Monday, December 21, 2015

The Fantasy of Life in a Fact Free World

Adapted from Chapter# 14, Living in the Future Tense

The End of Truth:
The Fantasy of Life in a Fact Free World
Edward Renner

We know from archeology that whole societies have collapsed in the past. Then, they had the excuse of not knowing any better; that is no longer true. The paradox is that the more we know, the less knowingly we are living our lives. How can the Information Age also be the Age of Stupid?

In the past, a societal collapse was sometimes initiated by a lifestyle that overused the natural resources necessary to sustain their population as in Easter Island. At other times it was due to an external catastrophe such as the role of drought in the Maya collapse, or a conflict between people that could not be resolved politically as in Nordic Greenland. Regardless of the initial cause they all shared a common factor of an entrenched belief system that failed to see the warning signs. By ignoring truth tellers the societies became the author of their own misfortune. 

The most difficult part of human change is letting go of the security of existing beliefs and values to embrace the uncertainty of a different future. The result is often the loss of the capacity to see, hear or speak the truth.

We have not yet learned that lesson. The challenge of our time is how to live sustainably and peacefully on a crowded planet in the 21st Century. This will require alternative economic, social and political process. Instead, we are persisting in pursuing the fantasy of narrow, single-minded ideologies based on economic growth, consumption and nationalism.

Yet, we know the planet cannot support the energy intense lifestyle of the developed countries and also fulfill the comparable aspirations of developing nations, in particular those of China, India and Brazil. As emerging markets, they are essential for the survival of free-market capitalism in the developed countries, and in particular for the United States. The developing countries cannot give up using coal if they are to emerge as consumers, and the developed countries cannot give up growth if they are to maintain their current lifestyle.

The dilemma of the necessity to embrace the uncertainties of a global community without the capacity to change is a prescription for either mutual environmental collapse or internal civic disruption and external conflict between nations and regions over who will be forced to abandon their aspirations and accept harsh austerities.

We need a global energy initiative and an alternative sustainable global economy, not ideological wars in Washington over global warming and, in the Middle East, over securing Western influence and the New American Century. Our invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring did not bring democracy to the Middle East; indeed, just the opposite.

The Iraq war has spread into a regional conflict and growing sectarian divide. The Islamic State (ISIS) now controls large areas of both Iraq and Syria. The US and its Gulf allies are providing arms to the rebel forces in Syria while Russian and Iran are supporting the Government of Assad. In Syria alone, 12 million people have been displaced, 300,000 killed and 4 million have fled the country creating a world-wide refugee crisis.

Three trillion dollars later, and still counting, the war without end continues. The national debt has soared without – for the first time in the history of the US – a war tax increase to pay the cost. Instead, the debt has been thoughtlessly passed on to our children who will have no realistic way to deal with it. The physical infrastructure required to be competitive in a global economy has been allowed to decay, and the social programs necessary for a strong functional democracy – education, health, economic security and poverty assistance – are collapsing. The nation is divided with racial and ethnic tension while the level of poverty is increasing.

 “The public backlash against the Dixie Chicks for speaking their mind about the war was vindictive.  Country station stopped playing their music. The Dixie Chicks did not back down; they answered their critics with a cover picture on Entertainment Weekly.  A picture that then Managing Editor Rick Tetzeli (2002-2009) regards as his favorite cover – an endorsement of the right – indeed the necessity -- to speak to truth.

In the end, they were proved to be right. But, their career was over for saying they were ashamed the President was from Texas!

What has gone wrong in our country?

Speaking the truth has lost its currency, politically, economically and socially. Political Action Committees (PACs) have reduced civics to marketing and politicians to puppets. Eleven million VW cars world-wide lie about their emissions and those who perpetrated the financial crisis of 2008 knowingly said to each other at the time: “You will be gone and I’ll be gone.” To complete the circle, wealth and income inequality have placed power in the hands of the super wealthy who own the PACs which serve their own private, not public, interests.

The commercial consolidation of the media and journalism, and the commodification of higher education, is silencing the last frontier of truth telling. Each episode of terrorism increases our willingness to accept more intrusive surveillance and limits to privacy as a necessary sacrifice for keeping freedom and democracy safe.

Those who speak to truth are not answered with substance, but are labeled as dangerous. Chelsea Manning is imprisoned, Edward Snowden and Julian Assange are living in exile as criminals for revealing failures of public trust by the very government whose essential function in a democracy is the keeping of that trust. We are withdrawing into the fantasy of living in a fact free world, where repeating ideological myths of greed, patriotism and hate have displaced civic political discourse.

