Disjointed arguments about wages

A minimum wage is likely to be a topic of political banter for the foreseeable future. In Minneapolis, small businesses must pay an employee a minimum of $13.50/hr and for large organizations (more than 100 employees) the minimum is $15/hr. One tweet that went rolling by made the claim that a living wage should be enough to pay for housing. The possibility of these numbers working out is well beyond reality in a large urban area, but let’s still consider its feasibility.

Consider a household with a couple and a high school senior. If each of these individuals were meant to earn enough to pay a mortgage or rent and then they each could secure a dwelling. Does it really make sense that everyone who wants some type of employment for money is tied to a job that supports a house? Because we certainly do not have the number of units. The US Census reports that we have just over 2.5 million housing units available to us in Minnesota.

Yet the labor force in the state is quite a bit larger than that. According to the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics, as of October 2022, there are about 3,073 million workers out bringing in a paycheck. There is enough of a shortage of housing without turning another half a million people out to look for their own place.

The spectrum of wages in the private labor market represents payment for a spectrum of skills, dedication, and commitment. The well-intended people who want a living wage for folks are really talking about a certain set of individuals. Those people are ones who, through no fault of their own, are trying to support a family on just one job. This is an unfortunate situation that does deserve support. Not only for insufficient dollars but also the insufficient hours one parent can provide in other support services.

The poverty rate in Minnesota runs around 9%. People in this category will be well served by a variety of aides necessary to boost them back into a stream of the functioning community. And then in turn the rest of the community is better off. But the solution isn’t achieved by warping the system. It is done by additional aid, provided with respect and dignity, in times of need.

The comfort of the human voice

Many schools are known for their athletics. There’s money in it. The teams bring in revenue from ticket sales at games and in exchange for their viewing rights. My alma mater is known for its choir. The St. Olaf Choir is a frequent world traveler, bringing the beauty of the human voice to places near and far.

This year’s Christmas Concert performance, Promise of Peace, was performed at Orchestra Hall. It’s a beautiful venue with spectacular acoustics. But it’s the voices of 500 choir members who perform which make the event memorable.

Beautiful Savior is a favorite. Have a listen.

Power to energize collective action

There are a lot of well-spoken words in this podcast. The eloquent banter is reason enough to listen. But there’s more. The view into a variety of angles of a group within a group’s past, present, and future accomplishments are illuminated. The light shows fine variations in interpretations and perceptions.

Glenn comes in strong around the 19-minute mark. I like how he frames the issues because the template he presents could be superimposed over other groups. Feminists made claim to be the power players for all women. Some bureaucrats make the claim of saving lives through regulation. The information feedback loops are not coming from the group but from people more interested in harnessing self-aggrandizement.

And the explanation of how a citizen can be an active part of more than one collective action project, without being disloyal to either, is an important observation. One can be observant of history and yet move forward with the work of today. In fact, all the speakers are much more in tune with how to forge new paths for better outcomes than being tied down by a burdensome past.

I tried to capture an excerpt by having my phone transcribe the audio. There are a lot of gaps! But hopefully there is enough to give you a taste of their conversation.

The construction of collective goods in the welfare state or in or on behalf of defending the country against external threat people are called based upon the earth and connection to the country. We are American with meaning black Americans in the 21st-century, the descendants of those who had been enslaved and labored to become fully equal citizens there’s a story there I want my children. Among other stories, I don’t want that to be the final word. I don’t want that to be their defining will close adequate to the task at hand that we wear lightly not that we wear as a shroud that we wear with the ability to take it off and to stand outside but I don’t think yet even now in the year 2022 we can afford to give up the leverage and the power that Robert Woodson has leveraged on more than one occasion of getting people together, work on behalf of collective goals, like raising our children, maintaining order in our communities, and doing honor to the sacrifices of our ancestors.

An attempt at an excerpt using an iPhone recorder

Say it with me- Real Estate is local

The best-known idiom in the real estate market is Location, Location, Location. As the phrase implies, where the building is situated has an outsized impact on the value of the parcel. Fifth Ave will command higher rent than Main St, USA.

Another adage bestowed on new buyers is to buy the smallest house on the block. A close relative to Location, Location, Location, this bit of advice recommends that being the most modest amongst your neighbors will buoy up the value of your home. Simply being in proximity of the stronger, the better, the more elevated will bode well for your acquisition.

What national companies like Open Door are discovering is that understanding the fine shades of difference between locations is more difficult than one would think. It’s not so easy to see the 5th Avenues, the Main Streets and the posh versus the modest, when seen from afar.

And that leads to an asymmetry of information which puts any outsider to a costly disadvantage.

From Minnesota Twitter

I happened to catch media-personality Jason DeRusha’s post in time to listen to former Governor Pawlenty take over his three-hour time slot on talk radio. The two-term governor seemed to be having a good time interviewing and surprising people across the airwaves. I don’t see how anyone can say that the political nuance of an interviewer doesn’t make a difference.


My latest favorite Twitter follow is a Reverand out of North Minneapolis. He calls it the way he sees it, pulling no political punches. Here’s an example of calling out the bread-and-butter politicians.


And in local sports, the Timberwolves basketball season got underway with a win a couple of nights ago. Fans are in that hopeful stage of the season, excited about the potential of a winning record. We’ve had some amazing talent come through the Target Center, but have fallen short on team dynamics. Maybe this is the year? Viking football superstar Dalvin Cook and friend in costume were on the floor- wish I could afford those tickets!

Update on AI pricing of Homes

Speaking of this last unit, Zillow bought it for $700K in Nov 2021, and withdrew the listing at $625K last month. Then they sold it to Opendoor for $354K. I haven’t pulled comps, but it’s not hard to imagine a fat discount that’ll look good on paper for Opendoor in the future.

And here’s a piece I wrote about their exit. Their failure wasn’t about market conditions, but strategy. In other words, this wasn’t about them foreseeing the future and knowing the market would change due to rates being at 7%.

Originally tweeted by Ryan Lundquist (@SacAppraiser) on October 5, 2022.

Have you lost that feeling?

It’s hard to extrapolate feelings out of numbers. Novelists have the luxury (and the skill) to fine-tune phrasing in a way that demonstrates how the same scene can in fact be different. Take this passage for example:

Yes, that was it-the change was there. Before the war at a luncheon party like this people would have said precisely the same things but they would have sounded different, because in those days they were accompanied by a sort of humming noise, not articulate, but musical, exciting, which changed the value of the words themselves. Could one set that humming noise to words?

Virginia Wolf- A Room of One’s Own

But when you see numbers, tabulated-out in sales figures of Rolex sales, income disparities between adjacent countries, or tallies of police arrests- you don’t feel anything. Of all the inputs that go into economic analysis- resources, labor, utilities, transport, and so on, there is no mention of an emotional quantifier.

Yet isn’t at least a portion of why people buy a Rolex due to a feeling? A luxury good makes one stand up a little straighter and beam a little brighter. A luxury good encourages others to treat you with a little more attention. A luxury good may be the ticket to gain entry into a new network of associates. There’s a swarming effect to luxury goods where people are drawn to the aura of the wealthy establishment. At least Kim Kardashian has a billion reasons to think so.

And then there is the opposite effect. The feeling of neglect and secondary status is always in the mix when economic results are released and compared to a strong neighbor. The numbers may divvy out the details of who stands where with what, but the gnawing feeling of being two steps back and half a year behind comes to the surface in casual conversation. “Oh- they are just so brash down there!” Implying, of course, a certain nobility in lower production, further justifying complacency.

Analysis of the cost of policing goes into rows and columns as easily as any set of numbers. But the emotion of seeing your middle school buddy handcuffed and walked out of school doesn’t show up in any way in the numerical representation. How many officers are needed in a community that has memories of one type of public safety is going to be different from another. The expense to leverage community participation in crime-solving is also going to vary. Like groups need to be compared to like groups.

And similarly, when solutions are presented and discussed, time and time again by people outside a community, especially those with elitist inklings, eye-rolling follows disjointed analogies.

The mayor of Minneapolis is Jacob Frey. Keith Ellison is MN’s Attorney General. Also pictured is St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter.

Update on the housing market

As one can imagine the sharp increase in mortgage interest rates is having an effect on the housing market. For the average buyers who have between 5-20% to invest as a down payment, their monthly obligation has probably increased by about 20%. Yes- that’s a lot. Hence the decline in mortgage loan applications.

So far, however, the change has only resulted in a deceleration in the number of buyers but not in the price of housing. For the past couple of years, buyer demand has outstripped inventory causing virtually every sale to garner between three to twenty offers. This is not hyperbole. The steady jump in the cost of housing is verification of a sellers’ market.

A few months ago, a fresh listing would still attract a strong first buyer, one who perhaps even wrote an offer above the list price in an effort to pre-empt the market. As news gets out that the market is shifting, buyers are starting to slow down and finally we are seeing inventory staying on the market more than a few days. This has advantages.

For the time being the new dynamics are attracting a new set of buyers who never were interested in the rat race of competing for a home. Making a decision within hours of viewing a home, foregoing an inspection, or offering non-refundable earnest money is not for everyone. Today’s buyers have the leisure of coming back through for a second showing, of looking into possible home improvements, of lining two options up side-by-side to see which one they prefer.

I expect this will be the status quo through the holidays. Thanksgiving to Christmas is always a slower time as many people are tied up with family obligations. Come early 2023, we’ll see how the interest rate environment is impacting price.

Serendipity and the creation of books

The ‘Withdrawn from Hennepin County Library’ sticker on its cover is a dead giveaway that I must have picked up Encounters by publisher George Braziller at a library sale. The short format tales of interactions with authors are fun and informative. Braziller’s small independent publishing house brought Orhan Pamuk’s The White Castle to an American audience- this book I can highly recommend. But I also enjoyed the stories of books coming together as a deroulement of chance encounters. In this example, an artist is paired with a poet.

Will Barnet

One of the magical aspects of publishing is the serendipitous way by which books are created. I learned this important lesson while working The World in a Frame. The book brought together two strands of George Braziller’s publishing program-literature and art-and was created on the heels of several books that Braziller had published in the mid-1980s,

The year 1986 marked the centenary of Emily Dickinson’s death. To mark the occasion, Braziller published a short introduction to her poetry, Emily Dickinson: Lives of a Poet by Christopher Benfey-then an up-and coming and now a formidable and well-established scholar. Benfey’s book offered an overview of Dickinson’s life, a well-crafted synthesis of the main themes in her poetry, and a thoughtful selection of her most well-known and loved verses.

Soon after the Dickinson volume was published, I visited Will Barnet, a well-known American artist, in his studio in the National Arts Club building in New York. While looking at his paintings, I noted that his work evoked nineteenth-century New England, which was not surprising in that Will had grown up in Massachusetts. Will, in turn, mentioned that he loved the poetry of Emily Dickinson and would like to have a copy of the Benfey book. The next day, I sent him a copy. A few weeks later, he called to let me know that he had created a series of drawings inspired by Dickinson’s poetry.

Back to his studio I went to look at the drawings. They were extraordinary.

Encounters, by George Braziller

Lately, I’ve been listening to Econ Talk on my daily three-mile walks which correspond conveniently to the duration of one episode. This one caught my eye today Janine Barchas on the Lost Books of Jane Austen and I was not disappointed. If you enjoy books, Jane Austen and a knowledgeable acedemic with a pleasant timbre you will find the hour well spent.

It was her explanation of how she fell into writing the book that I loved the most. Experience has taught me that many of life’s best outcomes occur haphazardly. And this seems to have created the interesting research she presents here. An antithesis, I know, from the advocates of- Plan your day! Schedule your every move! Make a ten-year plan! Some things come about when they are meant to be.

Regional trail system connecting through Wayzata

Is there more to it than mincing words?

When I was in college I steered clear of philosophy. The intricate hairsplitting was more than a little off-putting. Plus the numbers and problems in my math classes were more fun than words, or at least more reliable. It is only now, later in life that I see the need for it. I still am partial to philosophers who talk through examples instead of building some analytical castle in the sky. That’s why I like Bertrand. He said:

Philosophy, like all other studies, aims primarily at knowledge. The knowledge it aims it is the kind of knowledge which gives unity and system to the body of the sciences, and the kind which results from a critical examination of the grounds of our convictions, prejudices, and beliefs.

Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy (Urbana, IL: Project Gutenberg, 2004)

Descriptive words can paint out the details of your examples, but precisely defined words are necessary to hone the edges of the properties which settle in together and erect a model of activity. And words are slippery things often showing up in other ways at other times. It truly is a project to draw it all out for people to follow.

It seems there is a renewed interest in the discipline. Instead of being the butt of any graduation party, “What are you going to do with a philosophy major? Become a barista at a Parisian cafe?” People genuinely express a desire to understand foundational principles in order to participate in the public conversation.

It would have been helpful through the years to have a little sidebar in that History of XVII Century Thought book or an Anthology of Literature from the Caribbean outlining a view of the philosophy of the day. Most centuries had predominant views on how to think and reason. If these would have been laid out alongside a history of events, I might have started getting the picture earlier that there was more to philosophy than tedious quibbling over definitions.

Owls

Owls make the most interesting sounds. Only a few call out anything close to the well-reported Hoo Hoo. If you are out for an evening walk and hear something you can’t identify it could very well be an owl. Some cheap, some warble, some chatter. Some sound like a chipmunk barking out, or a cat in a duel. Here’s a short video with the more common North American breeds.

This next video is more lengthy and contains breeding and migration patterns. Many of the breeds are international dwellers, their nesting areas spanning more than one continent.

File under ‘how to be a good listener.’

Yglesias Tip Toes across Platters

In the old days, or in the movies, the good and bad guys are contrasting characters in nefarious plots. Activists love the straightforward dichotomy of the winners and the losers as it facilitates their theory of choice. If you want to benefit the world, you’re with us; if you want to harm the world you’re with them. You are either on the inside or you are excludable. You are blessed or descending into the bowels of the earth.

In the most recent free newsletter from Slow and Boring, Let Joe Manchin have his pipeline, Matt Yglesias lays out economic arguments for allowing the completion of the Mountain Valley Pipeline despite the negative externalities it will generate. He tiptoes through a dizzying array of players and their platters, in the operating systems of cooperative endeavors. He concludes that there should be less focus on chum (I like that word) and more focus on the stuff that matters.

The stuff that matters appears to be the more socially favorable outcome once the pros and cons of the action are tallied up. Instead of hype, Matt wants an accounting.

Here are all the groups mentioned in roughly the order they appear: Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP), Biden Administration, West Virginia, Virginia, Joe Manchin, green activists, Senators, democrats, Keystone XL pipeline, left writers, center-left writers, Barack Obama, Labor Unions, Rail Lines, activist organizers, protestors, Putin, Russian Oil Producers, LNP gas export facilities, the United States

There are a bunch of ways to sort these players. Elementary school math with Venn diagrams comes to mind. All the oil producers which operate on a for-profit basis, MVP and Keystone XL, and LPN export facilities form a group. Then you have the political people who are meant to act on behalf of their constituents like the two Presidents, the Senators, and Joe Manchin in particular. Clearly, there is different weighting on the impact of these decisions based on who they represent. This brings us to the states themselves, specifically West Virginia, Virginia, and a bunch of unnamed states affected by Keystone. And there are the people who advertize for the various positions, the writers (both left and center-left), and protestors. I would put the activist organizers in the same bin as the labor unions because their function isn’t to care about the issue as much as to energize those who will resist. Putin and Russian oil producers are in a group to themselves as they are not nested in any way with the others.

It is impressive to touch on so many levels of tradeoffs and draw the reader to the intended conclusion: Joe Manchin’s pipeline project will cause less environmental harm than economic good. The social externalities are less than internalized social benefits.

Not everyone can successfully call out those who oversell the need– in this case for climate caution. It is something only someone of his stature could accomplish. Since there is no numerical system of coordination, supply is determined by trusting the voices of those close to the action to describe the need. Food shelf providers give feedback on the demand for food. School counselors give feedback on the need for social services. Hospitals give feedback on the number of uninsured patients.

I’m all for calling out the beefed-up hype and manufactured objections to socially valuable industry. Hold the Chum! And give Yglesias the proper accounting he demands!

A man behind a beast

Bangladeshi working with oxen

It might be easy for someone from the west to categorize the man in the photo. It might be easy to assume that, despite perhaps a potential for the intellectual heights of a professor, his opportunities in life are limited by his environment. But this view may lack clarity.

To feel sorry for a man in a photo based on presumptions of status and reach is more than likely an imprecise calculation. The man of letters may acknowledge the third world inhabitant has the capbilities of being his peer, yet considers his voice to have 20x’s the impact. But the numbers don’t support this.

The population density in Bangladesh is 1265 people per sq kilometer where as in the US it’s a meer 37. So say an influencer in the US thought they had the ear of 85,000 people. Since the population density in Dhaka is 23,234 per kilometer, the man in the photo would only need to circulate through 3.66 square kilometers to touch a similar audience. This is the spatial equivalent of a handful of city blocks.

In fact, if social capital is defined by the number of people in a network, than this man must be quite well off.

Furthermore, capable people who do the work of city councils or community organizing could very feasibly act in ways that impact and improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of their fellow city dwellers. A small elevation of sanitation standards would provide significant and immediate health impacts. Should the man in the photo have the capabilities, he most certainly could and does do work to ameliorate the circumstances of those in close proximity.

Perhaps the distance between the reality of his economic and social circumstances are more than geographic, it is hard for the westerner to see him in his proper function. But without this insight, it is erroneous to pronouce this man’s life-work a market failure.

What do workers want

There’s a worker shortage.

The city I live in is getting by with less than 50% of the seasonal staff they typically have for the summer months. Once the weather gets nice in Minnesota there are acres of parks to mow and canopies of oaks, elms, and maples to trim. On eighteen year old who applied said he would consider the job if he was given a city car to drive home in the evening.

But the most perplexing trend, for those of us of a certain age, is the no response option. Applicants set up times for interviews and simply don’t show. No call; no attempt to reschedule; no ‘I changed my mind.’ Perhaps for the seasonal part-time workers that is understandable (perhaps). But apparently no shows for interviews even happen for fulltime, full benefits jobs with a major suburban city.

Another manager in a different field said she had fourteen openings to fill so she scheduled an afternoon of interviews. Not one applicant showed. There she sat, spinning a pen between her fingers.

The ‘no communication’ modus operandi started about the same time texting became a popular means of conversing. It’s like a wave of people who might as well have yelled down the corridors of society “we don’t want to talk to you” changed how we make plans. Or like some grouchy teenager proclaiming indignantly, “We don’t want to have to listen to what you have to say.”

Texting is a great way of cutting the personal out of the conversation. No chit-chat. No opportunities to ask a few extra details. The fumbling around of thumbs on tiny screens makes for short replies. Plus you are not on the spot to get back to someone. You can control when and how you choose to respond as you can leverage the uncertainty of whether you’ve received the message.

As these folks age, maybe they’ll notice the benefits of being civil. Maybe they’ll consider the fluidity of the process of general customer service is beneficial to amicable relations. Maybe they’ll notice when you open a dialogue, you might actually learn something else that is useful.

