Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Let's end the Cultural War with a Compromise: Legalize Gay Marriage, End Abortions

My preference, of course, is to find a muddied compromise on both issues. Find ways to extend to gay couples the benefits they request while finding cultural space for traditional view of marriage for those individuals and institutions that want to still believe in it. Even more so, I hope we can come to what I think is the basic understanding that gay and straight relationships are fundamentally different and that the rules, taboos, constraints and support may inevitably be structured to respect, honor and support these differences. Here's Andrew Sullivan:
Ross sharpens this by noting that in Massachusetts and Spain, for example, there are now three kinds of marriages: gay male, lesbian and heterosexual. Experientially, these are different things because of the power of gender. I do not dispute this at all. Ross, I think, is particularly worried about monogamy in this context - because it is so unnatural a state for most of us. The threat to monogamy, of course, is not universally - but largely - a function of testosterone and evolutionary biology. And the heterosexual marriage ideal offers social status to males to stick to one woman for the sake of children (and his wife).
On abortion, I think we should do more to support and sustain women so that pregnancy is intentional and occurs under the best circumstances, but when it does occur, they are supported throughout their pregnancy and the newly created child has every opportunity to be raised in a home of loving caregivers, ideally bound to the biological parents who produced the life.

However, I think these two issues have a lot of complementary features and could easily be worked through in tandem. If the choice is between an aborted baby and a gay couple willing to provide a loving home for that baby to thrive... Well, I'm not sure how this choice is difficult. If marriage is less about creating life and more about binding romantic relationships than the taboos around unwed pregnancy disappear.

Finally, I think gay marriage is becoming increasingly inevitable as the polls seem to be going in that direction. It seems though making abortion illegal could also have the same air of inevitability as science is increasingly showing that perhaps the unborn fetus is not only a living entity but quite possibly, well you know, a person?

I think this article provides a brief abortion history but makes what I think an important point:
But my sympathy for the beliefs of people who oppose abortion is enormous, and it grows almost by the day. An ultrasound image taken surprisingly early in pregnancy can stop me in my tracks. In it is much more than I want to know about the tiny creature whose destruction we have legalized: a beating heart, a human face, functioning kidneys, two waving hands that seem not too far away from being able to grasp and shake a rattle. One of the newest types of prenatal imaging, the three-dimensional sonogram—which is so fully realized that happily pregnant women spend a hundred dollars to have their babies’ first “photograph” taken—is frankly terrifying when examined in the context of the abortion debate. The demands pro-life advocates make of pregnant women are modest: All they want is a little bit of time. All they are asking, in a societal climate in which out-of-wedlock pregnancy is without stigma, is that pregnant women give the tiny bodies growing inside of them a few months, until the little creatures are large enough to be on their way, to loving homes.
Or read about how Penelope Trunk describes here abortion here:
People think abortion is such an easy choice–they say, “Don't use abortion as birth control.” Any woman who has had one will tell you how that is such crazy talk. Because an abortion is terrible. You never stop thinking about the baby you killed. You never stop thinking about the guy you were with when you killed the baby you made with him. You never stop wondering.
So the second time I got pregnant, I thought of killing myself. My career was soaring. I was 30 and I felt like I had everything going for me — great job, great boyfriend, and finally, for the first time ever, I had enough money to support myself. I hated that I put myself in the position of either losing all that or killing a baby.
 And finally:
But also, here I am with two kids. So I know a bit about having kids and a career. And I want to tell you something: You don't need to get an abortion to have a big career. Women who want big careers want them because something deep inside you drives you to change the world, lead a revolution, break new barriers.
It doesn't matter whether you have kids now or later, because they will always make your career more difficult. There is no time in your life when you are so stable in your work that kids won't create an earthquake underneath that confidence.
Increasingly, I also think we should try to avoid sperm donor babies. I doubt its practical to legally prevent it, but it does potentially lead to crazy stuff like this, where a man finds out his wife is biologically his sister.
When my wife and I met in college, the attraction was immediate, and we quickly became inseparable. We had a number of things in common, we came from the same large metropolitan area, and we both wanted to return there after school, so everything was very natural between us. We married soon after graduation, moved back closer to our families, and had three children by the time we were 30. We were both born to lesbians, she to a couple, and me to a single woman. She had sought out her biological father as soon as she turned 18, as the sperm bank her parents used allowed contact once the children were 18 if both parties consented. I never was interested in learning about that for myself, but she felt we were cheating our future children by not learning everything we could about my past, too. Well, our anniversary is coming up and I decided to go ahead and, as a present to my wife, see if my biological father was interested in contact as well. He was, and even though our parents had used different sperm banks, it appears so did our father, as he is the same person. On the one hand, I love my wife more than I can say, and logically, done is done, we already have children. I have had a vasectomy, so we won't be having any more, so perhaps there is no harm in continuing as we are. But, I can't help but think 'This is my sister' every time I look at her now. I haven't said anything to her yet, and I don't know if I should or not. Where do I go from here? I am tempted to burn everything I got from the sperm bank and just try to forget it all, but I'm not sure if I can. Please help me figure out where to go from here.
Or in the one thread of Parks and Recreation, a character weighs the responsibility of fatherhood when he is asked to donate his sperm, implying that donating a sperm is much, much more than just donating a sperm.

