To defeat racism and bigotry, make friends with some racists and bigots

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When I was in 7th grade, my classmate’s father died of cancer. He took some time away from school, and during that time, my mother encouraged me to express my condolences to him when he got back. Being naive and stubborn, I resisted. “I’ll be reminding him of the fact his dad died, and just make him feel worse,” I argued. My mother responded that I didn’t understand, and that people appreciate these gestures, however simple, when they experience loss. And besides, she told me, it was my duty to acknowledge it. To pretend that nothing had happened would be much worse.

My friend eventually came back to school. In the days following, he tended to sit near the back of the classroom. He was more subdued and quiet than before, and rarely talked in class. I never expressed my condolences, or even acknowledged that he’d lost his dad. It’s hard to remember why, but I think I was scared of how he’d feel and how he’d receive the gesture. Maybe I was scared I’d say the wrong thing, say something stupid.

I was reminded of this episode a couple years ago after a string of highly-publicized instances of violence against black people in America. It had been a depressing series of events, culminating with Eric Garner’s now famous “I can’t breathe” chokehold-induced heart attack at the hands of the NYPD. The nation, it seemed, had reached a racial boiling point, a fragile equilibrium where smoldering suspicion and anger could explode in unpredictable directions.

In many ways, these events felt to me like a friend’s relative had died. I myself was saddened and afraid; how much worse must the feeling be, I wondered, for my black friends and colleagues experiencing these spectacles in a much more personal way? I didn’t want to make the same mistake I did as a kid, to continue on and ignore it, to pretend that nothing had changed. Somehow, I wanted to acknowledge the obvious. I wanted to express my condolences.

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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

The dirty secret behind Europe’s migrant crisis

I’m not sure exactly how to feel about Europe’s migrant crisis, whereby 1.4 million individuals fleeing war or economic calamity are expected to seek refuge within the continent by the end of next year. It’s been startling, to put it mildly, to read about the risks some of these people took to escape their home countries, and the catastrophes that some of them have experienced. But beyond that, I hope and pray that the crisis forces a dialogue about the massive movement of human beings around the globe that will need to occur over the next several decades.

To illustrate what I mean, take a look at the chart below. It shows UN population projections in developing (i.e. “poor”) countries next to those in developed (“rich”) countries over the next century. I lump in China with the rich countries for two reasons: one is that China, though still poor by most measures, is rapidly converging towards being developed; and the other is that it’s facing the same potential slow-motion population disaster as places like Europe and Japan, thanks in large part to its one-child policy.

As you can see, the rich world is basically facing an epic storm of receding population levels, an issue that is destined to become more and more noticeable in our lifetime. As population growth turns negative in these countries and as their populations age, it will put huge pressure on fiscal budgets — think of all the money the government must come up with to pay pensions to an aging population, in the face of a shrinking pool of income tax payers. It also exacerbates the problem of sluggish aggregate demand and deflation, already a major issue in places like Japan and Europe.

So the rich world already has a need for young, able-bodied workers, and will likely need more and more of them in the years ahead. Guess what? There are huge numbers of such people in the developing world, ready to pack up and come work in the rich countries, often for wages you and I find substandard but which represent a giant leap forward from the developing country status quo. And it’s likely that as developing country populations explode, and especially as issues like climate change destroy living conditions in many of these — more Syrias, in other words — there will be even more workers from poor countries looking for new places to live.

Meanwhile, economists have long highlighted the enormous gains to poor country residents from just small increases in international labor mobility. An oft-cited study on the economic implications for poor country residents immigrating to the United States, for instance, estimated a four-fold increase in real wages for the typical worker. But freer labor mobility should not be seen as an issue of charity. In reality, developed economies will soon become as desperate for young people to come in as today’s refugees currently are to get out.

So rich countries need workers, while poor countries have too many. The question is, Will this transaction actually take place? The economic case is unmistakably clear; without expanding their labor forces through immigration, rich countries are headed for a slow-motion economic train wreck. The stumbling block is not scientific evidence but pure, good-old-fashioned prejudice. We all see the need for more workers in places like Germany, Japan, and America. Let’s be real: We just don’t feel comfortable with them being Turkish, Indonesian, or Mexican.