The Scottish philosopher is a little harsh on landowners

The interest of the first of those three great orders (…the rent of land…), it appears from what has been just now said, is strictly and inseparably connected with the general interest of the society. Whatever either promotes or obstructs the one, necessarily promotes or obstructs the other. When the public deliberates concerning any regulation of commerce or police, the proprietors of land never can mislead it, with a view to promote the interest of their own particular order; at least, if they have any tolerable knowledge of that interest. They are, indeed, too often defective in this tolerable knowledge. They are the only one of the three orders whose revenue costs them neither labour nor care, but comes to them, as it were, of its own accord, and independent of any plan or project of their own. That indolence, which is the natural effect of the ease and security of their situation, renders them too often, not only ignorant, but incapable of that application of mind which is necessary in order to foresee and understand the consequences of any public regulation.

Wealth of Nations, Rent of Land : Conclusion, page 248

Unclear duties

Another type of duty shifting happens when regulations, or rules, are made official across a group. We all want to be able to go to the Minnesota State Fair and eat from as many of the food booths as our gastronomical ambitions allow. It would be unfortunate to find out after the fact that the mini donut vendor did not change out their frying oil promptly. Even the most non-regulatory types would agree that purchasing food without the risk of food poisoning is a good thing.

If food prep regulations were weighed out, it is clear that having the rules in place allows for more people to be freer to sample the Fresh French Fries and Sweet Martha’s Cookies and Turkey on a Stick. Having the rules in place gives people confidence in interacting not only with people they know personally, or they’ve heard of from friends, but with any food truck or pop-up vendor operating with a license. The rules push the duties of edible foods on the small vittles providers because this allows for greater freedom, not less, overall.

The Minnesota State Fair is the best in the Midwest.

This feature works really well when populations are nested one inside the other. Although there may be small differences between counties, the rules reflect what is expected at the state level. And it is fairly reliable to maintain the same consumer expectations as one crosses state lines as everyone is nested in a federal suite of rules. And although there is sometimes pushback, like when the health department wants to show up at a church basement waffle breakfast for their parishioners, the system, in general, reflects efficient coordination.

Who gets to assign the duties becomes a bit more opaque when bundles of economic activity operate separately from one another. For instance, do European consumers of garments manufactured in Bangladesh owe the workers an EU evaluation of their working conditions?

Within one’s own trading system one relies on the press and complainants to expose wrongful work practices. Then consumers can make choices with consideration of brand reputation. When markets operate at a distance, it is unclear which market has a duty to established norms.

Some people make the trip to the Twin Cities

Len Kiefer is the Deputy Chief Economist at Freddie Mac. He tweets out wonderful visuals.

The culture that is CDG

Charles de Gaulle is a busy airport. Sitting about sixteen miles to the northeast of Paris’ city center, it is a hub for Air France and inter-continental air travel.

In 2019, the airport handled 76,150,007 passengers and 498,175 aircraft movements,[4] thus making it the world’s ninth busiest airport and Europe’s second busiest airport (after Heathrow) in terms of passenger numbers. Charles de Gaulle is also the busiest airport within the European Union. In terms of cargo traffic, the airport is the eleventh busiest in the world and the busiest in Europe, handling 2,102,268 metric tonnes of cargo in 2019.[4] It is also the airport which is served by most number of airlines with more than 105 airlines operating to the airport.[5]

Wiki

Bozeman Montana also has an international airport- the busiest in the state. Avid skiers who call Big Sky their main mountain account for a portion of the 1.8 million passengers who passed through the boarding gates in 2021. At BZN it wouldn’t be uncommon for a perky flight attendant to look out into the line of passengers waiting to go through security and beckon passengers on a flight with an empending departure to cut the line. The other passengers wouldn’t say a word. It is perfectly acceptable to not let a fellow traveller miss their flight!

That’s not quite the way they roll at CDG. First off the lines are horrific. A snaking string of figures and baggage step through the cordoned passageways. An agitated passenger, boarding pass in hand, attempts plunging on ahead. They are concerned they will miss their flight! The attendants look away. They will only step in for the elderly or those with babes in arms.

Is OK to push ahead in CDG when polite line waiting is the only way to go in BZN? Can a person maintain their moral standing when various environments dictate different rules? Or do you just accept that sometime you’ll miss your flight?

Emma at the Guthrie

We have a beautiful theater building in Minneapolis. The Gutherie was relocated to its present spot on the Mississippi in 2006. ” The design is the work of Jean Nouvel, along with the Minneapolis architectural firm Architectural Alliance and is a 285,000-square-foot (26,500 m2) facility that houses three theaters: (1) the theater’s signature thrust stage, seating 1,100, (2) a 700-seat proscenium stage, and (3) a black-box studio with flexible seating. It also has a 178-foot cantilevered bridge (called the “Endless Bridge”) to the Mississippi which is open to visitors during normal building hours.” (Wiki)

My daughter and I went to see the world premiere of Kate Hamill’s production of Emma last night. As the title suggests, it is adapted from the book by Jane Austen. The playwright uses the 19th century novel as a backdrop to narrate a more up-to-date version of a woman’s place in the world. Instead of a screechy demand for greater recognition of the abilities of educated women, the lead actress puts forth the idea (several times) that perhaps all her education is going to waste when all she has to occupy her time is matchmaking. At the same time, there is support for wage-earning women as well as a place for a maternal figure.

Hamill appears to be a feminist in the most well-rounded sense of the word.

The production was performed on the Wurtele Thrust stage, which holds the largest audience and is still very intimate. This facilitates an occasional conversation between Emma and the audience. At one point she looks out into the red upholstered seats and challenges with a wagging finger that perhaps we had been holding out on her. It’s hard to say if Hamill was trying to suggest that we need input from those around us when it comes to affairs of the heart.

Throughout the performance, there are a series of dance sets to the likes of the Supremes, Lizzo, Stevie Wonder, and Boyz II Men. Often there is a second act at the back of the stage, like the supporting actors slow-mo dancing, which is hilarious. It’s all very energetic and uptempo which syncs well with Amelia Pedlow’s interpretation of Emma.

As promised, it is a screwball comedy. There are a few heavy phrases tucked in including multiple suggestions of privilege and the lack of women’s rights. They seemed stilted and not necessary, but perhaps to others in the audience, the words do not bear a loaded meaning. There was much laughter, a few outbursts of applause, and a partial standing ovation at the finale. We were happy to have gone.

Agitated buyers

Rising interest rates have put the brakes on the home buying market. Average listings are staying on the market for more than a day, and even the perfectly updated cream puffs are not commanding multiple offers which were so common since the summer of 2020. And it’s a good thing. The market is always moving which implies that either the buyers or sellers are favored. But long periods on one side of an unbalanced market is exhausting.

It was not uncommon for buyers to have submitted six or seven offers on homes before they secured a purchase. At each step, they learnt a little more about what is required of them to win the bid. Perhaps on the first house, they bumped up their offer price by a couple of thousands. As they relayed their experience to friends and co-workers they learnt that simply wasn’t enough of a bonus- one must bid more.

The next time around they found out that many people were offering non-refundable earnest money. In the event the transaction did not close, the earnest money would be automatically relinqueshed to the seller. Then some people forewent their inspection. This allowed the seller the peace of mind of knowing nothing more would be asked of them

Most purchases in the US are done without haggling. Price are offered through different vendors or shops and you have the option to pay or buy somewhere else. The process of bid and discovery, and bid again, and more information can agitate buyers to the point that they pull out of the market entirely.

Those are the folks we see come back in to buy now that the market has cooled. They no longer have to give it all away to be the winning bid. Paying a higher interest rate is a sacrifice, but they are getting something in return.

Rules, power and getting things done

Most people agree that some rules are necessary. People cannot coexist with a reliance on internal moral compasses and common sense. Conflict is bound to arise and rules shape how to proceed once this happens. Even in the case of simple standards, rules can facilitate living in close quarters. It may seem like trivial overreach to implement a maximum grass height. But in fact, it’s the benchmark that tells the neighbors when they can say enough! Hire someone to mow that hay field.

 

A certain number of ordinances enables standard responses, which ease the ability of society to get along. But as the rule setting continues, a weird thing happens. People who like power (and often who understand power) mandate regulations to feel powerful. They talk a good game about the issues at hand, but you’ll notice the conversation always revolves back to some coalition beating out another coalition. There’s an ever-present fascination with some sneaky move that one group played on another.

People who like power are needed on occasion. But often these people have left the issue and the objectives at hand. The resolution is just a bobble to fight for. They are not useful in the daily duties of getting the job done. And this appears to be taking a toll on the workforce.

The New York Times looked into Why City Workers in New York Are Quitting in Droves. Read it. It’s all about power plays. The jobs have not changed, nor the compensation, nor the fact that the private sector has always been more lucrative. So what’s left? The social position of jobs has diminished and it is no surprise that the “(R)esignations and retirements from the Police Department are the highest they have been in nearly two decades.”

Other jobs that have become undesirable are the enforcers of the rules. “A critical New York City inspection team, which responds to violations and complaints about lead paint, mold, heat and hot water, has been hampered by a severe staffing shortage, with 140 positions waiting to be filled.” Call it pandemic enforcement fatigue. There is no status in it anymore.

And as tired as everyone is with discharging mandates, workers want a little freedom too.

Many also cited Mayor Eric Adams’s campaign to compel city workers to return to the office full time, a stance that was reinforced in late May. “While hybrid schedules have become more common in the private sector, the mayor firmly believes that the city needs its workers to report to work every day in person,”

All I’m saying is that rule makers have fallen out of fashion, let’s hurry up and take advantage of the loss of status. Repeal the dumb rules and regulations. There are plenty out there.

Why aren’t people studying capacity?

The last two years have seen two events where the actions of citizens have drawn worldwide attention. At the end of May two years ago the killing of George Floyd ignited protests in Minneapolis which lasted for three days. Before the National Guard was engaged to end the violence, three miles of businesses were vandalized and burned, and spotty destruction occurred elsewhere in the metro area. Everyday people who typically abide by the rules were looting and pillaging while others stepped to the side, let it happen, and even cheered it on.

What led people to normalize violent behavior in a city which has enjoyed a low crime rate?

More recently the west has been energized by the Ukrainian people’s passionate self-defense in their David and Goliath story. When the Russian military advanced on their territory experts assumed the government would fold and the people submit to a new rule. Yet the heroism of the people continues still today as they have successfully stalled the super power from further territorial gains.

In both cases, the citizens were underestimated. In one scenario the norm to preserve order and support the enforcement of rules or laws was subverted. In the other, a people found reserves of courage, commitment, and where with all to engage in military operations. Despite worldwide attention, I have seen little analysis as to how the capacity to fail to act or to act was stockpiled.

More has been written about the history of the conflict in Ukraine. Since 2014 when Russia invaded and successfully secured Crimea, the Ukrainians have had eight years to regroup. But since none of the foreign policy experts expected the strength of their patriotism, there must have been more happening on the ground to store away a united ambition to fight.

Similarly, in the years leading up to a teenage girl filming the death of a man under the knee of a police officer, it’s hard not to wonder what dynamics were put into play to allow law-abiding people to support and empathize with the subsequent action of thugs burning and looting businesses. Although the aspirations couldn’t be more different between patriotic fighting and protestors gone wild, the lack of outward signs of the build-up of such reserves is similar.

So how is it done? It seems like important information to know.

Have you left the building?

Sometimes when one is trying to converse about very large questions, a response is given which makes one wonder how they could have so misunderstood your vantage point. It’s as if you’ve been charged with redecorating a vast estate and they are working in the upstairs sleeping chambers while you are down in the study. One has a view over the valley and afar, and the other looks out onto the garden. One is meant for peaceful rest and the other for industrious outcomes. Bickering ensues over all sorts of details. But you want to scream that despite different points of view and purposes the topic is still under the same roof.

Joyful Blooms

Perhaps, if you are not a gardener, it is hard to understand the level of satisfaction to be gained when your plants come into full bloom. But it is real. After the tulips and rhododendrons and lilacs steal the early show, there is a flurry of new activity come June.

The fushia peony and the yellow false indigo didn’t always stand shoulder to shoulder. A lot of work is done to get the right plant in the right spot- the degree of sunlight and water are the most significant determinants, but other factors influence the plants’ well-being as well.

And there are critters. They feel you have simply made their meals a little easier. My two tea roses went into their spot about fifteen years ago. For the first few summers, they barely grew making me look ridiculous for having allocated them so much space in my front border garden. Then early one morning I spotted the problem. The bunnies would nibble the fresh shoots down to the stems. Once the bushes are large they lose interest- perhaps because of the thorns.

There are old plants like the yellow iris which came from my grandmother’s garden in Iowa. And new experiments like the Sweet Kate Spiderwort which only shows its periwinkle blooms before noon. The purple balloon flower had to be moved from a shadier spot but is now quite happy in the full afternoon sun next to the catmint. And the Siberian iris blooms only last a short while but sure are elegant on their sharp slender stems.

There is a bit of work involved in maintaining a garden- but the blooms make it more than worth the effort.

Agnes Callard- Philosopher for the People

This University of Chicago philosophy professor takes her passion for philosophy to a greater stage. On Twitter today she created a helpful guide by simply asking a question:

Read the replies!

Now can she ask the question, “How to craft a fruitful question when managing an expansive topic”? Because, careful questioning leads to productive conversation.

Depp brings home a win against defamation

The court case between Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean) and his costar in The Rum Diaries, Amanda Heard, has been rolling out over all sorts of screens in the past six weeks. But in case you’ve missed it, here’s a quick summary:

The What’s Eating Gilbert Grape star later sued Amber in 2018 for $50 million in a defamation lawsuit after his ex-wife published an essay for the Washington Post, labeling herself as a “public figure representing domestic abuse.” She then countersued her ex-husband for $100 million. The article did not mention Johnny by name, but his lawyers argued that it aimed to depict him as an abuser and ruined his reputation in the film business. 

Today a jury found mostly in favor of Depp awarding him $15 million in damages. Heard received $2 million for her countersuit. Commentators presenting the news today pointed out that this result signifies a major pivot in what’s been a considerable bias in favor of women claiming sexual misconduct. In January of 2018, Al Franken, a well-liked senator from Minnesota, resigned when one woman in particular and then several others made claims of inappropriate conduct in his presence. There was no investigation or formal inquiry. He resigned due to pressure from his within his political party.

But I’m not interested in these details. I want to draw attention to how many un-paid hours went into this very public, and hence impactful, feedback loop. First, consider the hours contributed by the accused. He could have let it go and bet that in a few years (or less) no one would even remember Amanda Heard. A lot of people turn away from a fight because they realize their personal investment will be considerable. And after dedicating time, energy, and emotion to the cause, things may not go well.

The suit was initiated in 2018- so for the past four years, Johnny Depp has wrangled with lawyers, the media and his employers in support of his defense. He by far has the most unpaid work invested in changing the norm which has favored the female claimant.

The jury consisted of seven Virginians who showed up over the six weeks to perform their civic duty. Some may have been paid by their employers during this stint but undoubtedly some were not. Either way, it comes to a little better than eleven percent of the work year. As they decide the outcome, their unpaid contribution to a norm change is significant.

Some peripheral people also stepped up to make all this work. There are domestic chores that need to be done, and transportation issues to be worked out. Changes in a daily routine don’t just happen. It takes effort on someone’s behalf to supplement work when someone close to you is pulled off for other duties.

Fortunately, we live in a country that has enough surplus labor to oil the wheels that turn the justice system, one of our valued institutions. Some cases will absorb more hours than others. Norms change and morph as the result of work done by ordinary people.

In Memory

Memorial Day is a holiday for reflection. Officially it is a time when a nation recognizes the soldiers who died while fighting to preserve a country’s most pressing values: liberty, fraternity, and the pursuit of happiness. This isn’t just done in the nation’s capital but all over the 1.9 billion acres that constitute the continental United States. If anything, there is greater attention paid to the monuments placed in honor of fallen soldiers from small communities than in large metropolitan centers.

The process of remembering brings history to a family’s doorstep. People review why their uncle was drafted, and how the events unfolded. Perhaps the pain of the ultimate sacrifice still aches a bit. The recall of the story and the memory of the tradeoffs is a beneficial exercise. It is hard to see how things balance out if not told within the context of the moment.

Today, many people will feel an impulse to spend a few silent moments at their relative’s gravestones. After all, we are a product of what our grandmothers and grandfathers did with their lives, in both productive and unproductive terms. Our parents’ reaction to their upbringings in turn influences how in time and effort they contributed to our own. Some of this we may find lovely and some of this may be unpleasant. But there is no separating the unrolling of events.

To take a peaceful moment or an hour and reflect upon the circumstances of their situations, to give credit for their accomplishments within the constraints of their lives and be an impartial observer of all they had to work with is fruitful. At different stages of our own lives, we are perhaps even more appreciative of what was done or not done, and how it all played out. It’s difficult if not impossible to evaluate people’s choices as if in their shoes.

It’s more difficult to know where you are going if you don’t know where you came from.

Lawn games vs. the Government

It’s the Memorial Day long weekend here in the US, a time when people get together with family and friends to visit and recreate. French Park, a regional park on the north side of Medicine Lake was full of folks today. Most were gathered in clusters around a set of picnic tables, grills cooking, and people chatting. The beach had some activity, as did the volleyball pit. Forty years ago, you may have seen people throwing lawn darts- metal darts with a pointed tip and aerodynamic fins. But they’ve long been banned in the US (Still legal in Europe).

Bag toss is a very popular activity at picknicks in the lakes area.

In April 1987, seven-year-old Michelle Snow was killed by a lawn dart thrown by one of her brothers’ playmates in the backyard of their home in Riverside, California, when the dart penetrated her skull and caused massive brain trauma.[9] The darts had been purchased as part of a set of several different lawn games and were stored in the garage, never having been played before the incident occurred.[9] Snow’s father David began to advocate for a ban on lawn darts, claiming that there was no way to keep children from accessing lawn darts short of a full ban,[9][10] and, partly as a result of Snow’s lobbying, on December 19, 1988, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission introduced an outright ban on lawn darts in the U.S.[11] In the previous eight years, 6,100 Americans had visited hospital emergency rooms as the result of lawn-dart accidents. Of that total, 81% were 15 or younger, and half were 10 or younger. During the week when the commission voted to ban the product, an 11-year-old girl in Tennessee was hit by a lawn dart and fell into a coma.[9]

Wiki

Not to diminish the tragedy of a child’s death but forever labeling an artifact a weapon following one incidence of loss of life is surely government overreach. And then to add this numerical representation of 6100 hospital visits over 8 years without any reference points is so weak. According to the CDC, there were 130 million emergency room visits in 2018. So– 6100 divided by 8 taken as a fraction of 130,000,000— or basically an extremely trivial amount.

The lack of bracketing of relative impact on health and safety issues is mind-boggling. It takes one tragedy and a loud voice to create a law which forever bans an object. Meanwhile, knives kill people, hammers go bang upon the head, and if Hart to Hart is to be trusted as a reliable source, a marble paperweight or carved bookend can do just fine as well.

Sometimes it feels like people need answers- Why did the parents not give proper instruction to the children? How could the friends have been so careless? Why do innocent children sometimes die expectantly? People want to take action so as to make these questions go away. They demand something be done.

Common sense says that sometimes these are not questions for government and legislators. These are questions to be discuss within the religious community of your choice.

Dealing with power players

I wish there was a discipline that focused solely on power. Political science only covers one slice of the use of power. The mechanics of government and the people employed to push and pull all the levers are well covered in academia. I’d like people to cover the power plays at a more local level, how they hold people back from living their best lives, and what can be done about it.