 If we do expand marriage to include gay couples (which we already are), my ideal would be that those relationships would exist to support straight couples who have much more at stake in terms of creating life. Support those who get pregnant unintentionally, adopt children who would otherwise not be adopted. Push abortion into the taboo fringe where it belongs.

Can we find a compromise? Extend gay marriage, end abortions?

As a side note, illegalizing abortion makes me uncomfortable in some very serious ways. I don't ever want a return to this:
At Belle­vue, my mother had twice attended dying young women who were victims of botched abortions, young women—“girls,” she called them—who spent their last hours on earth being interviewed by policemen. Terrified, alone, dying, neither would reveal the name of the abortionist; “they were too frightened,” my mother said. If I had to put money on which of the roommates bravely went to the girl’s apartment, I’d put it on my mother.
And I would prefer if we could end abortion through culture pressure and taboo than through threat of jail, but I hope that we could at least have the discussion that goes beyond simply Roe v Wade.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Does it take continuous 100 hour work weeks to change the world?

Because I am a masochist I started following the blog of Penelope Trunk. It all started innocently enough, a friend of mine posted a link from her blog that criticized universal pre-k from the perspective of a homeschooling family. Well, we are a homeschooling family and this was a smart post from an accomplished homeschooler, so yes, I'll add this blog to my RSS reader and begin to follow.

Before doing this, I decided to take a gander at her posting history and well, for someone prone to competitive comparingness, this was not a pleasant thing to do. Tales of 100 hour work weeks or driving two hours one way to take her prodigious six year old son to cello lessons taught by a music professor at the University of Wisconsin. I know its wrong, but these are not tales I enjoy reading.

Finally after reading yet another post written a long these lines, I felt like I had to write a response of my own, maybe as a defense of my own life choices? To give myself some hope that I can still accomplish some of my own goals without making these kinds of sacrifices?

The 60, 80, 100 hour work week tension has been something I've been living with since graduating with my engineering degree back in the 1990's. I started my career at a company that had this crazy over-time compensation policy. If you worked 40-59 hours in a week you were paid your salary, but if you crossed the 60.0 hour boundary, you were paid for every hour you worked. And my colleagues at the time were in the habit of exploiting this loophole to maximize their income. I resisted the urge mostly, but it's hard to work less while those you work with work more:  they take the most interesting work assignments and leave you with the scraps.

But I felt this prompting at the time that I needed to be more well-rounded and in my early career I was, trying to make up for my culturally barren childhood. At one time or another I had season tickets at the Phoenix Art Museum and the Herberger Theater. I attended concerts at the Phoenix Symphony. I spent all of my post-college single life mentoring a boy as part of the East Vally Big Brothers/Big Sisters.  I even took up piano lessons.

Although single, I was not giving up my life for my job. And I tried hard to keep my personal life in-tact. I think it worked out because I ended up marrying a pianist. Would this marriage have worked without this min-self education? I'm not sure.