This is why seemingly squishy, airy-fairy ideas such as “loving thy neighbor” and “universal brotherhood” are so important and potentially powerful. The tar of prejudice is so thick that whole societies would rather commit the equivalent of economic suicide than let brown-shaded, funny-accented people to join their nations. World unity is not some utopian ideal; it’s a matter of economic survival.

As Shoghi Effendi put it nearly 80 years ago:

The anarchy inherent in state sovereignty is moving towards a climax. A world, growing to maturity, must abandon this fetish, recognize the oneness and wholeness of human relationships, and establish once for all the machinery that can best incarnate this fundamental principle of its life.

The problem is daunting, but the solution is simple. Only stubborn prejudice and fear stand in the way.

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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What can youth athletics teach us about free markets?

How about a little sportsmanship when it comes to markets?

How about a little sportsmanship when it comes to economic competition?

Sometimes small gestures can prove profoundly spiritually powerful. Spirituality, after all, isn’t just meditating on the top of a mountain or praying by a candlelit bedside. It’s found in real, human gestures that happen around us everyday.

One remarkable illustration of this — and which recently gained national recognition here in the US — happened at a high school wrestling match in St. Paul, Minnesota last month between St. Michael Albertville High School sophomore Mitchell McKee and Blaine High School sophomore Malik Stewart. Other than the stakes, namely the state championship for the 120 lb weight class, this wasn’t an extraordinary match. Except that the following happened: After Stewart was beaten, he immediately walked over and embraced the father of the opposing wrestler, who is terminally ill with cancer. You can read the whole story here (and I strongly recommend you do.)

What was it about this story that made it so emotionally powerful, and vaulted it into the national spotlight a few days later? I think it’s because sports — and particularly youth sports — can occasionally remind us that even in an ultra-competitive atmosphere, the most beautiful human virtues can rise to the surface. Anyone who’s watched high school wrestling in particular recognizes that the sport uniquely balances strategy and discipline with primal aggression and raw effort. That a spontaneous act of humanity can emerge from such gritty violence is testament to the delicate balance between competition and cooperation. At one moment, two athletes struggle to physically dominate each other as if their lives depended on it. At the very next, those two athletes, as well as a tiny community of spectators, are somehow tearfully united by a simple but powerful gesture.

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On The Wolf of Wall Street and the subtle glorification of greed

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Martin Scorcese’s new film, The Wolf of Wall Street, about the famously decadent financial scam artist Jordan Belfort, is getting plenty of attention these days. But so is an op-ed by Christina McDowell, the daughter of one of Belfort’s former colleagues, who recently came out against what she sees as the film’s glorification of greed and recklessness. She writes:

You people are dangerous. Your film is a reckless attempt at continuing to pretend that these sorts of schemes are entertaining, even as the country is reeling from yet another round of Wall Street scandals. We want to get lost in what? These phony financiers’ fun sexcapades and coke binges? Come on, we know the truth. This kind of behavior brought America to its knees.

And yet you’re glorifying it… Did you think about the cultural message you’d be sending when you decided to make this film? You have successfully aligned yourself with an accomplished criminal, a guy who still hasn’t made full restitution to his victims, exacerbating our national obsession with wealth and status and glorifying greed and psychopathic behavior.

I went to see The Wolf of Wall Street on New Year’s Day. As for whether or not the film glamorizes the famous greed and excess of Belfort and Stratton Oakmont… well, there is a lot of grey area here, much of it by design.

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Is it capitalism that’s so rotten? Or is it us?

Is this really the face of capitalism?

Is this really the face of capitalism?

Economists and other social scientists are familiar with a concept called “framing”. Ask a question one way, and you might get a particular answer. But ask the same question differently, or in a slightly different context, and your answer may change completely.

There are tons of experiments that show the power of framing in influencing our decisions. A recent example I read about in this Atlantic article, however, tells us something important not only about ourselves but about the debate over capitalism.

As the article summarizes, an experiment a few years ago had college students play a classic “prisoner’s dilemma” game — that is, a game between two people where the individual has no incentive to cooperate — and separated the participants into two categories. The behavior of the students in these two groups was strikingly different:

[The researchers] told half the students it was called “Community Game” and the other half that it was called “Wall Street Game.” And that was all it took to turn these undergrads from team players into Gordon Gekkos. Fully 67 percent of the students cooperated when they were told they were playing “Community Game,” but only 33 percent cooperated when they were told they were playing “Wall Street Game.”

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