Fathers and Sons. August Wilson wrote one of his recognized plays, Fences while living in St. Paul Minnesota in 1985. A pivotal action in the narrative occurs when the father interrupts his son’s chance at a football scholarship by pulling his son from the high school team. The elder claims he is protecting his son from the racism he endured. The son feels otherwise. No matter the motivation, a parent has the power to restrain their child’s success. In this story, the son finds opportunity in the armed forces and his ambitions are rewarded with a secure career.

Physical Leverage. A well-known form of intimidation via physical force resides in domestic relationships. There are already social service support systems in place to help women (in particular) escape from an abusive partner. Yet they don’t. Perhaps, if they had understood the power structure earlier, it would make a difference. Fear of physical abuse is also used by neighborhood bullies to deter being ratted out. From the outside the answer in both cases might seem clear: turn the bums in. Yet these power players are part of their families, their networks, their lives. The solution is to level the field through an understanding of how to neutralize their power.

Socialites. The term socialites may feel as dated as old lace, but there are people skilled at managing who gets invited (or not) to social events. Many valuable benefits evolved from connections made during social gatherings. Those who control who’s in, and who’s not, wield a particular type of power.

The machinations of elected officials have far less impact on people’s lives than those closely connected to them. By understanding power, and how it’s used, or abused, people could navigate that line of staying with their pack while living fuller lives.

Lack of logic- rent control edition

This thread is from a month ago or so, but the data is still valid. There has been a precipitous drop in new construction permits in St. Paul since last fall’s election put rent control in place.

This thoughtful article on rents in the Minneapolis and St. Paul area confirms that rents have only been easing up until 2020. The author believes rents have been on the decline since then.

The actual advertised median rents for one- and two-bedroom apartments are lower — in actual dollars — in 2022 than they were in late 2018. Three-bedroom rents went up 2 percent over the four years, while inflation went up 11 percent over the same time. These shifts started more than a year before the pandemic. “Post” pandemic increases look big due to the atypical and extremely low rents during summer 2020. But trends show that Minneapolis rents have simply returned to pre-pandemic levels. 

This data is in high contrast to the inflammatory, high-rent-evil-landlord hype that was circulating prior to the elections. And despite this lengthy and analytical exposition of a responsive system, there is a parroting of the party line:

We also need more tenant protections, like just-cause eviction and rent stabilization. We need to ensure that every person has the income to afford a home whether from increased wages, making housing subsidy an entitlement or social housing. Minneapolis minimum wage hasn’t yet reached $15 per hour, and $15 is a long way from the NLIHC-calculated $17.27 housing wage needed to afford just a studio apartment in the Twin Cities.

Unfortunately, there is an audience for such questionable logic.

Missing Narratives?

I’m not a fan of the abortion debate. It’s painful on many levels, from both sides. But I do wonder why there are so few (none that I know of) who have written a reflective narrative about their experience. People gush at length about so many personal and controversial experiences. Many revel in being at the center of such things. But on this issue it’s crickets.

The silence is telling.

Insights

When I was just joining the workforce, a reputable mentor leaned in and confided that people would really enjoy my insights. That has not been my experience. Not at all.

A couple facts of human nature must be acknowledged. First off, we don’t want to be shown up. For example, some observations of the workplace, even by a lowly employee, may lead one to conclude that the man in charge is dropping the ball. Hence the man in charge does not appreciate insights. A great way to slow down a career is thus by providing them. Lesson one in workplace politics- make others shine and hope they bring you with them.

Many humans are susceptible to jealousy problems. Being insightful and recognized as such, can arouse feelings of envy. This results in two outcomes. Peers downplay the value of the perspicacity. Secondly, the keen observer will be left out of the next social gathering for the arrogance of making others feel diminished. Outrage.

We all like to hide things from ourselves. We can’t help it. And the motivation behind being unsupportive of a stronger peer is one of those things. It’s not convenient for the ego. So that’s the quandary. How to hide talent until it finds its perfect support structure to flourish and become unstoppable.

How many triggers are in this post?

It won’t take much googling to find out about the recent dust-up around Ilhan Omar’s illusion of quasi-universal American racism against Muslims. Instead of being distracted by the inflammatory nature of the post and reposting by a competitor for her seat for office, think about the mechanism she is using and how, in the past, it worked to her advantage.

First, you’ll need to know a little background information about the place where she grew up. As MPR reports, “Minnesota is home to the nation’s largest Somali population, numbering 74,000 with 46,000, or about 62 percent, estimated to be born outside the country.” But it wasn’t always that way. Omar arrived with her family in the mid-’90s. By 1999 only 3% of the state’s population was of African American heritage and 8% of minority background. In the latest census, over 20 percent of Minnesotans are considered non-white.

The average Minneapolitan is politically blue- but many people have supported immigrants from the start. Church groups sponsored and supported families coming from Asia as well as Africa. But an increase in such a great number is bound to upset some taken-for-granted norms and expectations. The remedy for this is to advocate tolerance for that which you do not know. But how can you know what you do not know?

This is where the trick comes in. If you don’t know how people on an airplane will react to Muslims praying in an airplane, then you can be led to believe the worst in people by the expert local politician. Furthermore, a Minnesotan with little exposure to being abroad may feel obliged to go along with the outrage and turn on themselves (mysteriously the same people who nurtured the immigration process to start). This I’m-going-to-tell-you-how-horrible-you-are strategy has worked in a naive crowd who could in fact find a few horrible people to point to.

Things have changed. People are remembering that there are a lot of good people out there- in fact, most people are kind and decent. Ilhan seems to have lost her touch with reading the room. It will no longer be enough to be the beautiful rebel, sword in hand a la Jean d’Arc, on a quest against any evil human monster she chooses to pursue.

The money doesn’t make it to its destination

I doubt it is a surprise to anyone that Black Lives Matters cannot account for $60 million of the $90 million they received in donations following the death of George Floyd. A recent purchase of a 6500 square foot mansion with pool, studio and many other flashy features drew attention to the organization’s finances.

The report has further fueled questions about BLM’s finances barely a year after it released the first look into its finances. The foundation said it collected over $90 million in 2020 alone and committed $21.7 million in funding to various BLM chapters and grassroots organizations. With its operating budget set at $8.4 million, more than $60 million was unaccounted for.

Black Lives Matter purchases $6 million property with donation money

The group didn’t always attract large sums of money. It started as a hashtag #Blacklivesmatters in 2013. The call to arms took hold and grew into the rally call for protests following detrimental treatment of black Americans by the police and justice system. For many years the work involved organizing protests following the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner.

If the social product is to reset conduct toward a minority group in and around criminal activity, BLM is the marketing arm of the industry.

In 2020 social media drew world-wide attention when a teenage girl filmed the death of a black man while a police officer held a knee to his neck. The dramatic unfurling of anger, protests, outside influence, sabotage, precinct burning, national guard intervention were all branded by the Black Lives Matter hashtag. When people (consumers) wanted to respond to unfair treatment to fellow human being, as the natural human response leads them to do, they sent their resources to BLM. But this is the same as sending money to the advertisers who create TV ads (sorry I’m old!) instead of paying the company in question directly and receiving a good in return.

BLM is an activist organization, a group that wants to shed light on an issue. The $90 million went to the advertisers not to actors within the system which needs correcting. And since they are not in a position to really change anything within the police/justice schematic, the money is too easily grifted.

Spring will be blooming soon

Northern Lights Azaleas

It snowed here today. Which has me thinking all the harder about the early spring blooms which will be appearing shortly in my garden. I love them- all of them. The one featured above is a dwarf bush rising only about a foot from my landscape rock. But the blooms are so luminescent that the shimmer of the petals will catch your eye from below.

The age of infrastructure

Actor Will Smith got a little attention at the Oscars on Sunday. And I’m not talking about the negative attention, but rather the recognition for playing the part of father and coach to Venus and Serena Williams in the movie King Richard. It’s the inspirational story of parents who make things happen for their kids. But what does that entail exactly? The trade of all the family’s extra resources and time to the sole focus of advancing, in this case, the girls’ abilities to achieve greatness on the courts.

I like to think of this as the mom job, the I’m-there-just-in-time-for-whatever-it-is-you-need job. The support worker in a family makes sure everyone gets fed and to their doctor’s appointments. After the priorities of food and health, they follow up on extracurricular interests. And if time permits, they volunteer in those organizations which advance the family’s interests. While some people are making fun of home economics majors, Hollywood is rightly pointing out the power of the position.

Infrastructure jobs are turning out to be a powerful tool in fighting wars. No longer is the tough-guy action figure the primary hero in a foreign war narrative. Now the people greeting refugees at the train station, communicating the number of beds they have available on cardboards signs, are heroes. You can be recognized for giving shelter over the internet too, through a donation to Airbnb. Patrons are booking weeks that they do not intend to use, and the hosts are return notes of gratitude.

It seems that the secret is finally out. You don’t have to be the front man to be valuable. You can be a support worker in a family or in a community and be powerful. So instead of pursuing a politic of tearing down, let’s use social infrastructure to build up. And create some cool new stuff.

Power players are not just politicians

One afternoon, years ago, when I was going in to pick up my now college-bound daughter from daycare, the girls were seated at a dwarf-sized table. A leader in the group had already emerged sputtering out the rules to the game underway. I was fascinated that the quest for power showed up at such a young age.

But since then, I’ve noticed that as soon as a few folks cluster, a power player emerges from the shadows. Sometimes it is a most unlikely candidate. And it’s a good thing too as many of these jobs are not of the high-profile glamorous types.

When the PTA needs a notes taker-secretary for their meetings. The gala needs a group to go out and hit up the businesses for donations. The youth basketball association needs a tournament director. Lots of work, no pay. What you do get is to have the final say and a little bit of recognition for pulling it off.

Insecure power-seekers (PS) are not so nice. They are often self-appointed directors of social events who like to manipulate who can come and who gets left out. Often casual get-togethers serve the same function as rounds of golf for businessmen: it’s a time where some voice concerns or needs and others step in with solutions or resources.

Often PS’s are not the best at anything specific. They have instincts on how people congregate. They have skills in re-direction. The talented ones are really good at people. The untalented ones are annoying.

What I’m trying to get around to saying is that people who enjoy and work the power levers are at all levels of society. Any model built to represent the infrastructure of cooperative interactions must take this into account.

Maybe life hasn’t been that bad- Minnesota Housing Stats Edition

We’ve heard a lot about housing lately, in the press and from public policy types, but I’ve never thought the issue to be as dire as it is being portrayed. As a baseline, I thought it would be helpful to know just how many housing units are available for occupancy. The US census gives us this information.

Form the US Census Bureau

I was surprised to see how stable the state’s profile has been over the last decade. In percentage terms, there has been little movement between the categories. We are well above the national average on the owner-occupied unit at just under 72%.

The population count for the state was just reported at 5.7 million. With an average household size of 2.6, the state needs 5.7 divided by 2.6, or 2.19 million homes. These can be townhomes or single-family, rentals, or mobile homes. Fortunately, the census shows that the state has 2.458 million units or 268,000 more units than reported by the US census workers.

There are all sorts of reason why units maybe empty. There will always be vacancies caused by folks in transit between residents. Some of the properties are second homes. But even with a vacancy rate of 10%, that still leaves 22,000 properties up for grabs.

I only point this out to suggest that there is a bit of slack in the system. How to get these units in use and available will only alleviate some of the pressures on housing demand.

I think the numbers above also allude to this sector being pretty stable over the last decade. Stories of fractures and implosions may have been overblown.

Not so fast tech companies

Decades ago, when I was a manager in a corporate environment, I received some training which included an assessment. What I remember was the criticism. I scored poorly on not offering my employees a vision for their future.

I probably also retain the memory because, after a bit of reflection, I could still not put my finger on any examples of just that- verbalizing a future. But now more than ever I can see the importance of it.

Tech companies have swarmed over the real estate industry in the last dozen years. Two items seem to attract them. First the sheer dollar figure of the commissions paid to realtors. And second, the absolute certainty that realtors do not earn (or if you would rather, deserve) their fee. It doesn’t matter that the occupation of a Realtor has been in existence for over one hundred years. It doesn’t matter that the profession is one of the most monitored by commerce departments everywhere for price setting. People with advanced degrees claim collusion and cartels.

If you have been a part of the industry for the past thirty years you can vouch for the fact that every variation of for sale by owner to fee-based marketing to full commission brokerage has been tried. With the advantage of technology which unleashes exposures to all levels of buyers, you would think that the share of homes sold by owners would be up. In fact, the opposite is true.

According to the National Association of Realtors:

  • Only 7% of recent home sales were FSBO sales this year.
  • FSBOs typically sell for less than the selling price of other homes; FSBO homes sold at a median of $260,000 last year, significantly lower than the median of agent-assisted homes at $318,000.
  • The majority of FSBO sellers, 57%, knew the buyer of the home.

But still, tech companies persist in the narrative that the likes of Open Door, Exp, and Compass are the wave of the future for the industry. That what they do and how they do it is novel. They will be more efficient. One of their bragging points is the number of agents they are recruiting to their brokerages across the nation.

Mike Del Prete

From what I hear they are paying bonuses to those agents to make the switch. And with salespeople being opportunists, it is not surprising that some make the jump. But while I think these tech companies are simply going down the well-trodden road of the traditional agent broker relationship, I do give them credit for spinning a better tale of the future.

The Steve Jobe’s overtones run rampant.

If traditional brokerages with established reputations in their market want to retain agents, they will need to learn to communicate their vision of the future of the industry.

A real estate agent’s agency

In Minnesota real estate agents are required to give clients an Agency Disclosure at first substantive contact. The commerce department’s concern is that salespeople, being all friendly and personable, hide who they are really working for in the transaction. A buyer’s rep sitting in a Parade of Home’s model, for instance, is working for the builder. Their agency is to secure the best price and terms for the contractor. A buyer who walks through the door may think they are working for them.

It is important for consumers to know the structure of representation. But not only in a real estate transaction. People hide their representation all the time. Take the on-going Minneapolis teachers’ strike. The message pouring out through social media is that ‘it is for the kids.’ (Thirty thousand in total who have not been in school since last week.) Yet the head of the teacher’s union reveals her true agency is to fight the patriarchy and capitalism.

Her intentions are misrepresented. In fact, one relative calculus might show that her actions are at the expense of the kids.

She is not the only organizer whose primary sphere of action is at odds with the cause they claim to represent. John Steinbeck’s novel In Dubious Battle depicts the organizers of a strike for farm laborers as separate, even outsiders, those they claim to represent. The (communist) party members’ objective, or their agency, isn’t to the workers but to the destruction of the power players, the Fruit Growers Association.

It might seem like a fine distinction, but through their actions one can see that it is not. The organizers in Steinbeck’s novel have no compassion for laborer who get hurt, or whether, in the end, they will be better off. The leader of the strike does not care that the school children, many of whom were already behind in their learning, are once again out of school. Their only objective is to unseat the power structure.

Perhaps the commerce department should oblige these organizers to pass out agency disclosures. Because the cost of their action is costly to our communities.

Culture that is Minnesotan

The Andover Huskies pair off against the Moorhead Spuds. 

It’s high school hockey time in Minnesota. It’s a big deal. People take the whole week off work so they can attend the games which are played on the same ice which hosts the NHL teams. And just like for the pros, their stats are published in the Start Trib.

The arena is packed, and the sections are color coordinated with spirit wear. The announcers know the players and the players’ parents. They know the rivalries and the record holding winners.

But the most talked about hockey topic is Hockey Hair. See for yourself.

Did COVID kill the identity play?

For quite a few years now the vertically integrated messaging apparatus has cut off their political opponents by selecting an identity group to support (whether requested or not) and cancelling those who objected to their activism. The feminist claimed they spoke for all women and those who didn’t support their agenda were against female aspirations. End of story.

Some good things came of this. A few workplace creeps were set ablaze by societal spotlights and had to scuttle away like coach roaches looking for the shadows. But recently it’s been clear that the ploy is mainly used to acquire power and not solve for a balance of resources amongst causes in a fair society. Those who have learned to turn the levers of control enjoy it so much they’ve forgotten the end game.

But how is it that a few can engage an army of not particularly political types to align with the interest du jour? Enter the woke. If you want to maintain your membership in the fashionably intellectual (dare I say elite?), then your conversation, your nodding and humming all must follow the woke agenda. Any lack of compassion for the latest identity group, any attempt to point out degrees or harm or beneficence, any suggestion that the support of one group would imply a detraction from another, ejects you from the cozy cocktail party with a scarlet letter and a do-not-invite notation in a communal address book.

I’m hopeful COVID has changed all this. The latest banter on a Facebook group conversation certainly suggests as much. A school district had just announced that children would no longer be required to wear masks at school. Inevitably there is the lazy parent who posts something about poor communication from the school board– which warrants a response in all caps: IF YOU TOOK THE TIME TO READ THEIR COMMUNICATION YOU WOULD GET IT. Then the activist pipes up. She can’t possibly imagine how people expect her child with health issues to attend a school lacking the necessary protection.

This accusation of putting a child at any risk would have been woke enough to silence any crowd- pre COVID that is. Twenty-four months of isolation and alternative schooling methods has generated a list of other grievances which come along with mask wearing. The settling of resources can no longer be pulled to the most aggrieved. People are evaluating trade-offs on albeit serious issues of health and education.

People are thinking for themselves again. A potential health concern is no longer the trump card it once was. There is a spectrum of tradeoffs concerning health. Let’s hope that reality makes its way into our regulatory bureaucracies.

Say cheese- you are on camera

Thanks to tech everything is on camera these days. Police cameras pick up the granular details of a traffic stop. Ring doorbells identify car jackers. And Russian soldiers are captured stuck in an Ukranian elevator.

In the throes of a rally or a protest laced with property damage or a war, it’s sometimes hard to see who will be celebrated and who will be condemned. One thing is certain, the likelihood of being fingered has gone way up. Take this guy. He’s meme material.

History might not laugh along with the field officers who carried out orders to open fire on civilians evacuating on pre-determined routes. And should the final analysis not support your story, it will be more and more difficult to find safe haven in this world of facial recognition and mass media.

Sending Signals

I’d be curious to know which non-verbal cues are the most readily interpreted. Language seems like it would rank right up there near the top. An accent reveals someone’s location of origin. Although in the US a tinge or a twang, here or there, can cover a large geographic mass.

In Minnesota we have a number of cities with American Indian names like Edina, Wayzata and Mahtomedi. A stumble here puts the speaker clearly out of state. The use of soda or pop lets us know who is from Wisconsin or Illinois.

But what about other indicators, facial expressions for instance. There are those who greet people full on, eyes wide, and smile bright. There are those who look down and away and mumble. There are again others who stand upright, rigid and talk with the hushed MPR voice that they do so well on Saturday Night Live. Each of these descriptions may have led you to conjure up an image and start coloring in some thoughts around these characters.

Facial gestures can also steer conversation. A hard stare, a doubting wrinkle at the brow, a mocking curl of the lips, are all tools that one can use to impose status, perceived or real, over another. And this type of power, is oh so important in managing the conversation and the direction of the interaction.

Body language is on a continuum. You’ve got the leaners and the straighten uppers, the gesticulators and the laughers. But I’ve always been impressed with the brashness of those who will turn their shoulder (or full body) to create a block between a newcomer and a gathered group. I mean you might as well shout for all to hear: “I don’t want you here!”

People are so caught up in what is said. I find the silent part of language is far more sophisticated. This is where the demarcation of in-group and out-group are drawn. This is where it is quietly confirmed whether you’re in, or out.