When societies have collapsed in the past it was because they silenced truth tellers by holding on to the false security of ideologies until it was too late for change. This time, it not just the collapse of the US that is at stake, but of the planet itself. And, it all started back in 2003 when we stood by in silence and watched while the Dixie Chicks were sacrificed to the patriotic fantasy of the exceptionalism of the new American Century.

Maybe it is time for a Dixie Chick reunion concert. We owe them one.

Edward Renner is a retired university professor who writes on the modern human challenge of how to live sustainably and peacefully on a crowded planet in the 21st Century. A prepublication draft copy of his most recent book is available at He may be reached at

Friday, December 18, 2015

The War on Terror

National Security
Edward Renner

The number of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people worldwide has, for the first time in the post-World War Two era exceeded 50 million people.
United Nations High Commission for Refugees, 2014

Following the San Bernardino shootings by a Muslim couple there has been an increase in popular and political support for stronger and more effective armed attacks on Muslim extremists.

The current foreign policy assumption is that a military response (the war on terror) can significantly reduce the number of terrorist incidents and thereby promote greater political stability, protect our national security and contain the increasing number of refugees, stateless and displaced persons.

Since 9/11, when the United States declared the war on terror, the special war funding authorizations by the US Congress reached $1.7 trillion by 2015. These are direct war costs which are budgeted separately; they do not include base-line funding for the Pentagon, nor the costs for airport security, surveillance and other activities of homeland security. In total, the military receives about 60% annually of the US discretionary budget. During this period the number of terrorists incidents, organizations, and the geographic areas controlled by terrorists, have increased substantially since 9/11.

Sources: UN High Commission for Refugees, US Congressional Research Service
And the Global Terrorist Data Base  

Clearly, the War on Terror is not having its intended effect. The concurrent increase in refugees, financial costs and number of incidents does not establish which ones are causes or effects, or whether other factors are causing all three. Their joint upward trend, however, should raise the question of whether our heavy military presence in the Middle East is contributing to the very problem for which it is the intended solution.

Policy makers should consider whether our heavy
military presence in the Middle East, and the $1.7
trillion allocated in war funding since 9/11, have
 created more problems than they have eliminated.  
The principle alternative to the current military assumption is that climate change (drought, migration), economic globalization (poverty, inequalities) and political instabilities (statelessness, oppression and warfare) have increased the number of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people. Desperate and hopeless people resort to violence, provoking counterproductive military responses that actually increase the number of refugees while incurring huge financial costs.

The implications of this alternative assumption is that if the war costs were redirected to deal with the underlying causes of migration, poverty and oppression, terrorism would be declining, not increasing.

Since we must choose how to best protect our national security, what are the ways to do so? Clearly there is not a simple answer, nor necessarily an either or choice, between military and economic, political and social strategies.

Reasonable people of good will can recognize and respect the perspective of others, and try to find common ground for rational solutions. Such choices should be based on information and knowledge as much as possible. Now, is not the time for dogmatic ideological beliefs and values to dominate thoughtful debate over two conflicting perspectives and their implicit policies.

_________________________________________________________________________________Edward Renner is a retired university professor who writes on the modern human challenge of how to live sustainably and peacefully on a crowded planet in the 21st Century. This essay is adapted from Chapter 8 of his forthcoming book; a prepublication working copy is available at He may be reached at

Monday, November 9, 2015

Embracing Difficult Issues

Should Reading My Syllabus Carry a Trigger Warning?
Edward Renner

The American University Senate adopted a resolution that discourages instructors from granting student request to be shielded from certain readings or discussion by trigger warnings and course exceptions. The resolution was in part a consequence of a request by the library for guidance on how to handle student requests to flag books for controversial content, and a pledge by the student government president to push for trigger warnings on course syllabi.

Now days, most course syllabi are available on-line. My syllabus includes a graphic icon for every class – a picture that is more memorable than any 1,000 word summary.

One of those is a Pulitzer-prize winning photo taken by Kevin Carter in 1994 during the Sudan famine. The picture depicts a famine stricken child crawling toward a United Nations food camp located a kilometer away. The picture shocked the whole world.  No one knows what happened to the child. The photographer was widely criticized for not having saved the child. Three months later he committed suicide due to depression

The topic for that class is not famine, but an exercise in critical thinking: How many different perspectives and implicit assumptions can be brought to bear on how to think about the picture and its context, including the shift in attention from the world letting millions die to the specific fate of that child, and the individual ethical responsibilities of Kevin Carter.