But I spent my twenties working on myself in ways that had nothing to do with my day job. My thirties were spent married, bearing four kids the Bradley way, joining the ranks of homeschoolers, and still spending large swaths of my personal time in ways that had nothing to do with my day job. Obviously, this did not put me on the path for a high powered career at Google or Facebook.

And I also happen to belong to a church that asks for a lot of my time. Three hours of church service on Sunday, a command to keep the Sabbath day holy and work free, a responsibility to watch over four or so other members of your congregation through at a minimum monthly visits, requests to help fellow members of your congregation move or to bring them dinner when they are ill, a request to research your family history, to regularly write in your journal, take on additional church callings (through the years I have been a quorum president and a counselor in other presidencies, a leader in the scouts and with the young men, in the primary (working with children), and with the church's missionary program and of course to spend daily time in family, couples and personal prayer, meditation and scripture study.

Devoting 100 hours every week to your career does not line up (that's 14 hour days, 7 days a week).

So, I have to ask myself, is 100 hour work weeks really required to change the world? Without any evidence to prove this assertion (being as I have yet to change the world myself), I say no. In fact, I've already covered this topic here.

I'm afraid that many (not all) of the companies at Silicon Valley are building products nobody really wants because they are mostly building products they think people want but end up building products only tech geeks who work 100 hours a week want. Steve Yegge says it well here:
You can look at any phenomenally successful company, and it's pretty obvious that their success was founded on building on something they personally wanted. The extent that any company begins to deviate from this course is the extent to which their ship starts taking on water.
The other day I was out to eat with my friends and one of them was selling girl scout cookies for her daughter and I asked if she took PayPal, she laughed and told me she had no idea even had to login to her account.

People love Facebook, but really, if they had just stopped working on Facebook five years ago and just made sure it scaled, would it be much different than it is today? Google built search which people love, but what else is coming out of Google that people really, truly love? Apple is the best at building products people love, but are Apple products really that much better than Windows? And how much time are people wasting browsing the web on their iPhone rather than going to bed?

I'm probably over-selling this point a bit, but what if people mostly just worked 40-50 hour work weeks (there are times when you have to crank it up, but they should be rarer than people think) and spent the rest of their time with their families, working on their hobbies and building their communities?

Given how much work is happening out there building stuff that nobody wants or needs (housing bubble anyone?), wouldn't the world be a tad bit better place if more of us were building stuff for ourselves and for our friends, and by extension consuming the stuff others were building for us?

I'll end this rather long post with a quote I just recently ran across reading the "Lord of the Rings" to my kids:
"'At least for a while', said Elrond. 'The road must be trod, but it will be very hard. And neither strength nor wisdom will carry us far upon it. This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world; small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.'"
If we ever want to truly change the world, we need fewer Mark Zuckerbergs working 100 work weeks trying to convince more people to spend more time wasting stuff they don't really need or want, and more people like the Bishop of my congregation who homeschools his five children, runs his own law firm and spends countless of hours ministering to the poor and the needy in Tempe.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Political Systems