Memories

My grandmother delighted in the woods. From a young age she led my brothers and I in through the underbrush, searching. Nature was a treasure chest waiting to be discovered and she was Indiana Jones leading the adventurers into the cavern full of gold.

These were not well-groomed urban parks with asphalt trails meandering through a grove of trees, edged by grass, keeping walkers out of the mud. She took us into a dense cropping of oaks and maples and elms. All of them shooting up wildly, looking for the light. Large trunks lay where they fell after a significant windstorm, embarrassed by their exposed roots toppled to one side. A thick cover of faded dull leaves lay thick across the forest floor.

I can still see her in her cotton white shirt embroidered at the neckline, mint green Bermuda shorts and practical tan shoes. She would reach down, gather us around, and gently push the undergrowth to the side. With the delicacy of a hand model, she would pull back the cover on an earthy Jack-in-the-Pulpit or an elegant Lady Slipper.

She delighted in her success at finding us these special flora amongst all the mundane. For the rest of the outing we’d hear on repeat, “Weren’t we so lucky to find the red trillium, weren’t we? ” White trillium carpets the woods in the early spring before the leaves emerge, but we found ourselves nodding in agreement at the fortitude at coming across the red variety. How could you not get caught up in her enthusiasm?

As we got older my brothers lost interest in her guided tours or took up spending hours on my grandfather’s aluminum fishing boat. But I continued to tag along. She’d hear from someone in town where blueberry bushes had been spotted in some wayside ditch on a remote up-north road. With couple of empty plastic ice cream buckets in the back of her red VW bug, off we’d go to find what the woods had to offer us.

“Look,” she would say. Look at the bloom, the owl, the stream, the berries, the poison Ivy! Look. If I have any skills in observing nature, it is thanks to my Oma.

Market Failure- Or tapping to a different tempo?

If you are too young to remember when Julia Roberts came into her own as an actress, rewatch Erin Brockovich. No one can flash a smile as well as Roberts. And the zesty character of an everyday single mom taking on corporate America in a David and Goliath story is a perfect match for Julia.

But this real-life tale is a redemption tale for markets. Wait- you don’t have to go googling the plot to confirm the intent of the story was to exemplify market failure of the classic kind. The firm (in this case the Pacific Gas & Electric Company- but there were many) in an effort to maximize profits, refused to look into claims of contaminants seeping into the neighboring soil and water. In order to keep track of things, let’s name the marketplace with the anchoring of the firm. Let’s call this traditional collection of goods, customers and firm, M1. PG&E is striving to provide goods and services to their consumers at the best prices. It’s a win for everyone in M1!

But not so fast. Erin Brockovich steps in as an activist and donates hundreds of hours of her (unpaid) labor to help determine that the residents near the plant are suffering from externalities of M1. This is where most people stop and claim that capitalism doesn’t work because M1 has not taken into consideration the surrounding community. Truth be told, they just haven’t finished watching the movie. Because it is soon readily apparent that M1 is contained in M2. And it is in M2 that Brockovich and her law firm and the community residents are going to form a common interest and push back on M1.

Here’s a good spot to encourage the reader to look back through the menu to categories explained at Home-Economic. The activity in a social sphere is governed by groups sharing a common interest, and the efforts or sacrifices they are willing to contribute towards that goal and the ongoing and updated norms which guide their behavior. The young paralegal revved up the M2 by going to the group (audience) and educating them to the claims at hand. This spurs on further efforts to make M2 more efficient by rectifying the public health concerns being externalized by M1.

As many law firms know, if claims of this nature are successfully demonstrated, the courts will order a balancing of accounts through a financial settlement. This not only pays those harmed for the externalities, it also makes it clear to other firms that being negligent will end badly. In this case it took $335 million in 2006 to bring M2 back into balance.

Note too that this process also occurs for positive externalities. For instance, a company produces widgets in M1 at a certain cost to consumers. Then there is a technology improvement in a broader market, call it M2. Once the firm has access to the public good of knowledge of a new process/technology, then product prices drop and consumers in M1 internalize the benefit through lower prices.

The question isn’t whether the market is failing. The question is what market are we in and where is the inefficiency.

Vigilance for identifying and cleaning up pollutants has a long history.

Look for the winners

I was at Wal-Mart a few weeks ago and kept passing the same shopper as we meandered through the aisles, her going in one direction and me in the other. She was on her cell and was talking loudly as people do. I only caught bits of conversation as I replenished my pasta supply or tried to remember which condiments were running low. She was relaying the equity situation in her house in a heady manner, the way people talk when there is money involved. She was going over it as if to sort it out herself, how the equity she had gained was something to work with, but then she would also be paying more on the next purchase. It was unchartered territory.

There is a tendency to talk about the real estate market as one great monolith of a thing which spans the entire US. Although it is true that you can look at aggregate numbers for the entire nation, doing so eliminates many insights. Proclamations about rising prices (or falling for that matter) is rather ho hum. Concluding that rising prices is bad as it prohibits or makes it more difficult for newcomers to enter the market is true but fails to acknowledge the winners in the market.

History is quickly forgotten, so I’ll dust off this chart to remind everyone of the homeownership rates for the last twenty years.

Loose credit pushed many buyers into homeownership from the early 2000’s until the crash started in 2007. The common refrain back then was if there was a pulse, there was financing. And the rise in homeownership rates climbed nicely by 5%. A lot of the mortgages were initiated at a below market rate which was fixed for seven years. Once the favorable payment expired many consumers went into default, and hence the steep decline in rates during the crash.

But some first-time buyers, who wouldn’t have qualified if the loose credit hadn’t been offered, did hang onto their properties. And now, twelve years later, they have a nice amount of equity. These are one of the groups of people policies should be focusing on today. Like the modest shopper in Wal-Mart, they have gained a nice equity position yet don’t quite know what to do with it.

Here’s another story of a first-time buyer who was able to use family connections to purchase a home off market. Her relative used their equity to move up, and she secured a lovely home. I find these stories much more interesting than, Stop! Prices are rising. The sky is falling!

Veblen, Context, and Claire

Context isn’t something you can see, which makes it hard to put a finger on. To add a layer of opacity, often people have reasons to hide their situations from some while signaling in full regalia to others. One of the first to pick up on the flare some wish to exhibit was Thorstein Veblen, a farmstock Norwegian, an affiliate of one of our finer Minnesota schools Carleton College. It’s not surprising that a-salt-of-the-earth type of guy would be at odds with (what he considered) the wasteful expenditures of the wealthy in The Theory of the Leisure Class. He’s probably best known for coining the phrase conspicuous consumption.

But the purchase of a $20K Rolex watch is as much a ticket to a click as a gang sign. The price tag is only a means of filtering out those of lower economic standing. Within the economic platter of folks who drive Maserati’s or buy jewels at Tiffany’s, the price settles in amongst other choices. Possession of such things delineates the group. Many people judge this, as did Veblen, in a disdainful manner. Though it isn’t all that different or more harmful than other social parameters, set and enforced by others.

Last fall there was fallout when the Art Institute of Chicago let all their docents- long time educated volunteers- go. The group of one hundred or so later-age privileged women were judged to be a closed access group. I have a feeling they weren’t selective. It’s more logical that this collection of unpaid workers with passion for artistic endeavors and creators, is thrilled to shed their knowledge on anyone who will listen. By dismissing these women, the museum lost more than the price of a Rolex, all for fear that their presence would be taken out of context.

There’s the context of expenditure, and the context of appearances and also the context of work. Consider, for example, the dog show folks. Amongst my acquaintances there is a couple who posts more photos about their show puppies than most do of their kids. They live for their dogs. We all had to chip in to buy the local K-9’s bullet proof vests. If you doubt the amount of (unpaid) time people will invest to be part of a superior level of dog obedience, check out the National Dog Show. In 2020 Claire, a Scottish Deerhound, brought home a blue ribbon.

The daily grind of Dinner

The early years of dinner-for-the-family is all about tricking and tom foolery. How to make the key foods, that you know the toddlers will lift off their plates and consume, into some new version of itself by adding a colorful stack of carrot sticks or a half circle of goldfish swimming the edges of the plate. Just keeping them astride their stool for a bit longer with a distraction of some sort might earn you an extra bite of their meal.

Shopping wasn’t too much of a burden as their pallets were limited. The work was definitely at the table and not so much behind the scenes. But that all changes once they meet their first vegetarian. The abrupt assault on the woes of meat products comes at you as fast as a horse running for the barn. Abruptly there is nothing in the pantry that will quench their appetite. A new menu and grocery list is required posthaste.

Fortunately, within a week, most middle schoolers cave to their stomachs rather than pursue the higher moral standing of a vegan diet. At least my meat lovers did (thank the lord). But little did I know, a new foe was about to sabotage my grocery, pantry, prep and serve routine. Ennui. Exactly. The “there’s nothing in this house to eeeaaattttttt.”

I’d patiently list off all that was in the ready: enchiladas, kung pao chicken, hamburgers, wild rice soup, pork chops and rice, and of course tacos or spaghetti, amongst other versions or pasta. No, no, no and no. Nothing was enough. The shelves were bare; their stomachs empty; isn’t there something I could do?

I learned by now from the moms at the baseball fields or basketball courts that they had thrown in the towel. Frozen pizza, Costco dinners, and take out were the options offered up in their households. And it’s not to say that we didn’t see of a few of those through our household at dinner time either. But more than the health aspect of prepped food is the economy that bugged me. Frozen Bertolli’s packaged chicken alfredo and penne costs three times what it would to make at home. And barely saves anytime as long as you have some grilled chicken in the freezer and all the other ingredients.

But that’s the key, isn’t it? Making dinner isn’t just the fifteen to twenty minutes of prep and another half hour to cook. One has to know the family’s interests, have the products on hand, be agile and knowledgeable enough to pull it all together. The work involved in feeding a family is by far the most time-consuming activity in homemaking and it is known to be a significant contributor to health and better living.

I teased them through their late high school years that they thought a multicultural chef lived in the fridge and would jump out like some Suess character to accommodate their every culinary demand. Fortunately, it just took a little separation from home, and half a school year eating food from a university cafeteria, to adjust their point of view. Now our dinner table is a destination for a nice meal and visit.

I don’t regret having put in that time instead of bailing on the whole thing. They will start out with more knowledge on how to run a kitchen then I did. And now my job is a cream puff.

Swerve

Louise Erdrich owns a bookstore in an old part of Minneapolis. It’s a brick one story store front next to a restaurant which serves patrons at tables on the sidewalk in nice weather. Inside it’s stuffy with books like an oversized wool sweater. There are armchairs between the bookshelves to sit on and browse the pages of potential purchases. Once I saw a late-middle-aged women in glasses, chomping on gum, as she speed-read a tome as if she were in a library.

I frequented the store through the anticipated demise of tangible print. There may have been as few as three independent bookstores in the Twin Cities around 2010-2012. Being a well-recognized author, Erdrich could keep one going on her own reputation (probably at great personal expense). Anyway, the support staff on site were subtly helpful, available with insights from behind the cash register perched on an over-sized oak display cabinet. This is how I came upon the book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt.

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (paperback edition: The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began[1]) is a book by Stephen Greenblatt and winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction and 2011 National Book Award for Nonfiction.[2][3]

Greenblatt tells the story of how Poggio Bracciolini, a 15th-century papal emissary and obsessive book hunter, saved the last copy of the Roman poet Lucretius‘s De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) from near-terminal neglect in a German monastery, thus reintroducing important ideas that sparked the modern age.[4][5][6]

Wiki

I had asked for a book that would offer up some history in an entertaining manner, and it provided that and more. As the story is told, one can see how a whole sets of ideas can be set off in the wrong direction. And at that time other thoughts are ignored and put to the side, only to be the subject of great discoveries at a later date.

It’s refreshing that the study of economics seems to be taking an assessment of its own history. During the cold war there was such a dichotomy between capitalism versus all the rest, that ideas were smothers if political implications found them unfriendly. And then there were greater hurdles around languages and translations. Maurice Allais for instance refused to have his works translated from French. He was recognized with the Nobel Prize in 1988 “for his pioneering contributions to the theory of markets and efficient utilization of resources.” Yet many other economists from the English-speaking world are given credit for observations which he (perhaps) got after first.

I would think the internet will make it easier for people in pursuit of similar interests to find each other going forward. In the meantime, never forget the past.

Assumptions and Assurances

Quite a few years ago when I was at the Carlson School getting an MBA at night, I recall a foreign student from Sierra Leon, or thereabouts, and I shaking our heads at the chatter of our fellow classmates. They were all off on a tangent on how easy this or that would be to accomplish. The foreign student and I were ticking off the number of implicit assumptions which held our fellow students’ ideas together.

The structures which support commerce in America are taken for granted by those who have experienced nothing less. We take it for granted that our money will at the bank, for instance. (Or even that the bank will open on time as I recall the Sierra Leonian noting) Most consumers not only anticipate the ability of financial institutions to keep our funds safe, but never bother to balance their accounts, as the bankers do all of that.

When I was a loan officer sitting behind an oversized wooden desk, my clients, from across the high gloss polish, would sign their mortage papers but never read them. They listened politely as I highlighted the terms and obligations for repayment, nodded, and then put pen to paper. In exchange for the blue ink on the promissory note which detailed possible foreclosure action for non-payment, they happily received a check. And so, it goes in America.

The fluidity in the marketplace and lack of concern with lengthy legal documents can be attributed to regular assurances people hear from all those around them. Their parents have bought a home, and it all went OK. Their friends used such and such mortgage broker and despite an inconvenience over some last-minute documentation, the rate and fees were as expected.

Of course, there are situations that lead the consumer dissatisfaction as well. A while back there was that interest free financing for six months at time of purchase of furniture or a large TV. But then the credit card didn’t send the statement with the balance in time, so the consumer was charged retroactively for 180 days of interest. More often than not these gotcha gimmicks get brought to the attention of the attorney general, and even though the duped don’t get repaid, future misleading advertising is curbed.

With the little bit of work and an audience for stories of assurances, the institutions which make for reliable financial services is maintained.

End of Year Greetings from MN

As the first full year of this site comes to a close, I am thankful for all visitors who have stopped by and taken a look around. The international reach of the audience has been heart-warming. Over fifty countries are represented in the views. The largest share originated from the US at 54%, India comes in second at 20% and then South Africa at 7%. Even my brief, childhood, home country of Ethiopia pulled in at 2%- Tenayistilign!

I really appreciate the visits and the likes!

I’ll close out the year showing you a little bit about what we do for fun here in the tundra.

Keep reading. Keeping walking. Peace, health and goodwill to you in the new year!

What Child is this- 1983 Edition

The St. Olaf Choir is a premier a cappella choir based in Northfield, Minnesota. Founded in 1912 by Norwegian immigrant F. Melius Christiansen, the choir has been influential to other church and college choirs for its performance of unaccompanied sacred music.[1] Conducted since 1990 by Anton Armstrong, there have been four conductors in the choir’s 109 year history.

Wiki

A tribute to the Mother Mary

I’ve been a fan of Walter Russell Mead’s writing since I came across his blog entries at the American Interest a bunch of years ago. In addition to his frequent entries about international affairs (he is now a columnist for the Wall Street Journal) I was captivated by his annual Yule Tide Blog. One entry in particular has stayed with me, one about the Mother Mary.

I hope it’s OK that I reproduce some of it here, as we approach Christmas. I had never read such a heartfelt celebration of a woman in a Christian context. Mead is the first to shine a bit of Jesus’s light back toward his mother.

Jesus is nothing if not paradoxical. On the one hand, Christians believe, he is the Second Person of the Trinity. But, say Christians, Jesus is also a human being. How does this work? Like the Trinity itself, the nature of the relationship between the divine and human in Christ is a complicated idea, and over the centuries has been described in very technical ways by theologians much better educated than me. With some notable exceptions, most Christians have held that Jesus has two natures combined in one person. He is fully divine, fully human—and still somehow just one person, one self. This idea was not formalized until the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, but the implications for Mary were already clear enough that twenty years earlier she was proclaimed Theotokos at the Council of Ephesus.

Theotokos can be translated into English several ways: the most common is “Mother of God” and a very large majority of Christians around the world considers Mary to be, literally, the Mother of God. Since Jesus’ two natures are combined in one person, she must be considered not only the mother of his “human side”; she is the mother of the whole person. God’s love knows no bounds; his decision to enter history was so unlimited, so unconditional, and so total that God became the son of a human woman.

The Mother of all Meaning

The whole thing is worth reading, but here is another segment.

I like to think that there is something more: from what the Bible tells us about Mary, we know that Jesus was the son of a strong and independent woman. Steeped in the ethical traditions of Judaism, she was passionate about justice and willing to stake everything on her sense of God’s call. She had a soft spot for social outcasts—after all she was once in the position of being an unmarried, pregnant woman in a censorious and traditional society. She was thoughtful and meditative, but capable of swift and decisive action when the time came.

She was unflinching and courageous. She followed God, not social convention. She was ready to be snickered at and pitied by the gossips of Nazareth and to risk her relationship with Joseph to respond to God’s call. She followed Jesus to the cross and watched her son die; her loving presence would have been one of the few comforts he had during that final ordeal.  She was ready to respond to the unexpected, to have her life wrenched out of a comfortable and traditional groove when God showed her that He had something else in mind.

Only someone raised by an equally compassionate and kind woman could have written such a beautiful tribute. It would be nice to thank him one day for putting pen to paper.

Our Lady of Lourdes

Women in Government, now and back then

Friday evening I went to a seminar entitled Women in Government hosted at the high school by two student groups. It was really well done! In addition to video presentations by Senator Tina Smith and Lieutenant Governor Flanagin, four accomplished women made up a panel on a stage edged by an American flag: a federal judge, a county prosecutor, a state senator and a media personality.

Turn the clock back to when I was just graduating from high school, or even into the first years of college, the only woman in US politics who stands out in my mind is Geraldine Ferraro. She was the US representative from New York and was Walter Mondale’s vice-presidential running mate in 1984. Highly visible, outwardly successful women were few and far between. And those who did venture onto the big stage were pestered and heckled mercilessly. Fortunately, there has been a steady infill of female politicians since that time.

First off what struck me about each of the professionals in the auditorium is how they talked freely about their children, and from the sounds of it each had more than one. They spoke with ease about family life. One expressed thankfulness for the balance and objectivity the birth of her children had given her. Another told how her professional life had intermingled with a stay-at-home mom life, a follow your husband abroad life, and then back to a professional life.

This is a significant change from when I was one of the girls in the audience. Family life was not talked about and diverting one’s ambitions to support a spouse would not have been admired. Back then the statistics bantered about were that women with graduate degrees were doomed to spinsterhood. It seems we’ve progressed past necessitating a choice between job or family, and past a jealousy of a partner’s career.

When asked to offer advice to their younger selves, here are a few of their responses:

  • Be open to people who are trying to help you.
  • Gossip is not about you, inevitably it’s about the one trying to spread it.
  • Relax and don’t stress about everything.
  • Be open to your path changing course, as it most probably will.

There were quite a few adults in the audience as well. And I think everyone took away something useful from the experience.

Tom Stoppard is so talented

His play Travesties is set in Zurich during the First World War. In this brief exchange, both the artist Tzara and the diplomat Carr talk sense and nonsense.

CARR: That sounds awfully clever. What does it mean? Not that it has to mean anything, of course.

TZARA: It means, my dear Henry, that the causes we know everything about depend on causes we know very little about, which depend on causes we know absolutely nothing about. And it is the duty of the artist to jeer and howl and belch at the delusion that infinite generations of real effects can be inferred from the gross expression of apparent cause.