I have had many students tell me they did not sleep well that night. However, that exercise on thinking about how to think haunts the course. References to “Class 03 Cognitive Tools for Thinking” come up frequently throughout the term in the context of actually thinking about the academic content of IDH3400: “The Social and Behavioral Sciences.”

Another image was the picture of caskets returning from Iraq. The picture prompted the US government to close the area to the press, prohibiting any future such pictures to be show to the public as too sensitive and disrespectful to those who serve. A brother of a woman in my class was on active duty in Iraq. Road side bombs were a frequent danger.

This picture is a context for some of the most difficult conceptual issues of political science. It is why political science is no less important than computer science. It is not just abstract theory. The discipline has very direct implications for determining the limits of censorship in a democracy and for the impact of political decisions on individual people. Yes, a woman in the class was in tears, but we did not avoid the power of this moment for an intense lesson in civics. We were all meaningfully disrupted; as we should be, often.

Should my syllabus carry the trigger warning: “Reading this Syllabus May Be Disruptive.” Would that warning be sufficient, or should such potentially disruptive material be a necessary, or at least expected, element of every course syllabus? Perhaps we have it backwards. Maybe there should be a trigger warning for any course that is not disruptive; then, students could consider not taking it and we could question why it was even offered.

The icons I use are intended to be disruptive, as is the course. I want my students to respect the behavioral and social science to be as intellectually demanding as their math, chemistry and physical science courses. The question of our time is how to live peacefully and sustainably on a crowded planet in the 21st Century. In my mind this question trumps STEM in importance. This is the challenge of the behavioral and social sciences; the risk of labeling any topic essential for meeting this challenge as disruptive is the danger to be avoided.
Edward Renner is a retired university professor who writes on the modern human challenge of how to live sustainably and peacefully on a crowded planet in the 21st Century. A prepublication draft copy of his most recent book is available at He may be reached at    

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Future of Work

Bleak Sept. Jobs Growth Report No Surprise
Edward Renner

The Jetsons are a family residing in Orbit City…George Jetson lives with his family in the Skypad Apartments: his wife Jane is a homemaker, their teenage daughter Judy attends Orbit High School, and their early-childhood son Elroy attends Little Dipper School. Housekeeping is seen to by a robot maid, Rosie, which handles chores not otherwise rendered trivial by the home's numerous push-button Space Age-envisioned conveniences.”
Wikipedia, August 2015

The low level of job creation and lack of gains in hourly pay for private-sector workers after the financial crisis should not come as a surprise to anyone. We need to stop thinking that private-sector job creation is the path to an economic recovery. Instead, we need to be talking about the distribution of work and wealth in the economy of the future; this is the path to a sustainable recovery.

Remember George Jetson from the 1962 TV series, with his driverless car and his one-hour per day, two days a week job? Then, the expectation was that benefits of technology would be felt by everyone. Everyone would have more leisure time, more happiness and stronger families. We’d all experience a New Renaissance of art and culture. The future was going to be less work and more play, and it was only one lifetime away!

Although it was never made clear when in the future the Jetson’s lived, it is now clear we are on the verge of actually making that transition from the present to the future. Today, cars can park themselves and Google has experimental driverless cars on the California highways. Robots like George Jetson’s Rosie have already started to replace workers. But, most important of all, we are well on the way toward the end of work as we know it.

The increased productivity resulting from technology will continue to eliminate jobs and reduce labor cost for each article produced and every type of service delivered. Pumping our own gas, using ATMs and auto-checkouts are just the beginning. The elimination of entire occupational careers in the immediate future will be just as true for jobs requiring higher education and technical skills as those requiring less education and simple skills.

At the high end, more than half of all higher education faculty are now part-time. These adjunct professors get paid by the course and do not have job security or benefits. A report from the University of California based on U.S. census data found that 25% of adjuncts received some sort of public assistance, such as Medicaid, food stamps, cash welfare or Earned Income Tax Credits. This highly educated group is now among the working poor.

At the other extreme are health, homecare and fast food jobs, paying at or near minimum wages. Half of these workers are also on some form of public assistance, similar to Adjunct Professors. To qualify for these subsides a family’s income must be below an eligibility criterion. For the school lunch program – which last year served over 30 million children -- it is 130% of the poverty line. Today, someone would need to work 63 hours a week at minimum wage for 52 weeks to earn the $23,850/year required to support a family of four at the poverty line. But, a family of four cannot live on that amount of money

This elusive search for an economic recovery from the financial crisis of 2008 has presented us with the opportunity for a real choice: We may either continue on the current economic path of fiscal austerity, tax cuts, low interest rates and deficit spending intended to stimulate private sector corporate growth to create more jobs, or we may chose the political alternative of creating a public-works, social-development path for actually making the transition into a future that would fulfill the expectations that inspired the Jetsons TV series in 1962.

