GELFAND’S WORLD--It's easy to find comments by the dozens about who is leading in the polls or nitpicks by the hundreds about small differences among health care proposals.
But what's missing is any deep thinking on the part of the press as to what our unquestioned assumptions are. What aren't we talking about -- that we should be? This is an amusing issue to take up, because recognition that an assumption exists renders it no longer unrecognized. Still, it's a useful exercise to try and figure out what assumptions we make that might be questionable. Let's begin the exercise with a couple of brief attempts.
What will the world do about job losses due to automation? The underlying question is this: Why should a productive society insist on people earning a living if a few highly productive industries produce enough for everyone and don't require many employees? In a redistributionist economy, people could work a lot less, or not at all. In other words, is the work ethic all it's cracked up to be? Should we be developing a play ethic instead? One Democratic presidential candidate has proposed a monthly stipend to go to all Americans. Kevin Drum has been warning about the coming automation crisis (he writes a lot about long distance trucking as one example) but the rest of us ought to be contributing by thinking about solutions.
This topic was considered by an older generation of science fiction writers, but where is the serious debate right now? The topic came up, but in inverted form, just a few weeks ago when the longshore union fought a move by one shipper to begin automating its terminal. The murky compromise that was reached will protect a few high paying jobs for a short period of time, but what will happen to the workers and their local community if and when there are no jobs to be had?
The creation of a reform party out of what we already have
Why aren't Democratic Party representatives pledging en masse to refuse contributions from the pharmaceutical industry? The idea, when framed in this way, seems painfully obvious. The presidential candidates are certainly being holier than thou where it comes to prices for prescription medicines. And we shall obviously hear lots more from our local candidates as the November 2010 election approaches. What then is the record? Here it is. Quoting from Kaiser Health News, this Daily Beast article from last year reveals, "the three-person House Democratic leadership team has collected more than $2.3 million total in campaign contributions from drugmakers since the 2007-08 election cycle, according to KHN’s database."
Yep, that's the top three Democrats who are now in control over the House of Representatives.
So, here is a useful question about a largely unquestioned assumption: Why can't the Democratic Party become the party that refuses to be bought by special interest cash?
Isn't that what most voters want? I don't think it's quite so silly a question as it might seem. We've had several generations of political candidates yelling about special interests and about taking power back from the D.C. insiders. Why not figure out how to be that candidate and be that party? The reform party, should the Dems decide to be it, also needs to explain to likely voters how to distinguish between the bought candidates and the honest candidates. I didn't say it would be easy, but it would be the political revolution that Bernie Sanders has been talking about. In an era of online solicitations for campaign donations (see DailyKos, for example), it is becoming a real possibility.
Aside: Bernie is always talking about the need for a political revolution, but he doesn't sell the how part very well. If he just said, "I won't be bought," and invited his fellow candidates and all congressional candidates to say the same words, that would be the revolution. We'll know whether the political revolution failed if insulin prices are still rising in the year 2021,
Another unquestioned assumption
OK, so this one isn't so much unquestioned as forgotten. The world's human population continues to grow. It's not surprising that the increasing population has generated increasing level of greenhouse gases. We seem to have reached the tipping point for global warming, and it's a lot sooner than we might have hoped.
Wise leaders around the world are calling for a decrease in our greenhouse gas emissions. They are, of course, absolutely correct. Maybe we can move in that direction through a huge increase in our technological abilities to harvest and store energy from sunshine. But we don't hear a lot about another correlated remedy, which would be a radical decrease in the growth of the human population. To do so would seem to require rethinking by a lot of religious leaders about what they teach.
Interestingly, some countries seem to be moving in the right direction without any religious or anti-religious revolutions. It seems to come from educating (and therefore empowering) young women. Spacing out -- and therefore limiting -- the birth of children has led to a dramatic drop in population growth in western Europe. The same seems to be what's going on in parts of Asia.
But what's missing is a worldwide understanding that an unchecked growth in the human population attached to increasing standards of living has a demonstrated negative effect on the biosphere. Paul Ehrlich was correct back in 1968 when he published The Population Bomb. Conservatives nitpicked him on predictions about commodity prices (he got that part wrong) but the overall message was on target.
Our friends in the sustainability movement should take note of this argument.
The weekend's losses to the entertainment industry
The mass media jumped all over the death of Peter Fonda, perhaps best known for his mannered performance in Easy Rider. In the modern era, he was known for Ulee's Gold. In many ways he was an accomplished actor and director, but he was always in the shadow of dad and sis.
The passing of Richard Williams was less noticed but represents a bigger loss to the art and science of film. Richard Williams was best known for his work as animation director in the pioneering film Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Williams also contributed to the Pink Panther animation.
As various knowing critics pointed out, Williams has affected every aspect of modern animation and cgi.
He was also a good friend of the silent film community, and a participant in the annual silent film festival in Pordenone, Italy, where he came across as a gentleman who was willing to talk to anyone and everyone. I suspect that many of the students who listened to him didn't realize that over his career, he picked up three Academy Awards.
He will be missed.
(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at email@example.com)