CARR: It is the duty of the artist to beautify existence.

TZARA (articulately): Dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada.

CARR (slight pause): Oh, what nonsense you talk!

TZARA: It may be nonsense, but at least it's not clever nonsense. Cleverness has been exploded, along with so much else,by the war.

CARR: You forget that I was there, in the mud and blood of a foreign field, unmatched by anything in the whole history of human carnage. Ruined several pairs of trousers. Nobody who has not been in the trenches can have the faintest conception of the horror of it. I had hardly set foot in France before I sank in up to the knees in a pair of twill jodphurs with pigskin straps handstitched by Ramidge and Hawkes. And so it went on-the sixteen ounce serge, the heavy worsteds, the silk flannel mixture-until I was invalided out with a bullet through the calf of an irreplaceable lambswool dyed khaki in the yarn to my own specification. I tell you, there is nothing in Switzerland to compare with it.

Written in 1971, it premiered at the Aldwych Theatre in London in June of 1974. In addition to playing on the historical happenstance of three great figures living in Switzerland on the cusp of global conflict, Stoppard also mirrors aspects of one of his character’s works, The Importance of Being Earnest.

I can thank the Guthrie theater for introducing me to Stoppard. A friend was visiting town and wanted to go rush to see whatever was playing, which happened to be The Invention of Love. The crispness of his words arrested my attention and held on through the entire production.

Plays are sometimes hard to read. (I really struggled with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf.) But Stoppard’s writing is dense with innuendo and word play and format changes. It’s delightful!

The warmth of a fire

Since prehistoric man (and woman) sat around a fire, its flames provided warmth to those huddled around. Teepees made room for a central fire which drafted out through the culminating poles in the ceiling; medieval castles were fitted with mantels at eye level to accommodate large blazes beneath. The nostalgia of a crackling fire reaches back to those instances of communal comfort.

While the world is large and complicated some things will always fare better in collective use, while others will thrive under competitive forces.

The new era we’re entering is one which acknowledges and accounts for both circumstances and how they are blended. We are not returning to a lineage based power system, nor are we going to allow a meritocracy which blatantly ignores communal workers.

It’s time to allow for an accounting of both and an understanding of how they work in unison.

Rewriting the present in anticipation of the future

There’s been a lot of brouhaha in recent years about how history is told and what words may or may not be used. I was just listening to John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia (if you don’t know him look him up) on a Twitter Live interview expressing discontent with the transposition of an individual ‘being the victim’ of an event in lieu of ‘being a survivor’ of an event. The framing, he said, settles a lingering tragedy around a fellow.

In addition to voicing the negative rather than the positive, there have been demands to take the lives and accounts from many generations ago, and rework the fruits of their labor into a present-day-acceptable version. David Livingston was Scottish adventurer from the first half of the nineteenth century. He spent his life exploring Africa and reporting back on what he had found. He was awarded the gold medal from the Royal Geographical Society in London and kept an association with the group for the rest of his life.

On Twitter today (yes it was only 37 degrees here) I saw this post celebrating the rewording of Livingston’s work. It extinguishes any credit to a man who spent a life exploring, documenting and passing along details on a large swath of a continent.

In fact the Livingston accounts couldn’t have been written in any other way. There were no maps of the area in and around Lake Victoria, by British, Arab or African geographers. So it would have been odd to write an account in an off hand, I’m just a tourist seeing things that everyone else has seen, type of way.

How exactly are historic figures from our past supposed to have predicted the future dynamics of civilizations and write their work to the correctness demanded in generations to come? Or is it up to us to take their work in the context of their time?

Serving up platters of truth

In the first of a newly posted set of podcasts entitled Minds Almost Meeting, Agnes Callard and Robin Hanson tackle the two horned paradox of honesty. Agnes explains that the first horn is to “hold up your communication to the standard of it’s being honest, which is to say, being as truthful as you can.” They define honesty as a form of communication which seeks to work toward actions which results in good. And this is where life is complicated as being truthful can be at odds with an action outcome from such communication.

On the one hand we have a standard for what it is to be honest, and on the other we have the desired action of a good outcome through honest communication. The tension occurs when the words, phrases or inactions are not uniformly applied. Here’s an example. Say the mom of the ace pitcher on a Little League teams says, “We’ll be there” in response to the coach’s tally of who will be at a final playoff game. Earlier that same day the mom told her neighbor, “We’ll be there” when asked about the couples’ interest in a night of canasta.

The same words. The same intentions. But not the same level of commitment. Being a no show to the playoff game is completely different than missing an evening with neighbors over cards and a few beers.

Let me backtrack a minute, to be sure your thoughts have not settled into the neglected neighborhood life, to be sure we are still talking about economics and not social niceties. Youth sports is known to have several benefits. Kids who participate learn about teamwork, prioritize their time, do better (on average) in school and exercise regularly. The persistent advantages from youth sports surface in public health and well being. (There are costs, of course, to the infrastructure which supports these games– but that’s for another post.)

Even occasional gatherings of neighbors for beer and a barbeque or game of cards can generate economic benefits. People hear about jobs or set up connections to contractors or suggest areas in the community which are in need of support. The network marketing that transpires at social gatherings is of value. It is not resented in the way that cigar smoke filled rooms at men’s clubs were in days of yore. The neighborhood is not exclusive in that way. In fact it is a priority to make attendants feel welcome and comfortable.

And for that reason when a guest wears a colorful dress with animals print, she will more than likely receive a compliment. Since the priority in this platter of economic activity is create an ambiance which is fun and upbeat, to be sure that the people are happy to be present, and thus will do their best to get along, little lies are very permissible. It is not a deceit as it goes towards the action of the good of the group activity.

Whereas social niceties is not what is expected for the Little League playoff game. The commitment here is to the team and to winning the game. A no show by any family would be a considerable let down.

Lives are big and messy. We are involved in many activities that vary throughout our lives. The paradox of dishonesty as presented by Agnes Callard is minimized when you align the various economic platters with their expected norms. It’s much easier to accept that in social gathering there will be a lavishing of less than honest flattery.

I do to the Individual, or to the Union?

My daughter came home from high school the other day questioning the appropriateness of a teacher (a math teacher nonetheless) in some way incorporating ‘obey thy husband’ in a conversation with a female athlete. Daughter was sure this was out of line. But as in many cases, the story was missing context. The teacher had switched out his identity. He was on the field as the liaison for the high school’s chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Still, daughter was a little taken aback by the submissiveness language.

I shared my own story of how decades earlier, while still in the wedding season of life, I had sat up a little straighter in the pew when the bride utter the Missouri Synod version of the Lutheran marriage vows. ‘Obey my husband’ is still pegged in there between ‘honor him’ and ‘keep him in sickness and in health.’ For the most part the Lutherans church keeps in sync with current trends. Yet this blanket submission seemed as archaic as gilded lettering on a manuscript, then as it does now.

As the teacher was working outside of his day job, he was within his prerogative to reveal a small part of his belief system. My kids had experienced an elementary school era of celebrating every other religion by name, while deferring to their own as a holiday celebration. This has conditioned them to think something is amiss if anything Christian is actually voiced above a whisper. The act has become paramount to a missionary conversion of some sort.

But what bugs me more than propping Christianity in a dark corner, is this attention to minutia which distracts from form. The quick objection to a few words of a ceremony takes away from the conversation of what it means to marry. This drilling down of a few words under the assumption that they will fasten a female’s will to some objectional subjugation is a distraction from the more fruitful conversation of the nature of the binding of two individuals in marriage. What does it look like when offset within a community of mutual cooperation? What form do they become when unified before friends, family and God?

I think it would be helpful to view the new couple and ensuing family as a grouping, a new unit. And within that unit the work its members will get done will more likely be based on skill than specific assignment. But from the outside what that unit consumes or contributes is based on the collection of their activities. If they choose to present their views to the outside world by giving one partner the microphone, this would seem to benefit all of them.

No matter the form of a grouping–a couple, a minority, an association– there are frequently others, on the outside, trying to manipulate their public voice. Trigger topics are metered out to stop conversation about form, the basic building blocks of social arrangements. Those few short words, or few awful people, are set out to distract, so folks divert their time to manufactured issues. And in the confusion their voice is stolen.

In appreciation of HG Wells

I’m just now reading HG Wells. I wasn’t into science fiction as a child, so I never picked up The Time Machine when it was making the rounds amongst my brother’s middle school things. How fortunate to have left this work untouched, to be able to dabble in such writing today. Part of the appeal of novels like War of The Worlds was the terror of it. As captured in this passage where the British are fleeing from the invading Martians.

The legendary hosts of Gothe and Huns, the hugest armies Asia has ever seen, would have been but a drop in that current. And this was no disciplined march; it was a stampede — a stampede gigantic and terrible – without order and without a goal, six million people, unarmed and unprovisioned, driving headlong. It was the beginning of the rout of civilization, of the massacre of mankind.

But I particularly like the descriptions which conjure up amazing visuals, such as this one.

Directly below him the balloonist would have seen the network of streets far and wide, houses, churches, squares, crescents, gardens already derelict – spread out like a huge map, and in the southward blotted. Over Ealing, Richmond, Wimbledon, it would have seemed as if some monstrous pen had flung ink upon the chart. Steadily, incessantly, each black splash grew and spread, shooting out ramifications this way and that, now banking itself against rising ground, now pouring swiftly over a crest into a new-found valley, exactly as a gout of ink would spread itself upon blotting paper.

At the end of the nineteenth century, ballooning allowed everyday folks to reach upwards to the skies. Leading his audience up to the heights of the clouds, in order to show them what lay below, must have enthralled their imagination. And those of generations to come. Just how many cartoons of your youth stole this visual of thick black ink spilling over a hand written map on parchment paper? I can think of many.

Movies of the story have also been made and remade. In all there have been seven films depicting HG Wells’ War of the Worlds. The most recent feature, from 2005, was directed by Steven Spielberg, and stared Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning. I’ll have to get around to watching it!

To hire a Mayor

In about a week elections will be held here in the US. The presidential spot won’t be on a ballot for another three years, but there are still some important races in the works. Like the Mayor of Minneapolis.

With the largest commercial center in the state also home to many government service centers, public institutions like the University of Mn (home to 60,000 students) and sports and entertainment centers, it’s sometimes hard to get your head around the fact that only the residents of Minneapolis vote on core services like who is in charge of public safety. (The city proper has about 420K residents whereas the entire metropolitan area has a population of 3.65 million people.)

The city of Minneapolis has been engaged in a very vocal discussion around this issue and in the following video clip you can get a feel for how the political positions have shaken out. The incumbent mayor has risen in his position since the death of George Floyd had him numb and silent. He is more confident and more assured about the path ahead and his contribution to the journey.

There are three other candidates in the conversation. One represents the left/Marxist progressive angle, then there is a the center progressive/climate action candidate, and lastly a very articulate representative of the immigrant community. All in all the clip is worth watching as it pulls apart some common themes seen across the democratic party more generally.

Minneapolis also uses rank choice voting, and the moderator raises the question of whether collaborative efforts on the part of two of the candidates fulfills the intentions of this form of democratic determination.

Jump to minute 17 to get right to the debate section of the hour long public affairs show.

Dark Forces

Dictionary.com is my go to for spelling and definitions. I get their word of the day in my email box and amuse myself (as time permits) taking their quizzes. Today they had a click bait section on the different names for Satan.

Perhaps the most well-known name for the Devil is Satan. This name appears repeatedly in the Bible, such as in Luke 22:3 when the Devil is blamed for Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Jesus Christ: Then entered Satan into Judas surnamed Iscariot, being of the number of the twelve. 

The name Satan is recorded in English before the year 900. The English word comes through the Greek Satán from the Hebrew word śātān meaning “adversary.” Whatever name he goes by, the Devil is said to be the adversary of God: the Devil is out to destroy God’s work or to tempt humanity into turning away from God toward evil.

Many of the references come from the Christian tradition, but fear not. A similar nefarious force appears across cultures.

Of course, the Devil appears in Muslim scripture as well. Ash-Shaytān comes from the Arabic al-Shaytān and is etymologically connected to the English Satan. The “ash” or “al” indicates that one is talking about the Devil (with a capital D) as opposed to a devil or demon.

The name Ash-Shaytān has several different variants in Arabic, including ShaytanShaitan, and Sheitan.

https://www.dictionary.com/e/s/devil-names/#1

I bring this up only because when people write about failed institutions the fall guy or gal is always a leader of some sort. The blame is laid at the feet of some the top banker, bureaucrat, general or prominent figure. I can’t really see how institutions fail due to one individual, powerful or not. The implementation of services and work following the guidance of norms rests with all the hundreds of individuals who partake in the activity.

Institutions can fail because humans are subject to weaknesses. Whether it is a Jinn sitting on a shoulder, or a dark force rustling through the trees, the inclination for each and every person to be tempted into a corruption large or small is real. Do you know of a teacher who has marked down a grade because they found the student arrogant? Or a banker who omitted to waive some promotional fees because the customer had been a you-know-what?

These are small corruptions. But they are real. The great recession of 2008 was a pyramid of small to progressively large corruption at every level of the mortgage industry; from the loan processors all the way up to packaging of the investment portfolios. Sure everyone wants to go after the high buck Wall Street guys, but $40/yr title closers were prosecuted for fraud as well.

Maybe due to my Christian background it is easy for me to accept that temptations are present and real. That human weakness is part of the deal. But it seems like the way the story is often told is that the average person is neutral to good, and only those with a lot to gain or loose can be tempted. It is erroneous in the the same way that the gift of charity is only considered a plus on the spread sheet of social accounting.

Whatever framework is used for the mechanics of institutional production, it must allow for negative numbers. For as dictionary.com reminds us today, there are evil forces everpresent amongst us.

Miscarriage of History

A friend and I met for dinner recently. As we sat on the outdoor patio with a woven fence providing a nice block from the concrete urban surroundings, we caught up on family and old acquaintances. Once those topics had run their course, the conversation turned to current events in the city. It’s hard for even the ardent supporters of liberal progressivism not to observe the denouement of crime around them. As cycles go, the recent swing has whipped the curve right off the edges of the paper.

“Jxx’s mom once told me that the best of intentions in excess, often mutate into the worst of outcomes.” She said, a forkful of Tuna Poke Bowl suspended midway between her plate and mouth.

Not just intentions, I thought later as our dinner conversation replayed, but those rallied by excessive analysis of history, and primed like a bonfire on the Fourth of July with the venom of anger unaddressed. No wonder Lake Street had been set ablaze.

History is a recall of the past, as a reminder of both the good, the bad, the productive, the detrimental, and how all of it came to be. History is to learn from, to recognize and to account for. To use the cognitive qualities of our brains, (those useful tissues which separate us from other mammals) to grow into something more than we were before.

I question who it helps to replay the worst of things again and again. Gnashing through history seems counter productive, erodes confidence amongst those who need their confidence rebuilt. Taking a group’s worst of times and displaying it on a jumbotron for all to relive, is, maybe even hurtful. And the motivation for those who rally such action may be spurred on by some inner and other anger.

Anger can turn a story into a saga. It may soothe one but create a burden on another, one of a younger generation, one in the audience. History isn’t meant to assuage miscellaneous anger, sending out sideway messages. History isn’t meant to be a tool to those who only wish to transfer their personal suffering onto a greater audience for their own peace.

Full Disclosure

Wouldn’t it be cool if every time a public figure spoke, and metered out their opinion, a subtitle line was ticker-taping across the bottom of the screen disclosing which identity the person was prioritizing in the rhetoric? I was just on Twitter and a few local policy types were out denying a certain support of Blah Blah Blah. But are they making such pronouncements as a member of a political coalition? As a citizen of the municipality? As a member of a family?

Because it would be helpful to know if statements are motivated by power positions or sincere objective evaluation of the issue at hand.

Mostly it seems to be about power for the ones with the loudest voices. This is unfortunate for the advancement of the public conversation. The merits, drawbacks and possible outcomes of amendments are not discussed as much as who can do what for whom. I know, I know, that is the political game.

But doesn’t anyone care about the actual results?

I always tell my clients that the only ones who know the market are the parties in the mix, making the decisions around the exchange. In political policy making the recipients of the benefits are only superficially involved in the conversation. It is always assumed the receipt of anything will be beneficial and well received. I think we are shorting ourselves out of feedback.

Political actors seem to respond more to power than to economics outcome. Being able to distinguish between rhetoric for themselves versus their parties versus their constituents would undoubtedly enhance the system.

Understanding Cultural Codes- Football Edition

The Vikings beat the Seahawks yesterday 30-17. That may not sound like much if you don’t follow the Vikings, or the Seahawks. But it is a big deal. Russell Wilson has lead his Seattle football team right up to the threshold of the Super Bowl for the last three years running. Whereas the Vikings lost their previous game by going wide on an easy field goal in the last minutes of the game.

I was back in my twenties when I realized what it was to be a football fan, part of the football culture. I was working at a bank with a bunch of guys and the sports talk was nonstop. I couldn’t figure it out. It sounded as dull as the first line of this blog to anyone who doesn’t follow the Vikings or the Seahawks. What could be so dang exciting about the scores of athletic events that run on the TV throughout the weekend?

I started listening to their chatter a little closer. One day after work, we were headed over to the Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis (now long gone and replaced by the US Bank Stadium) as they had heard that Shaq O’Neil, a new rising basketball star, was in town and you could watch him practice. I was fascinated. They were so involved in the sport that they knew the youngest brightest player, and how to get a glimpse of him during a practice.

That was a watershed moment, when what it was to be part of the culture came into view. What was before me was multi-dimensional. It had history. It was not a bunch of scores and dates– even though that is the product which is most visible, most talked about. And there was the factor of time as well.

What gives sport fans emotion and compelling interest and utmost devotion to their teams is an understanding of what is being accomplished in the context of where the team has been. There’s the medical side of things with injuries and rehabilitations. There’s the training or education part of things with bringing along new recruits. There’s the stability part of things with the knowledge of the mature players. There’s the management side of things with coaches and agents. There’s economic side of things with trading and ginormous salaries. There’s a whole culture to football which is complex to follow.

That’s what makes it exciting. That’s what the fans are investing in their time and interest, supporting their favorites with viewing hours and ticket sales. They are the audience in the whole apparatus of football culture. And they love it!

The word Police

A self-appointed word-police-person is out scolding a gardener group member for implied Anti-Semitism. Wandering Jew is the common title for this attractive plant and used as such. What’s the mindset of someone who calls out a stranger in a very public way? See something, say something?

I wonder if that is how they live in their own household. Do they turn every infraction their child commits into a teaching moment? What a luxury to be able to draw-up the busy life of a household in motion to a full stop, in order to reprimand the word, comment, gesture, or eye movement!

Or what about an infraction out in public, at a store, or at a friend’s house? Ms Joyce might carry post it notes which say “dear, we don’t use that word now, we use this one.” And the child must bare it like a scarlet letter on their jersey. This might make for rocky friendships. The discomfort of watching the scolder put her discipling ahead of whatever activity is underway, an activity intended to be fun or enjoyable, could very well cause a dis-invite the next time around.

The fact is we are always letting things slide because life would be MISREABLE if all we did was scold our kids and spouses on all that we think they could do better. Maybe it is easier to call out total strangers for this reason– it can be done without shouldering any consequences.

Failure to act on easy words

There’s been tremendous conversation over the last year and a half about being more inclusive. The number of Director of Inclusion titles on LinkedIn recently provides testimony to the level of interest in this topic. Everyone from the PTA to private businesses profess the need to be more inclusive of others in our daily lives.