If I had to rate at a high level, the political-economic systems in order from those that are most prone to disaster to those that are most likely to foster a productive society, I would come up with the following:
  1. Dictatorships: An unaccountable few who have taken control over a country's resources. Historically this form of government has been our most common and the cause of so much suffering - from communism and fascism to the traditional dictatorships of ancient times. If you get lucky, a dictator will be competent and fair, but nobody is really smart enough to effectively control something as large and complex as a country, so even the benevolent dictator causes unnecessary suffering and waste.
  2. Corporate monopolies or oligarchies: Corporations that are able to control parts of the economy that either collude with competitors or eliminate competition altogether are almost as unaccountable as dictators. Their control doesn't tend to reach as broad, but they tend to also be more opaque. The damage of such are immense. They charge high prices, enrich themselves and have little incentive to really meet the needs of their consumers. There are so many examples of this today (of variable degree): cable and cell phone providers, hospitals, drug companies, energy companies, big banks, etc.
  3. Democracies that impose regulatory control over parts of the economy that suffers from a lack of oversight and competition. Medicare has been such an important part of our country because no private insurance would ever agree to insure people near end of life and hospital and health care providers have all the leverage when someone requires health care - a patient facing death will pay almost anything to get the required care. Health care requires regulation. Medicare works because recipients of the benefit are engaged and informed and hold their democratically elected politicians accountable to make sure the sytem works, is funded, and operating efficiently.
  4. Free Market Capitalism: There is nothing so efficient and innovate as an industry where the barriers of entry are low, where companies are at the mercy of their customers, and where pricing is transparent. Customer driven innovation is a beautiful thing to be a part of. To discover pain points, deliver products that delight, and get paid by appreciative customers for services rendered or goods delivered.
The problem with today's political environment is that the Republicans too often mistake 2) for 4) and Democrats mistakenly push industries in 4) into 3). Worse, today's Republicans have spent the last couple of decades assuming Democrats are the party of 2) when they are really support a complicated mix of 3) and 4) (which is the ideal). As a result, Republicans and the media that serve them, have become incoherent and paranoid and a result, good compromise has become impossible.

The sweet spot is for Democrats to push category 2) industries into category 3) and for Republicans to prevent categories in 4) from becoming 3) or 2) and to find ways to expand 4) into as many industries as possible.

In a sane political system this would be a relatively straight forward thing to do and ripe for all sorts of compromise and cooperation in doing so. To bad we don't have a sane political climate today.

Is a Liberal Arts Education a Waste of Time?

There's been a lot of talk lately on whether or not a liberal arts college education is worth the cost involved in getting it, and graduate liberal arts degrees are even more controversial. Someone with a bachelors in history can pivot that into something very specifically practical if they desire. I will say that a lot of this debate stems from the fallout of the last great recession that has rendered many young people without work experience unemployed and living with their parents.

The other day, out with some friends, I made the rather caustic statement that a liberal arts degree was a waste of time, and in response, my wife (who has two degrees in piano performance) says, well that's what I have. I did offer one corollary, that children should have a rather vigorous liberal arts education throughout their lives that increases in intensity as they enter high school, which should include reading from original sources, research and a lot of writing.

Because I often say things off the cuff that don't necessarily capture my true feelings, I thought it would be a good idea to vet some of this.

The first question we should ask is what should we be getting out of our educational system? Should it lead directly to a job that matches exactly with the degree we're obtaining? Are their non-monetary reasons to get educated?

First of all, I think there are all kinds of reasons to get as much education as you possibly can and that this education should basically never stop. And there are all sorts of reasons why this is important that span far beyond how impressive specific knowledge looks on your resume. A vital democracy depends on a broadly educated population. Churches and non-profits depend on skilled talent willing to donate it for free. To get where we want to be as a society, we need more people willing to do more without compensation, even when doing that thing requires a lot of skill.

Last week, I took my oldest daughter to see a chamber orchestra perform some pretty amazing chamber music. Her violin teacher was performing a Bach duet concerto in this concert, and by the way, it was both free and amazing. Her teacher has advanced degrees in violin and was now giving away her performances for free.

Only an extreme few of us can be professional musicians or tenured professors or full-time, best-selling authors. The world simply has too many problems to solve to afford this. There are too many ditches to dig, sick people to care for, roads to build. There are only so many people we can carve out of society to write something nobody really wants to read. Since, every author and musician is now competing with artists both past and present and since artistic production is copied and broadly distributed, we simply don't need that many of them, at least that many who do it full time. There are parts of our economy where we do need a lot of workers - teachers, nurses, doctors most primarily. But most of these laborers are relatively low wage and none really require advanced degrees in the liberal arts.

As families are organized and adults pair off, at least one member of this pair needs to have practical skills to get essential work done, work important enough that someone out there is willing to pay for.

So, while I want my kids to nail their liberal arts education, I hope each one of them has a desire and will to also pursue skills that will translate into a practical career. If they want to hitch their wagon on the hopes of marrying someone who will provide, cool, a liberal arts degree is probably ok, but better not go into a lot of debt for this.