an example of an economically inefficient cultural practice. The lesson of the day was on how human beings efficiently allocate their resources. When we have the freedom to choose exactly how to spend our money, economic theory tells us, then we can maximize our own personal well-being. But when given a gift, some of this freedom is removed; in efficiency terms, it would be much better just to give cash and let the recipient figure out on his or her own how to spend it.

There was one important caveat: As my professor put it, when two people exchange a gift there are some “warm fuzzies” involved, a benefit that we can’t easily quantify. It’s one thing to go out and get what you want, but it’s particularly special and heartwarming when a loved one is thoughtful enough to get it for you. On a related note, let me digress for a moment and offer some free advice to all men reading this: Don’t ever give your wife or girlfriend cash as a gift, no matter how big an econ nerd you think you are. You run the risk of injury, death, or worse.

For whatever reason, recently I’ve been hyper-sensitive to all the subtle ways that economic efficiency and basic humanity butt heads, just as is the case when it comes to gift giving. And when it comes to this subject, the example that keeps smacking me in the face is my morning commute to work.

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