But many people seem to stumble in the implementation. Take a PTA greeting table at the kickoff of the school year parent event. There’s a group of volunteers standing behind a desk displaying pamphlets and clipboards for an email signup sheet. There’s chatter and interaction, but not with the parents streaming by, with each other as they catchup on family updates.

And it is not only that people don’t even try to make eye contact into a crowd and bring a newbie parent over to explain what the PTA does. The closed group body language promotes the idea that we are all friends, and you would be an outsider. Of course friends group together to do good work. But to not cover that up temporarily in order to welcome in newcomers is self-defeating.

Very few people (who have never been an outsider themselves, through travel for instance) can handle the social discomfort of standing by a relative stranger without congenial conversation. So as soon as a silence fills the void between them, the established one feels that pressure to move onto a more festive atmosphere. And often does exactly that.

Sometimes there is a deliberate effort to exclude people from the topic at hand. This time not because they are the minority (which fittingly makes them a valuable resources for some such chatter) but because they are lumped into a greater group of suburban people who are not suppose to voice an opinion of any matter Minneapolis.

The self conscious tension around urban political matters and the upcoming elections of all the City of Minneapolis’ city council members has brought down a sound barrier of complete disinterest in hearing from anyone beyond the city boundaries. At a time when bias and self deception is at an all time high, I speculate that leaning into interaction from those beyond your social boarders would be fruitful.

For all the talk of inclusion, the fencing off into action groups is at the route of anything systemic.

Negative numbers

Historically, efforts towards social amelioration fall into a category of charity or gift giving. It’s optional. It’s nice. Thus devoting time or resources to such things can only provide positive results.

So if your ambitions are to save a life, there is no possible negative outcome from your action. Whether your efforts are to curb climate change or to shelter the homeless or to raise funds for education, the number system only allows for a net positive social conclusion.

Living with the Corona virus has debunked such primitive thinking. The cautious trepidation at drug approval, intended to save lives, has most probably taken lives. The closing of schools intended to save lives, may have led to the rise in teens carjacking and in turn their tragic deaths when their joy ride collided with a street light.

Perhaps in the time before Covid it was more difficult to think abstractly about the positive as well as the negative outcomes. Perhaps it was too intangible to think that activism towards one cause, say gay rights, in fact squeezed out activism for addressing abuses in the criminal apprehension and persecution for petty drug crimes.

What the virus has done is lay bare at our feet the reality that it is not just in business matters that resources are limited, outcomes are interconnected, and well intended efforts can produce negative outcomes.

Negative numbers were not always accepted by mathematicians.

Thus, “modern” algebra is not so very modern, after all! To what extent is it abstract? Well, abstraction is all relative; one person’s abstraction is another person’s bread and butter. The abstract tendency in mathematics is a little like the situation of changing moral codes, or changing tastes in music: What shocks one generation becomes the norm in the next. This has been true throughout the history of mathematics.

For example, 1000 years ago negative numbers were considered to be an outrageous idea. After all, it was said, numbers are for counting: we may have one orange, or two oranges, or no oranges at all; but how can we have minus an orange? The logisticians, or professional calculators, of those days used negative numbers as an aid in their computations; they considered these numbers to be a useful fiction, for if you believe in them then every linear equation ax + b =0 has a solution (namely x = -b/a, provided a 0). Even the great Diophantus once described the solution of 4x + 6 = 2 as an absurd number. The idea of a system of numeration which included negative numbers was far too abstract for many of the learned heads of the tenth century!

A Book of Abstract Algebra, Charles C. Pinter

Although rationally it is accepted that there are tradeoffs in these choices between social interests, we don’t act like we know there are tradeoffs. We don’t do analysis like there are tradeoffs. We don’t approve funding like there are tradeoffs. There simply doesn’t appear to be an acceptance of the abstract concept that the allocations of time and resources function as an economy and not a charity.

To be angry at someone

Doesn’t it seem like people prefer to be angry at someone rather than at a situation? People want a person to blame not a set of unfortunate circumstances. There’s a need to create an visage to be on the receiving end of wrath.

Maybe it’s the awful boss instead of a mismatch of work tasks to worker. Maybe it’s the spouse who is irritating rather than an outside stress on a marriage. Maybe it’s the politician instead the vexing insatiability of social needs.

It must be more satisfying to the point the finger at a person, to shake one’s fist at them.

I suppose the desire to embody the frustration in a person, is that it makes for an easy solution. Separate from the person, and voila! the source of the rage is removed. Except it is not.

Placing the burden of anger at a person’s feet the easy. Understanding and seeking solutions to larger problems is complex and denies a quick solution.

Standardized Reporting

There’s an internal posting at our company for local non-profits who are looking for volunteers or resources. Here are the first several entries:

This is one way to get the word out, connecting suppliers with those in demand. I just realized where I can take some left over dog food that I’ve had in the house for a while.

But if I had my druthers, I think it would be useful to have a standardized non-profit snapshot. The information I would like to see as an investor would capture a quantification for the number of hours and dollars flowing through their system. Then it would be nice to see a rating for delivery effectiveness. Some sort of measure representing how much of the time and resources donated goes toward the services accomplished. Then there could also be a few other stats like size of paid workforce, total volunteer hours, length of time in business, service area.

A site connected to a data base with this type of information could be useful to donors and public funders alike.

Laughter

I think people would agree that humor is difficult to translate. If you find yourself outside your native tongue, there a chance that more than once you’ve looked blankly around a table of laughing smiles wondering what you missed. “Ah– you must understand the politics,” one French house mother told me as I looked to her for answers. Or at least you must understand the inside joke at hand.

At a basic level, comedy provokes a laugh even when the trip-and-fall is predictable, or the bonk on the head likely. But anything more sophisticated pulls the audience onto an inside turn on a speedway, straining the limit between jest and tastelessness. Comedy depends on a dupe. And this can only be alluded in order to preserve decorum.

That’s how inside jokes develop by profession. If you are a nurse anesthetist, for example, there are bound to be comical events to be shared amongst coworkers, without insensitivity intended. But when is the boundary crossed and who should have access to the ditties that are sung at the end of a tough day’s work?

I’ve always admired people with a good sense of humor. Ones who can tease out a good laugh from an audience without going too far. Maybe in part because humor is still a mystery to me. Maybe because a belly laugh does everyone a bit of good.

With political correctness taking so many topics off the table, laughter is being squelched into small, tight groups. Just when I think we all deserve a little time to be light-hearted.

The complexity of being affordable

Cracked crumbling asphalt is an unusual site in the more affluent suburbs of the Twin Cities. In fact the number of areas that would be considered distressed across the metro is pretty slim in relation to its size. So it’s a bit of a puzzle why the Four Seasons Mall in Plymouth, a relatively wealthy third tier suburb, has been left unused for the past twelve years.

First Wal-Mart purchased the site, but the neighbors said ‘no.’ It would draw too much traffic off the well traveled State Highway 169 which connects the Minnesota River Valley with the far northern points of the state, where the outfitter town of Ely serves as a portal to the boundary waters. That whole thing took a handful of years.

Then the city spent some time on getting a mixed use project approved on the sixteen acre site which included upwards of several hundred affordable units. Not bad for a fairly wealthy area of town. Here’s a news clip Plymouth Approves Four Seasons Mall Redevelopment – CCX Media explaining the project, and here is a commercial real estate synopsis on the site.

Just recently the whole project came apart because the tax credits were allocated to another project by the Fed’s scoring system. Two years after the community said ‘yes’ to welcoming a housing product that is often rebuked, a chart put together by bureaucrats says ‘no.’ Although I’ve been unable so far to find out where the subsidies were put to use, the feeling seems to be that the funding went to an area with greater need. Which I assume means an area with a higher density of people living in poverty.

Sure enough, according to a study on Low Income Housing Tax Credit, by the Urban Institute:

The program structure can promote the concentration of units in poorer places. Although the program only requires that 40 percent or more of the total units in the property be set aside as affordable, most properties are developed with affordability restrictions on all units to maximize the equity investment because only the affordable units qualify for tax credits. The allocation structure also provides an incentive to build in low-income communities designated as Qualified Census Tracts or Difficult Development Areas.

On the one hand political units like the Metropolitan Council maintain pressure on the greater metro to come up with their fair share of affordable housing unit, on the other hand the means of financing such rehabilitation and new construction can by politically allocated to neighborhoods already carrying more than their share of disadvantaged citizens.

If I were to house people who needed a little extra help in life, I would make the argument that it is sensible to do so in a community with a little extra time and expertise on their hands to help out. But I can’t choose where to house folks as I am not able to purchase tax credits along with friends and neighbors of similar minds.

The process simply isn’t that simple. Here’s a visual that is helpful.

Needless to say the multiple layers of bureaucracy add cost to the process.

LIHTC is an economically inefficient method for producing affordable rental housing. The process
of allocating and awarding tax credits is time consuming and complex. A study produced by the State of Washington found that it frequently takes twice as long to put together a LIHTC-financed project than one that is market rate, in turn contributing to higher legal and other transaction costs (Keightley 2017; Mitchell et al. 2009). Costs are also driven by the complexity of some LIHTC deals. A GAO (1997) study found that the process of syndication (pooling resources from multiple investors) can claim between 10 and 27 percent of project equity. LIHTC projects also have few incentives to keep costs low because reducing development costs would result in not using the full tax credit issued for the project (Mitchell et al. 2009).

From what I gather, low income tax credits are sold to any corporation who wants to invest in them. There is no mission, there is no sense of service. It is a pointy penciled transaction sketched out by a corporate CPA. Does it make more sense that a scoring system by the Federal government with a tongue twisting list of acronyms (CDBG,HOME,AMI, and 60% of this and 30% of that) be the mechanism for matching supply with demand rather than a neighborhood saying yes to affordable housing?

Honestly– the serpentine system seems to be more about keeping people out of the conversation than in it.

Avian Objections

“There’s Wilson’s warbler, and Swainson’s warbler, and Kirtland’s warbler,” lists Kenn Kaufman, author of several birding field guides.

“You’ve got Nuttall’s woodpecker, and Cassin’s vireo, Cassin’s auklet, and then there’s Botteri’s sparrow, and Bachman’s sparrow,” he says.

Monuments and Teams have changed names as America reckons with racism.

Of all the names listed above there is one which is objectional to inclusive activists. Can you pick it out? Can anyone pick it out, regardless of their background? You’ll have to read the article to find out which one symbolizes oppression. In my mind, if no one can select the offender, than no offense has been done.

This whole renaming thing comes across as people on a mission (not the right kind of mission) to create a story where they get to play the knight in shining armour. A search for misdeeds. Uncover and disclose them! Then become the agent who sets the whole thing straight.

Some may say, ‘What’s the harm in it?’ If changing names makes just one person more comfortable than it is a win. Yet, there are only so many hours to devote to things. NPR can only run so many stories. There are only so many resources available to rectifying a wrong. If you gear everyone up to work on the ones which produce little results, than disappointment is all that will follow.

And anger–eventually.

If activists engage people in work that makes no contribution to the mission, than aren’t they involved in some sort of taking? Those hours of work can only be spent once. You can change a bird’s name or perhaps they could be spent being a big brother-big sister, working a job fair, teaching English as a second language classes, finding someone a place to live. Changing the name of the Wilson Warbler to the little warbler with a cap wouldn’t be something I’d tweet about.

Sparks

A little over a year ago, around 8pm, a my phone dings as one of my tenants texts the photo in the lower right corner of the tweet below. In the twenty foot side yard a car had spun around and was pointing at her as she sat by her dinette window. As it turns out a couple of ne’er-do-wells had held up a CVS pharmacy a mile or two down the road and ended up in a high speed chase.

As the twosome sped north bound along a residential through road, they left the intersection one house prior to mine, hit a berm in the neighbor’s yard (which slowed them down a bit and changed their trajectory so they missed my building), flew through a hedge, slammed into a fifty foot pine which whirled them around to my tenant’s kitchen window view.

It was the talk of the neighborhood in these first weeks of Covid lockdown. I went to inspect the following morning and an assortment of neighbors strolled over to tell what they had heard and seen. The only evidence left for me to see were the black tire marks indicating the car’s departure from the city road, a large assortment of car parts and a whole bunch of broken branches from the hedge the car had taken out in its 180 degree spin.

The police had actually done a great job of getting most of the debris and large branches off the property. I just had one follow-up call for part of the traffic pole and a muffler or some odd car part. But the mess motivated me to tackle getting rid of the rest of the scraggly old hedge that had sat on the lot line all these years. Ignored. Overgrown.

Pretty soon I’m cleaning up the yard all along that side of the building, roots and all. Picking up more plastic car parts in the process. The neighbor starts to do the same. It’s contagious. One person makes it a bit nicer, the other tackles something else. Before you know it all the brush is gone, the ground regraded, new grass seed sprouting, a house painter is called, another tree comes down.

After fourteen months of hardship and struggle we are all at a stage of putting life back together. Now is the time to be on the alert for those who will motivate and be motivated by continued improvement. These situations can be leveraged. Let’s leave the great stagnation behind.

(Epilogue- I heard from the pine tree neighbor today that one of the rogues got 14 months. The other is still awaiting sentencing.)

Thoughts about voice

Voice is a necessary component of the societal feedback loop. But lately the dynamics across social medium has been to divide and isolate; keep groups of varying opinions at bay, isolate and maintain only the voices which resonate your cause. And the echo is deafening.

It feels like a hang over from the 70’s feminists who learned all too dearly the lessons of being shut out of the conversation. First, it’s hard to be heard when you’re not even in the room, nor on the playing field. The decision makers met at men’s clubs and in their notorious dark paneled boardrooms. Men played tennis, golf or shot a few hoops. Women were accused of various gender infractions if considered to be too sporty.

Second, there’s the awkward silence of being completely ignored after taking advantage of an opportune moment to get one’s opinion out in the public sphere. Even as recently as 2017 the minority leader of the MN House, Melissa Hortman, called out the gaggle of men who had decided a card game was a better use of their time than listening to a female legislators expound on a budget bill.

“I hate to break up the 100 percent white male card game in the retiring room but I think this is an important debate,” she said, referring to a private room off the House floor.

https://www.mprnews.org/story/2017/04/04/house-dfl-leader-hortman-slams-white-make-card-game

So is it really that surprising that the job of voice-protectorate immerged to avenge the thoughtless and disrespectful behavior of a certain generation? I’ve run into voice-protectorates. Their strategies are remarkably similar to the ones men were known to employ: exclude, ignore, shun and intimidate any supporters with group expulsion.

Fortunately (or maybe unfortunately) the protectorates inevitably leave the realm of honest discussion since being a protectorate has power appeal. (Life so easily turns into a Lord of The Rings saga). The prestige and fear a dedicated voice-protectorate can infuse is so alluring that it becomes their intoxicant. And hence their downfall.

Sure they hide out in a large group of similar voices. It might be hard to identify them at first. But so were the mob guys in the Italian communities of years ago. Then you realize they are not carrying through with the work of the mission at hand. They are more about drawing lines and including or excluding people. Then you know they are about the power and no longer about the mission.

What to do about them is the same as with any imposter. Expose if you can. Count on their obsession with control to show what they are all about. The group will catch on. Then, at least for a time, we can all be regular folk again hammering out the complex nature of life.

People who doubt markets

For as much as the US is associated with markets you would think that its citizens would have a pretty good feel for what they entail. But most Americans are removed from the mechanics of haggling in their daily lives as most of their consumer purchases are priced and on the shelves of the shops (virtual or in person) of their liking.

Americans actually don’t like to bargain that much. They simply don’t have that much experience. Even at markets that resemble the one pictured above, prices are honored. Every five years or so, in order to purchase a car, there maybe some uncomfortable bartering. Still many will doubt whether they got a good deal. And no one likes to feel they’ve been played the fool.

It’s a shame too, because it leaves a portion of the population disassociated from the moving impersonal parts of large groups of buyers and sellers weighing options and landing on agreeable arrangements. Traders know what it is. Auctioneers. But if anything a whole gaggle average people associate markets with the negative outcomes in some market transactions.

And since they dismiss markets as a mechanism, one that shuffles through a bunch of decisions made by their peers as they weigh options, they feel they best route is to pick arbitrary numbers and set floors. You can hear it in the rationalizing for rent control or minimum wage. We’ll fix the market!

They’re not fixing anything. They are interfering with a market. Which of course will resonate elsewhere in the system, resulting in the ever tiresome and now cliché– unintended consequence.

La Fontaine

There were a lot of things I liked about going to French schools as a youth, but one that stands out is the discipline of recitation. A student prepares a poem and delivers it in front of the class. You were graded on tone and inflection, on cadence and emphasis. The French take their language seriously, and you are to deliver the words just so.

Scratchy pencil markings on Le Rat de ville et le Rat des champs show where to slow down, where to come to a full stop. Scribbled in are indications of the rhythms. While holding the little book in front of my peers, I most likely kneaded my sweaty fingers into the cover as I plied back the binding. The activity may have alleviated some trepidations of being front of a crowd.

It is delightful to say the words just right, to have them tumble out and be heard amongst an audience. It is not the same as reading the text in one’s head, in the same way as reading a play falls short of a production. It’s really a shame that the US school system lacks this emphasis on performance and language. Completely contrary to saying there is only one way to get one’s tongue around the words, as perhaps the French do, it is about how words are articulated to add meaning. The delivery is a disclosure of more than the words themselves.

Fables, whether by Aesop or by La Fontaine or La Fontaine’s version of Aesop, are subtle in their meaning. Some might say Straussian. There are of course the sweet little creatures having adventures. The Tortoise and the Hair, or the Lion and the Mouse. Creatures not like each other interacting to tell us that outcomes are sometimes unexpected. That we should not presume to know everything.

La Fountaine along with his contemporary Moliere were well known for cloaking messages, designed to instruct without offense. Both were successful in their lifetime for although their subject matter thrived on human foibles, the ruse of concealment let each audience member interpret the piece as they desired.

Happy Birthday Minnesota

Minnesota became a state on May 11th, 1858, making today her 163rd birthday. Perhaps it is hard to believe, but the Scandinavian countries weren’t wealthy back then so a great many Swedes and Finns and Norwegians boarded boats in ports off their fjords and ventured to the land of ten thousand lakes which reminded them of their motherland. A bunch of Germans headed this way as well. And then there were the French Canadian trappers pulling furs out of the back country.

In more recent times the leading immigrant group harkened from the Horn of Africa, but now the top country of origin is Mexico. The state has received a nice cluster of Hmong, Indian and then in smaller numbers Chinese, Russian, and Liberian immigrants. The increasingly multicultural population matches up to the international reach of many Minnesota based companies. Best know abroad are probably 3M, Cargill, and General Mills, which are three of the 16 fortune 500 companies based here. Medtronic is a local creation, only moving its headquarters abroad recently for tax reasons.

Minnesota is a high tax state. A strong communitarian spirit emerged out of its agricultural origins and persists to various degrees throughout the population. The state offers generous social services, safety nets and (even prior to Obama Care) universal health coverage. The University of Minnesota is a leading research institution, founded in 1851. In addition to a network of branches, the U funds our nationally recognized arboretum (truly something to visit if you ever make it out this way).

It’s a popular place for small liberal arts colleges. Best known by east coasters is probably Carleton College, established in 1866 in the bucolic town of Northfield, about an hour south of the metro area. Its notable graduate, Thorstein Veblen, coined the phrase Conspicuous Consumption– so you see the realization that consumers pay extra for things like social status is not new around here.