If we continue on the current path, the aging faculty will never be replaced. The next level of savings is for a few elite universities and well funded information technology companies to use the new electronic communication capacities to create high quality practical courses that can be administered locally by low-paid facilitators. When we reach this point, information and knowledge increasingly will be a commodity under the control of those who own it.

For the fast food worker the future is no better. They are constantly reminded that they are lucky to have a job at all. There is now a commercially available iPad point of sale system that allows a credit card payment at the table. You pre-pay your order from the online menu and a runner delivers your food. In a restaurant in Japan, the runner is a robot who looks remarkable similar to Rosie.

The profit from the increased productive per hour of human labor will continue to go into the pockets of those who own the knowledge and information responsible for the technology, not to those who apply it.
In the US, the top one-tenth of 1% now have as much wealth as the bottom 90%; this is similar to just before the great Depression of 1929. All of the gains in prosperity of the middle class following the end of WW II have now been reclaimed by very wealthy. We need to find an approach more appropriate for 2015 than 1945; the economic growth that put people to work following the war is not a 21st Century solution. Today, environmental constraints, globalization and post-industrialization technology will limit private-sector job creation and wage growth in the US.

Currently, we are once again creating an economy in which most of the people have little money to spend. Unless we reverse the current strategy, the economic engine will stall, creating hardship and social unrest as it did before. However, choosing the alternative political path of public-sector social development will require a radical change in how we think about the distribution of work and wealth, and about the economy of the future.
The diminishing amount of private-sector work will have to be shared. In the short-term, to replace the lack of traditional job growth and inadequate hourly wages, public-works projects can provide meaningful employment to create the infrastructure required for a new energy efficient green economy of tomorrow. The New Deal, after all, was the start of the way out of the great depression of 1929. In the long-term, public-sector entitlements, compensations, responsibilities and civic activities will have to expand to fill our social needs, to occupy our time and to constructively engage our minds. Sports, recreational facilities, music, art, hobbies and civic participation will become the new social fabric to replace roads, bridges and other physical definitions of human progress
However, for this to happen in the economy of the future, a much larger proportion of the profits from information and knowledge must fall to those who apply it, not to those who own it. Simply put, the accumulating wealth from information and knowledge must increasing belong in the public domain, rather than a commodity for personal and corporate financial gain. Redefining the purposes to be served by wealth is a social value to be implemented through the democratic political process. At any given time,the nature of the economy is a function of our social beliefs and political choices.
To actually make such a transition to the Jetson’s Utopia, the role and functions of government needs to be much different in the future than they are today. Perhaps the most mind altering change will be the necessity of expanding, not reducing personal entitlements. We need to believe that a social, not economic, fabric should be the basis for describing the human condition. A starting point for making a gradual transition to this future economy could be the introduction of a mandatory 40-hour maximum workweek at a realistic living wage as the minimum, thus sharing the existing work and creating a more inclusive economy.

Life in this alternative future will be no less busy, just very different. The concept of a balanced life not dominated solely by economic values has other precedents

Manfred Max-Nerf, a third world economist and university professor, worked with the Peace Corps. He tells the story of a village where 10 women would each spend the whole day making one basket. The Peace Corp volunteers showed the women how they could make 20 baskets a day if they specialized their tasks and formed a production line. When the volunteers return several months later the women were using the new production methods, but still only making 10 baskets a day. When asked why, they replied: “Now we have so much more time to spend with our children.”

The women in the village did not necessarily lack industriousness, they may simply have used good judgment. Our current obsession that the sole purpose of information and knowledge is to drive gains in corporate profitability may not be industriousness, it may be simply be a matter of bad judgment. In its most basic sense, the new lifestyle in the village enabled by the application of technology is fundamentally similar to the anticipated life-style for the Jetsons, all within the time frame of a single life time – that of the Millennials.

The shift over hundreds of centuries from land and resources as the source of new wealth, to information and knowledge in the 21st Century, provides us with the political opportunity to define this new source of wealth as a public resource, not as private property. Politically, establishing knowledge as open-source and public would allow human progress to be measured as improvements in the human condition rather than as GDP units of economic growth.

By choosing a public rather than private-sector strategy for personal economic security, traditional work as we know it will no longer need to dominate our life and define our sense of self. What an exciting time to be alive, simply by starting to live in the future tense.


Edward Renner is a retired university professor who writes on the modern human challenge of how to live sustainably and peacefully on a crowded planet in the 21st Century. A prepublication copy of his most recent book is available at He may be reached at