We have had our share of super stars like Judy Garland, Prince and Bob Dylan, Vince Vaughn, Winona Rider and Jessica Lang, to name just a few. Life isn’t really that much different than portrayed in the film Fargo, written by Ethan Coen. The Coen brothers, as they are known, went through St. Louis Park schools around the same time as Senator Al Franken and writer/commentor Thomas Friedman. Can you imagine how they must have tormented their middle school teachers in the late ’60’s–yikes!

I could go on about how we elected a former All Star Wrestler for governor in order to tune out the same-old same-old banter from the established parties. I could try to explain Scandinavian humility which keeps brashness in check but morphs into passive aggressive behavior. I could warn you that you will be inundated with casseroles if you experience a family tragedy, and that no one will take the last piece of a cake at an office potluck.

But mostly, on this 163 anniversary of Minnesota, I wanted to share more about our state than the view of the Minnesota State Seal during the now infamous trial of a former police officer.

Feed the troops

Always keep healthy food around was a pact we made to ourselves when my college roommate and I talked into the night on our lofted mattresses. It keeps a family together. It’s simple and it works.

Mealtime is a cattle call when the troops show up because they are hungry. Yes the TV is on, and people are checking their phones. But does that matter as much as everyone coming together at a designated point in the day? –I say no.

Spending time in the kitchen caught a bad rap in the ’70’s. Lurking about the measuring cups, blenders and double ovens had a status problem, it appears. I find it to be a great place, a refuge. A creative place where every year you learn how to make something new, like potstickers. Or discover how to rework the leftover pork tenderloin into a sweet and sour soup.

Then there is baking. The smell of cinnamon seeping through the house, whether from oatmeal raisin cookies, pecan rolls, or apple pie, it incapsulates the feeling of home. Why producers of such aromas were scorned for being “barefoot in the kitchen” is a bit of a mystery.

Fortunately it’s a bit passé to taunt women who choose to feed people for being weak and pathetic. In fact, women of the kitchen have linked to millions through the window of the internet. This cooker proudly entitles her site with 1500 recipes, Barefoot in the Kitchen. Thanks to technology the homey profession commands a private income as well as a familial service.

Even abroad women know the power of culinary expertise. This sweets chef has over 1.4 million subscribers and the video for a fancy treat of fine bread dough wrapped decoratively around a nut stuffing, all soaked in syrup, has 3.3 mil views. It was posted a month ago.

It appears there are many paths which lead to power and wealth.

An instance vs a life-time

The world of Twitter and Instagram promotes the power of a snapshot. It’s a small-package delivered to pack a punch. Not only is it how a lot of information is disseminated to audiences in the millions (in small frame, limited view, no historical placement setting) but has also become the most popular vehicle of public debate, or hollering.

Recently there has been lot of admonishing of our north star state with data claiming Minnesota has the largest achievement gap between majority and minority populations. Let’s consider how this datagram could mean something good instead of assuming it means something bad.

If Minnesota abruptly welcomed a large group of immigrants with no English language skills to the state, the state would be celebrated as humanitarian and good. But of course, for a number of years (how many? ten? a generation?) Minnesota’s numbers for minority education performance would be affected, as not knowing a language is a serious impediment to learning. That makes Minnesota a bad place for minorities.

Minnesota also achieves very high performance amongst children with long time residency, which makes Minnesota is a good place to live. But of course this exacerbates the difference between scores with those who have come more recently, less well equipped, which once again makes Minnesota a bad place for disparities.

It is like the comic strip with an angel and devil on each shoulder whispering their arguments in each ear. Each little creature gesticulating wildly while the face between them looks comically confused.

Raj Chetty is an economist at Harvard who studies, among other things, equality of opportunity over time and place. After all, what we want is a culmination of activity to produce a result. One time snapshots capture a measure at a particular time. A piece of information. They are woefully barren of any wisdom.

His research shows that the Minneapolis area is in the lead among large cities in cultivating the greatest income growth for children of poor families, by age 26.

Brookings

The issue of time and setting must be made part of any half intelligent conversation about these issues. The public goods a city provide can’t possibly be evaluated in moment-in-time snapshots. And people who to try to navigate this path are more likely activists out to promote one point of view, not for a public benefit, but for their private initiatives.

Spring sports

It was a beautiful evening to enjoy this first game of spring sports over at the high school. I wasn’t raised in a sports family so for many years American’s obsession with football and baseball and basketball was a mystery to me, and even a little amusing.

As a young loan officer I worked mostly with men who each fancied their favorite sport. A very young Shaq O’Neil was scheduled to be at the Metrodome in the early ’90’s and the bunch of guys I worked with in downtown Minneapolis were excited to watch him practice. Their hearts’ pulsed visibly beneath their grey suit jackets.

Slowly I came to understand that many of them knew the histories of the final four teams; they knew statistics and coachs; they had a long term relationship with the sport. Watching the game is just one of many facets of being a sport’s fan.

In the spring, when the warmer temps are just barely taking the edge off still dormant ground, I can’t wait to climb up the metal bleachers to take in a game. It took a lot of youth sports to teach me the rules, and to understand the plays, but I have gradually grown into fan stature. Actually both my husband and I have.

Come to find out, sports are more fun to consume with someone else. When the Twins won the World Series in ’86 it was easy to jump on board as a fair weather fan and bask in the ticker tape parade through Minneapolis. But sitting on a couch comparing memories of past plays or relishing the last 90 minutes of a toe-to-toe basketball game, is also more enjoyable with a buddy.

A sport’s audience is bound in a communal relationship. People from all parts of a city can strike up a conversation with a simple, “How about them T-Wolves?” There aren’t many ways strangers can break through the social dampeners that keep people on their platter. Sports provides that venue.

From the Inferno

Our metropolitan area is being tested by dark forces. To have a senseless tragedy occur midway through the legal proceedings of former police officer Chauvin feels like the doings of evil seeping up from a subterranean inferno.

Events are unfolding differently from last May. The top political figures are out front and center. The mayor of Brooklyn Center, Mike Elliot, posted a video statement in the middle of the night and today held a press conference. (We didn’t see the Mayor of Minneapolis last year until five days after the event.) The Governor also has made public statements along with John Harrington Minnesota’s commissioner of public safety.

The looting started last night so there is a four county curfew tonight from 7pm until 6am. The top politician voiced stern rhetoric against violators of the curfew and stated in no uncertain terms that they would be arrested. The national guard has been activated. So much for woke empathy.

We all received several alerts, like amber alerts, on our phones to remind us to stay home. Since it is rainy and 40 degrees outside, this won’t be much of a sacrifice. The news did show clips of businesses back out putting plywood over their windows. Someone Twitter quipped, “where’s the closest Target?”

Throughout the day newspapers and citizen journalists were out capturing bits of information and promptly posting them to social media, but it feels different. Less surprised outrage when a journalist gets hit by a rubber bullet. More disbelief that a firearm could be confused with a taser. Maybe because the officer is female, the “militarization of the police” image doesn’t quite materialize.

Lastly, this incident is different because the victim’s mother and older brother are very much of Caucasian descent. And so far the brother has acted as the family spokesperson. Whereas the TV news has found young African American talent to be the lead reporters from the streets. It’s nice to see their fresh faces report on an important issue.

There are similarities too. Both men had cause to be apprehended. Both struggled or resisted arrest. Both ended up dead at the hands of our law enforcement officers.

Now how are we going to solve this problem?

Building a case

Watching a trial is interesting as you follow the threads left as the attorneys build their case. The witnesses are called to tell their part of the story to the jury, or contribute their expert opinion. Yet it is the attorney’s precision in introducing information to the jury that can be the difference between clarity and confusion.

Questioning the witnesses is a fine-tuned skill. There is timing and emphasis. A dance of words swirl around the courtroom, meant to land in the right order, with the right emotion. When the witness’ response chimes in agreement with the argument, the defense attorney looks down as if to review his notes. But he’s not. He’s waiting. Waiting for the sounds to resonate in the chambers a little bit longer. He wants the words to settle in each of the juror’s ears.

We all resist seeing, hearing, knowing things, especially when they tug our brains to venture down a yet unexplored path. “Stay on the rutted course” it directs us, “it’s easier, safer.”

The trial is a slow version of what happened. The process requires a review of what led up to the event. Persons from a sobbing passerby, to the off duty firefighter, to the boxer, tell what they saw, what they heard, what emotion was left on the pavement. The store clerk who called out the forged bill is shown at the curb holding his hands to his head

But just when the evidence seems irrefutable, that there is only one verdict to be had, the video footage from five other cameras is cut, reviewed, spliced into side-by-side viewings. The viral clip hides the activity behind the squad car. The body cams tell that story. The police officials discuss policy; the trainers discuss procedures; the famous pulmonologist discusses breathing.

There are diagrams, charts and examples. But caution! An exaggerated comparison might be rewarded by a nervous chuckle from the witness. The clearing of tension from the room might be appreciated, temporarily. On the redirect, facts may lay it out, hollow, a dud, a bridge too far. One point gained, two points lost, net score is negative one.

What the jurors are asked to judge is intangible. There was no decisive gun shot or stab wound through the heart. There were no marks or bruising from strangulation or force. A man’s heart and lungs stopped. An enlarged heart serviced by obstructed arteries, was supporting life to a body which had recently experienced Covid and was harboring a concealed tumor and some level of meth.

The jurors, who are thankfully out of the scrutiny of TV cameras, are responsible for the verdict. A tremendous responsibility! At least the members of the court are doing their utmost to present every possible angle of this case, thoroughly examined, through a variety of framings.

A rigged system?

I’m finding all sorts of little mindless projects to do so I can justify listening to the Chauvin trial. My latest is sorting miscellaneous hardware left over from blind installs or picture frame mountings. Yes–I have that work ethic problem where one still needs to keep busy doing something.

In some ways it feels like Minnesota is on trial. All we’ve heard about since May 25th is the ongoing degradation of our neighbors at the hands of systematic racism and white priveledge. This truly does not seem reflective of our state. And I think the trial is vindicating that notion, regardless of the jury’s decision regarding Mr. Chauvin.

The Star Tribune offers a comprehensive list of all the witnesses to date. It is far from a clubby group of white men who hang out at the firehouse slamming women and minorities. In fact the firefighter personnel involved in the incident were evenly divided by gender. We’ve also heard from both women and minorities at various levels of seniority within the Minneapolis Police Department.

Similarly, the Bureau of Apprehension and the crime scene workers are all non-white male. But maybe more importantly I can’t help but note how consistently well spoken, careful to respond and even mannered the witnesses have been. These Minnesotans are under the glare of worldwide scrutiny and they are showing themselves to be well spoken, conscientious workers.

It’s hard to build a case of systemic oppression, imposed by from above, by a mixed group of the oppressed.

Revolt?

It might be my imagination, but I sense a subsurface tension in the teaching community around the issue of the extended Covid school closings. It lurks like other things you can’t quite detect: a high pitched dog whistle or the floor beneath your feet right before a quake. Or even more material things like the moisture on your brow and that earthy smell in the hour or so before thundershowers roll in.

As long as the virus is still taking lives, the topic is off the table. But soon everyone will be vaccinated. Soon the teachers will be taking account of where exactly their students are at in the curriculum. Some who normally enjoy the challenge of working with the most in need, may find their charges have have slid in arrears, past due even for assignments pre-Covid.

Without the structure of school, without the routine, without the expectation of someone waiting for them, recognizing them, without the the fun as well as the drudgery of the school environment, they simply stopped paying any attention to their education.

As an outsider looking in, it seems the teacher’s union towed a tough line. The virus put teachers’ lives at risk. The end. Apparently their work is not essential to the functioning of society. Decades of negotiating wages and benefits right down to each and every minute of their instructional day has made it easy to disregard any intent of the job and only see their work from a pecuniary point of view.

How the teachers who carry an old school sense of service to the community feel about this very privatized manner of handling their chosen profession is yet to be seen. Unions deserve credit for elevating teachers’ wages, and after all, spirit or no spirit, one has to pay the bills. Still–in years gone by, teaching was more of an employment of the heart, it involved a sense of duty, and was regarded as such.

So this cocooning of teachers away from the public while grocery workers and nurses became celebrated frontline workers, this buffering of their duties to educate seven, eight and nine year olds through Zoom screens can’t possibly fulfill the desire to be in good standing within the community. Some might feel the dignity of their work has been stolen out from under them.

Maybe when they were young pups trying to figure out their career choices, they absorbed the fact that teaching would pay less than other professions in business or law, but as a counter balance, they valued the sense of contributing to a greater cause. Teachers are trusted. Teachers are a source of advice. Teachers have the ability to play the role of a connector. At least for now.

For every minute of labor, the union has monetized their job. Perhaps the process has squeezed out any compensatory allocation to good will, to the noble cause. The power of the union is to talk in one voice. Then there is little hope of those within, who oppose its direction, being heard in any way.

This is all speculation on my part, of course! Classes are resuming, and by next fall all the soldiers will be marching to the old familiar cadence. Everything will be chalked up to the unprecedented and unanticipeted year of the plague. No matter. A little inkling persists. If you strip all the community value out of a labor force who is inspired by it, has worked for it, defends it; if you monetize every last moment of their day, at some point workers will revolt.


Vintage Stonehenge and the passing of time

Stonehenge summer of 1976

In honor of the alignment of the rising sun on the spring solstice between the ancient stones of Stonehenge, here is picture from my visit in the mid 1970’s. I do remember the now UNESCO World Heritage site as being well attended. And from the lack of grass around the ancient stones, it seems that everyone was allowed full access to the area.

Presidential Addresses

I hadn’t given presidential addresses a lot of thought over the years. They provided so little new information over and above what was already known. I honestly didn’t appreciate being addressed by a leader until the last days of May 2020 when our city on fire.

The leaders of the largest city in this state and the state itself were eerily absent. As protestors burnt buildings and commandeered a police precinct, crickets. On Friday evening, the 4th night of the protests and the second attempt at an evening curfew there may have one tweet, something like, pleeeese stay home tonight for your own safety. So Minnesotan to be polite to folks hiding tinder in alleys to set structures ablaze.

Tonight when Joe Biden took to the TV I kept thinking–there it is. That’s how it’s done. It might be repeating old news. It might be reassuring old fears. But he’s there, concerned and unwavering, optimistic and speaking to the future. Leadership 101: don’t run and hide in times of crisis.

Suess Addendum

Whether intended or not, whether considered or not, the copyrights holders of Suess’ life work have realized a windfall. We can’t look into the hearts of men to know if they strategized for the money. Since Ted Geisel had no children of his own, we do know that these people are not his blood relatives.

I don’t think they expected the cash. They probably were horrified by the thought that they could be earning money off of anything of a systemic nature, and more than likely move in circles who feel the same way. Removing the books was a public service, a response, a tangible action.

Buyers thought otherwise. Some might say the buyers who pushed up the prices are part of ‘the problem.’ But I think most realize this is a group of people who feel this judgement-from-on-high of a beloved author is a miscarriage of cultural perspicacity. It follows a long list of similar actions that have yet to prove useful in tempering or solving this High-Stakes-Social-Issue (HSSI).

The fact remains that by withdrawing the product from the market, demand rose, and a pot of gold was found at the end of the rainbow. Indeed– signaling occurred. A signal to others who understand the social component of price and will now look for other opportunities to leverage and create their own pot of gold. It’s happened before. People were steered, profits were realized. Others found their nest egg fleeced.

Grappling with incentives

Many free market economists are criticized for placing excessive weight on incentives. A couple of examples come to mind. If an actor finds a wallet with $1000, do they keep the money or try to return the wallet? The utility maximizing objective suggests keeping the money. Perhaps true if the actor is an individual devoid of human contact. The keeping the money answer omits that the actor is part of a community, and has an interest in promoting and participating in a group which returns lost items. Some people would call this morality. I see it as practical. The group incentive encourages action which retains capital within the community in the form of future gestures of similar goodwill.

Another example given is the story of the drowning child. Saving the child would result in the loss of an expensive suit. Does utility maximization deter the actor from saving the child? The answer that the actor bypasses the impulse to save his suit, and saves the child in order to be a better, or noble, person is an individualistic way to look at it. But what about the practicality of being the one in the group who is available for a just-in-time activity, who sets a precedent for the next person to carry out similar duties when the need arises. An insurance towards future savings of life. This seems like a a reasonable justification for the behavior. One that is also in sync with responding to incentives, group incentives that is.

But where do we see the $1000 or the reimbursement for the expensive suit? Where do we see the money? Where do we see the returns for the work of stay at home moms or senior volunteers? Where are the lifetime earnings of (est) $1mil-$2mil that a family foregoes when one partner works in the community? Are they suckers? Is it just fairy dust? I think not. But it will take me a bit to prove it to you.

Post Covid, what will be different?

Working from home will be just one of the inevitable changes that springs from the pandemic lockdown of 2020. At home, there will be a better understanding of domestic life. The demands of combining to work for pay with work for children has put in contrast two different types of work. The new perspective should facilitate tackling busy family life. But how about some others? What else will change?

Family formation appears to be on the rise amongst Millennials. Pre-pandemic Pew reports that only three in ten lived with family (a spouse and children), lagging behind other generations. But the recent mortgage application rates indicate an uptick in this cohort financing new home purchases. An extended stay with mom and dad may have hit a limit during the lockdown.

While some households are combining, others are coming apart. The New York Times ran an article in January providing testimonial of such things as the official statistics for divorce rates from last year are still unavailable. Lawyers, counselors, social workers, private judges all report an increase in activity. Perhaps the bright spot here is that 90 percent of the cases settled though mediation as a court time, in times of covid, is in short supply.

While the pandemic may extinguished the last flicker of love light for some couples, I have to think that all age groups are reflecting on the disadvantages of living alone. In Minnesota just under 30% of households are single person occupancy. Perhaps the stoic pride of self-sufficiency will take a back seat to the flat out desire for companionship. Zoom can make connections but nothing replaces the warmth of the human touch.

Human interaction plays into mental health, but I think an overall awareness of self-health will hover in everyone’s consciousness. After experiencing so much loss of life, loss aggravated by health risk factors, it seems like people will place greater value on looking after themselves. The most basic means of achieving this end is through food and diet and exercise.

An abundant use of parks and trails has opened up this avenue to fitness on several fronts. Due to all the walkers out and about, people don’t feel odd to go for a walk. People have discovered all the great trails nearby. People meet up and chat with neighbors on a walk, sometimes even cluster in driveways for that Thank God it’s Friday happy hour. It’s becoming a routine, a part of your day, a way to socialize. As well as exercise and a clearing of one’s head.

I also predict that the authority of science will no longer be given cart blanche in regulatory discussions. Whereas a loss of life used to trump all conversations, policy decisions during covid have forced the issue that there are trade-offs. It is time to unhinge the bolt across the gate which kept regulators in control of the conversations about health and welfare outcomes based on science. Many voices, particularly those in the industry at hand, deserve equal time to make a case in order for the system work properly.

It’s hard to believe we are coming up on the one year anniversary of being secluded from social life. A year, three hundred and sixty-five days, and we’re not done yet.

A hike, a lake, a monastery.

A hike up to the crater lake at Mount Zuqualla is a day trip from Addis Ababa. The drive out of the capital city and off the Ethiopian high plateau, down through the valley to the base of the extinct volcano can be done in less than a couple of hours. It is a bit of a climb up to the lake, and the road is rough. The verdure is thick right after the rainy season, and yellow flowers, similar to our tickseed, bloom throughout the countryside. Silhouetted on the ridge of the hill are oversized eucalyptus trees. They grow everywhere in the highlands and their fragrance is unmistakable.

The crater lake is not much to look at but the views back over the valley are spectacular. A 14th century monastery is visible off to the west, but we did not venture in its direction. I came across this post on twitter telling the story about how it was settled.

Taken from the Asian African studies blog at the British Museum

The British Museum has an extensive collection of Ethiopian manuscripts which are beautifully inscribed and illustrated. If you ever hear people complain that Christian art does not depict the stories of the bible in their image, send them to this resource. Ethiopians trace their Christian heritage back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

Standards

I recently listened in on a presentation which was given by a respected academic to a political body. The topic is one that I know well and over decades have heard many arguments hugging all sides of the issue. I was dumbstruck by how fluidly the professor’s language navigated between academically supported information and his own opinions. Isn’t there a standard of disclosure for such things?

For instance, he would start with results from a study but then list projections which his team conjectured– as if lives could be lived twice and records kept accordingly. One politician asked specially about these projections, and there was an apology for the omission of the model, yet his dialogue kept flowing as if these figures were generated with the same standards as the peer reviewed papers.

For the average listener, including the folks who will make policy for tens of thousands of people, the distinction between actual data and estimates was muted if not eliminated. The professor’s tone, consistency, and manner of referring to the material did not distinguish between research and conjecture.

The inference of receiving information from an academic, particularly those who have cultivated a long CRV and a number of titles, is that they are communicating academically supported material. Anyone with limited knowledge of the topic will not be able to detect when the information is in fact a subjective opinion. Instead of aiding the pubic conversation around a topic professors become arms dealers for divisive public discourse.

Valentine, Will you be true?

Despite all the shortfalls in American culture in the 50’s, one grossly overlooked foundational strength was community support for marital bounds. Sure– a lot of the outrage in the 60’s stemmed from strength of the marriage contract. Women were disproportionately dependent on their partners, due to male control of traditional economics within the family structure and the workplace. Cross-gender issues were squelched and hidden, leading to psychological detriments.

But as is still true today, activists needed to inflate the issues in order to have them recognized, filling the 60’s 70’s and 80’s with fervor for the dissollution of marriage.

Marriage and divorce in the US: What do the numbers say? (sas.com)

It’s wonderful to see the rates inch down in more recent decades. But I think there is a lot more work to do. The celebration of Valentine’s Day is about new love. A celebration of anniversaries and dedication to sharing the stages of family life with one partner is not only romantic, but provides vision to navigate family life with all its stresses and demands. Here’s to the Valentiniversary!

Folks with false intentions

Ezra Klein: San Francisco is about 48 percent white, but that falls to 15 percent for children enrolled in its public schools. For all the city’s vaunted progressivism, it has some of the highest private school enrollment numbers in the country — and many of those private schools have remained open. It looks, finally, like a deal with the teachers’ union is near that could bring kids back to the classroom, contingent on coronavirus cases continuing to fall citywide, but much damage has been done. 

Eighty percent of my motivation to write commentary was due to folks like the ones described above. There was one in particular, who loved to call everyone a racist. But where did he send his kids to school?

So I guess I’m indebted to them.

Growing in place

I remember posting my first public comment. I was nervous. I must have read through it a dozen times, and felt so exposed once I pressed enter–no edit back then. The article, Met Council: More focus on growing in place, was an opinion piece by local journalist and urban design consultant Steve Berg, writing here in MinnPost

Ten years have gone by, but the gist of what I was saying remains the same. People trade with an understanding of both a collective benefit, as well as one of self interest. At least that it what I am here to convince you of.

I loved commenting on Steve Berg’s articles because there was so much substance to target. Things have changed a bit since then. He was a classic anti-car guy, which has been toned down since Elon Musk came along. And you don’t hear people harping on sprawl as you once did. Nor market failure for that matter.

Maybe people are listening.

Flyways in spring

It’s a frosty negative one degree Fahrenheit in the north country with a flag snapping wind. A lovely four mile walk from earlier this week, captured above, is a distant memory. It appears we’re in for a week or so of highs around zero.

There are people out walking still, mostly walking their dogs. A few are bundled from head to toe, buffering their skin from the bitter bite of the cold air. The Dutch have a word for it. Uitwaaien is the practice of jogging or walking into the wind, especially in the winter. It is invigorating, and I’m all for clearing one’s head. But if your eyelashes start to frost up into some avant-guard model look, it might be time to stay in doors.

Instead I let my thoughts flock to the bird migrations coming up next month in March. The Mississippi flyway brings a steady flow of avian creatures up from the Gulf of Mexico as they venture up to Canada and past the Hudson Bay. They seem to like our state with all our water features, including the headwaters of the famous flowing river.

Perhaps you think the whole binoculars and birdwatching thing is a little silly, but you are wrong. It’s delightful. While on a walk in the spring slush with tree branches bare of foliage, you learn the orange flash is an oriole, and a fleeting bright blue is usually a tanager. A brighter yellow-green with a bandits mask and pompous crest is a cedar waxwing, one of my favorites.

Perhaps you think that it would be frustrating to spot some small brown poof of feathers only to be bewildered in finding its identification. By the time you pulled out the green covered field guide from your back pocket, turned to the sparrow section, the details of what you saw become fuzzy. And you can’t choose from the oh so similar options.

Well there’s a new technology for that. It’s called Google Lens. Quickly capture a cell phone photo of the titmouse, chickadee or vireo, use the lens image at the base of the photo, and presto! The app identifies the bird and tells you all sorts of information about it.

Eventually you learn the difference from a yellow warbler and a goldfinch even if they both hop around in the grass looking for dinner. And you no longer confuse the black headed grosbeak with a robin as the beak (name implied) is thicker and its build a bit buffer. A swan and a Canadian goose are more than large waterfowl honking as they skim the lake’s surface.

But I digress. There’s a 20 below wind chill just outside my window, and the thought of a spring thaw luring wildlife back north is a pleasant distraction.

Peace

Years ago I called my stock broker all in a flutter as I had noticed one stock in my portfolio had taken a tumble. In a steady and calm voice he asked me to hold on, so he could bring up my account. Then he proceeded to run through the statistics which verified that, although the recent downturn in value was a setback, overall my purchase was fairing quite well.

The uniformity in his voice, one acquired from handling calls like mine a hundred of times before, undoubtedly contributed to bringing me around. But the numbers took a moment-in-time piece of information and stretched it over a larger framework. They provided some concrete reference points to mollify an emotional response.

A plunge in the value of an investment can raise one’s blood pressure, but does not compare in anyway to the response following the loss of a human life. Still– looking at loss of life as a statistic spread out over other scenarios and situations is a worthwhile endeavor when trying to subjectively evaluate a variety of circumstances.

The department of Labor and Statistics keeps track of how many workers suffer a loss of life while on the job.

Frobes: In 2018, 5,250 people sustained fatal injuries at work. To put that into perspective, an estimated 609,640 Americans died of cancer in 2018, 116 times as many as who died as a result of a workplace accident. Of those 5,250, 40% were killed as the result of a transportation accident, most of which involved roadway collisions. The second-largest category of fatal injury in 2018 was “Violence and other injuries by persons or animals” with 828 deaths, displacing 2017’s No. 2, “Fall, slip, trip.” The increase in workplace violence was driven by workplace suicides rising from 275 in 2017 to 304 in 2018. In 2011, there were 250 workplace suicides.

People also die when receiving services. The statistics for how many patients die while being treated by the medical profession are all over the place. A study by a John’s Hopkins’ team from 2016 claims the number is a quarter of a million a year, but other estimates put the number closer to ninety thousand. Given the cost and concern around malpractice insurance, the number of fatalities in the public health sector must be significant.

Now lets look at fatalities in the public safety sector. According to the Washington Post, 41 unarmed people died at the hands of the police in 2020. Not 250,000 in the care of physicians. Not 5,250 in work related accidents. 41. And let’s keep that in mind in the coming months when evaluating the service the police provide to our communities everyday.

The Iron Lady- movie review

I’ve been a big fan of Meryl Streep ever since Sophie’s Choice (1982), but for some reason hadn’t gotten around to watching her portrayal of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady (2012, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, a British film director and producer). It seemed like the perfect match-up for a Saturday night: the story of the first women to rise to the highest political office in the UK brought to life by a favorite actress.

Yet-I found this movie perplexing. The film opens with a batty old lady stumbling around a shop, buying a pint of milk. I could barely make out Meryl and was confused how this could be Thatcher, who putters anonymously along the streets of London. Getting wise to the technique of starting a story at the end of a life, and then filling in the important stuff in a retrospective, I sit back and wait.

And wait. Nearly half the film is about an elderly lady hallucinating about her kind and beloved husband. It’s a touching story, but not exactly what the most powerful woman of the western world in the twentieth century is known for. The message seemed to be that this woman had a supportive father as well as a devoted husband- lucky girl! That’s how she managed to enter the halls of power.

Even when the film gets around to her accomplishments, they leave out interesting details, like that she was a chemistry major. No information or encounters in her subsequent academic pursuits, or early years. We do discover her husband was a businessman and also a family man, but isn’t the story about her?

More often than not the portrayal of her career lands on the tragic- such as the scene where she is writing letters to the families of the servicemen who died in the Falklands War. No mention that the conflict was provoked by an Argentinian invasion on April 2nd, 1982, and was wrapped up with a decisive victory by June 17th. What does a girl have to do to get a little recognition?

An overt concentration on the loosing side of her political career continues through the whole film, from the riots following her proposal of a “community charge,” to the waning of political judgement after so many years in office, to the tears that spring to her eyes when she resigns. Yet the voice of her husband pipes in, “Chin up old girl.” There’s Denis with his unfaltering support.

This representation of Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher, the longest serving prime minister of her generation, blessed as a dementia patient so she doesn’t have to relive a faltering political career, is more than a little odd. Any female who started in a grocery store and rose to lead men, not listen to them, must have been– spellbinding.

It’s not even difficult to find her admirers. Check out the level of reverence in William F Buckley Jr’s voice as he introduces her in this clip from Firing Line. Meanwhile, she sits in her chair composed and alert, neither aloof nor nervous. Just present. This was 1977. Two years into being the leader of her party, and two years away from being elected to the top job.

It would have been far more interesting to tell the tale of how she discovered and cultivated her ability to captivate her male (and female) counterparts. Instead of showing how two men coach her into a new hair do and enhance her elocution skills (ho hum), how about the moments she went from awkward to confident, from nervous to calm, from hesitant to determined? How did she come to realize her je-ne-sais-quoi?

Meryl Streep took home the best actress Oscar for her performance. I just don’t think she was playing Maggie Thatcher.

The Art of Mianzi

Americans might benefit from a greater understanding of the Chinese custom of saving face, or Mianzi.

The Chinese concept of “face” (aka 面子 or miànzi) refers to a cultural understanding of respect, honor and social standing. Actions or words that are disrespectful may cause somebody to “lose face” while gifts, awards and other respect-giving actions may “give face”.

For good or for bad, Americans’ preoccupation with being right and transparency, seems to have folks battling-it-out on every single issue. Calling people out in public. Pursuing them until they are fired. Demanding video to confirm or deny what did, or did not, happen.

There is more at risk than your own embarrassment when you act to loose face, those near you are affected as well. So they act accordingly.

Raising your voice with someone in public is strictly frowned upon. Causing a scene makes bystanders lose face through embarrassment suffered on your behalf. They may actually scurry away from the scene to save face! Even if you win whatever argument, you’ll lose as a whole.

Don’t misunderstand my allegiance to the individualism and pursuit of the truth facilitated by our democratic system. It’s just with a public health crisis impacting our economic activity, I’m wondering if there is something to learn from those who start all solutions from the communal vantage point. If, by allowing some people, or groups of people, a little slack in making the wrong decisions, we will move more quickly to plan B, C or D? By letting people save face we skip that time delay of digging-in to hold onto poorly conceived territory.

I sure don’t grasp the fine tuned logistics of Manzi. But the Chinese have a whole social capital structure in Guanxi-based corporate social capital tied into their business dealings. There is an understanding and acceptance that social transactions are a component of economic outcomes.

Allowing people to be wrong at times without a public airing seems to be a way to keep the whole machine purring gently. Can’t we just let some arguments die without an investigation? After all that’s how we live our lives. You’ll strike out as a parent if you berate your kid when he’s up to bat, and your marriage will be stinkier than the garbage that your husband forgot to pull to the curb if you make a scene out in front of the neighbors. We evaluate which battles to fight all the time.

Maybe saving face has a place on this side of the Pacific.

Hospitality

I have been a fan of Walter Russell Mead’s Yule Tide Blog since back when he wrote at The American Interest (now the American Purpose). His annual recap of the Christmas Story has something to offer both steadfast Christians as well as those simply curious about the faith and what it entails. Today’s entry starts:

The Christmas story suggests that we can somehow try to be loyal members of our nations, our families, our tribes—and to reach out to the broader human community of which we are also a part.

Just because we all belong to groups, doesn’t preclude us from reaching out to others. In fact there is a desire to do so. Yet a tension arises.

It’s a puzzle. Human beings need roots in a particular culture and family, and those roots shape them; at the same time, human beings have values (like freedom and democracy) and ideas (like the Pythagorean theorem and the laws of thermodynamics) that demand to be recognized as universal. We seem perpetually torn between “cosmopolitan” and “local” values: universal ideas and the customs of the country.

Importantly, within the faith there an obligation to welcome and help strangers.

We think of the trade-off between local identities and universal values as a modern problem, but it is deeply rooted in human experience. In the ancient world, where tribal and family affiliations were very strong, many cultures shared a strong belief in the moral duty of hospitality to strangers, whatever their tribe. Day-to-day life revolved around your own group of close associates, but the duty of hospitality required a willingness to look beyond these limits to recognize the common humanity and worth of all people.

And this is hardly unique to Christianity. The tradition of hospitality runs throughout Islam. Read adventurer Dervla Murphy‘s account of her solo bicycle trip from Ireland to India in 1963, as detailed in Full Tilt.

Her dedication reads: “To the peoples of Afghanistan and Pakistan with gratitude for their hospitality for their principles and with affection for those who befriended me.”

You can be true to your tribe, true to your group within your group, and still reach outside that structure for all sorts of interactions. Not only can this be true, it is the best form of social commerce. And not everyone has to play. This show-stopper-outrage that has controlled our dialogue, the one that holds up the one offending example, sidesteps the reality that a few bad apples (racists, sexists or otherwise horrible people) don’t monopolize the ability for the rest of us to extend a hand where they won’t.

One doesn’t have to practice in a faith community to believe in the goodness of human nature.

Gifts and Gratitude

Credit due to an unknown source

There are a lot of exhausted moms out there on Christmas day. What accounts for the value they find in gift giving? To bring joy and a little material well being to your kids is within the realm of comprehension. But what about all those other gifts?

Business people see something in the cards with lots of scrolls that go out to clients, thanking them this time of year. Showing gratitude is over and above any monetary payment, even if there is a business angle to the effort to nurture their contacts.

Figuring out who makes the list is an accounting of sorts. Your very best customers may get a holiday wreath along with the message of good cheer. Teachers may receive gift cards to Caribou Coffee, whereas uncles and aunts step up to Pendleton socks and scented candles, but your secret santa pick warrants an outright custom purchase.

A gift is, by definition, something that is given with no expectation of return. Yet thankfulness is often a notion in the gift giving tradition. It’s a recognition that there is somebody out there thinking about you. Being thankful affords you a moment of recognition for all those loose and untimed interactions that structure a more pleasant life, including perhaps the $15-and-under gift put before you.

Instead of rolling your eyes when you pull back the tissue paper hiding the token of appreciation in the little gift bag, consider what type of gratitude is wrapped up in it. The gesture asks you to take the time to think and remember when that cousin picked you up after hours from the bars, or Aunt Bee was at home on that below zero day when you were locked out of your home, or how the mailman put your package in a shelter spot on the front porch.

Appreciation allows you to gauge different levels of merit. A fine tuning of need, something that seems to be sorely lacking in some of our large institutions. Gratitude is an important player in the ballgame of human interactions, right up there with empathy or greed. It is one to cultivate.

For Christians today is a day of thankfulness for the birth of Christ, the Savior. The lessons of gratitude and thankfulness are carried out through gift giving. All the others who are simply setting up a tree with presents all around are still listing out their sets of priorities. In this way they benefit from this lesson, believer or non-believer. That’s something to be thankful for.

To all of you–Merry Christmas and good night!

Book danger!

Some think Little House on the Prairie should be off school shelves. Yes, the toothy girl in braids bounding across the prairie and runny amuck with Nellie is surreptitiously misguiding your child’s thoughts about life in the Midwest 150 years go. Thoughts of self-reliance and hard work will only have a negative influence on your child. Although fiction, the books are used as education–and they are not accurate!!!

Seriously TPT?

The role of the audience

Covid has kept audiences at bay this year. There have been substitutes. The New York Mets had 5000 fan cutouts at their opening game just to the right of home plate. Talent shows are running laugh tracks that only kids who grew up in the 70’s can appreciate. Jumbotrons with a checkerboard of fans applauding just isn’t quite the same as the noise of human hands clapping.

Audiences have been taken for granted. They aren’t considered part of the game, a player in the production, but now that they’re tucked away at home, they are missed. Maybe there’s more to the group of folks that show up, past their ticket buying, and pretzel eating and merch consuming.

Zoom offers a setting for an audience versus an on-line gathering. Today I took a class via Zoom and all I was allowed to do was post in chat, raise a hand or ask a question. The moderator was a gatekeeper saying yay or nay to who got an open mike.

Agnes Callard is a philosopher at the University of Chicago and is on a mission to bring the public back into her field of study. She wants your attention, she wants your engagement, and she wants you to listen. In this recent article run in the NYT, she talks to you –the reader– directly. She challenges her audience not to pre-screen her, not be that moderator who keeps her mike muted when they don’t quite get her and what she is all about.

You are so busy trying to answer this question — trying to serve as judge in the pain/suffering/disadvantage Olympics — that you cannot hear anything I am trying to tell you. And that means I can’t talk to you. No one can sincerely assert words whose meaning she knows will be garbled by the lexicon of her interlocutor. I don’t want privacy, but you’ve forced it onto me.

She counts on you to be her interlocutor, to provide her with a venue to continue her discovery of the truth and the fulfilment of her life.

Isn’t that what the audience at a high school graduation is meant to do? While they listen to pomp and circumstance as the graduates make their way to the podium to receive their diplomas– isn’t the audience saying, “Hey, you did great! You made it this far, we’ll be there with you as you continue this journey.”? It seems like there used to be more of such events, more baptisms, confirmations, more 50th wedding anniversaries. More opportunities to stand behind a couple and as a community say we are behind you; we are here to remind you of the good times so you can endure the hard times; we are here to cook for you when you cannot do for yourself; we are here to be your neighbor.

The audience taking in the Thai boxers sometimes in the ’60’s knows what to do. They watch, they cheer, they make signs of encouragement or reproach towards the refs. You see, the audience is very much a player in all we do. They observe and filter in mitigating ways, they support or fail to show, they filter through all those social cues so we can gradually moderate our behavior. So we can continue to process where and how to spend our time without everything escalating into a protest.

Audiences need a refresher course on how to do their job, and Zoom doesn’t offer it.