Sunday, December 1, 2013

212. Our baggage is easy to confirm with biases

While intuitively applicable, the idea of confirmation bias is an important social concept. The ideology affects our perspective about many important areas of society—such as religion, socioeconomics, politics and philosophy.

Defined succinctly enough in Wikipedia, “Confirmation bias is a tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs.”

While the foolery of any bias is potentially detrimental to any objective reasoning, confirmation biases attract more than a distorted perceptive—it feeds our most treasured and relied upon beliefs. I have often argued that one of the most uncomfortable things to do is to challenge one’s beliefs. It is difficult not only because of its emotional and moral elements, but also because the amount of evidence required to inspire objective thought is often insurmountable.

There is no shortage of issues that may be influenced by confirmation biases—and there is no shortage of sources willing to provide that confirmation. There is of course, personal experience, which lines up neatly with anecdotal evidence and our social groups. There are also media sources—newspaper, radio and television—as well as our institutions and their leaders, such as religions and political parties and “think tanks.”. The government may provide confirmation to biases through its laws and economic systems. Finally, we have corporate and academic confirmation through research and reports.

For those looking to have their beliefs confirmed, odds are you’ll find someone or something to support it. It may not even be intentional, one might try to be objective—but there is a natural filtering to those beliefs we hold dear.

Consider the belief that people on government assistance are lazy and take advantage of the system—costing hardworking taxpayers millions.

There is anecdotal evidence, often in conversation, or on social media—and it usually goes something like, “I was in line at the grocery store and this woman in front of me had the newest iPhone, professionally manicured nails, bought two cartons of cigarettes and then paid for her groceries with food stamps.” Media confirmation is easily found on Fox News, or any number of conservative radio shows that profile lower social classes. The Tea Party finds outrage over almost any government support and provides consistent confirmation that the taxpayers are being robbed by freeloaders. The government proceeds with a capitalistic perspective, which despite the social programs promotes the value of being educated and working hard—and getting people off of government assistance. And, of course, one can easily find a report, from maybe the Heritage Foundation, which supports one’s views that government social programs are full of waste and details the cost of individuals who fraudulently receive aid.

If this is your perspective, you’ll have no trouble finding ways to confirm it. You’ll shake your head in agreement—probably proud of finding yourself on the right side of an issue.

Of course, those who believe that individuals on government assistance genuinely need help through a tough time in their life, and society has a moral obligation to provide reasonable aid, will also find their beliefs confirmed. They’ll talk about the single mom working two low-paying jobs trying to raise her three kids. They’ll attack capitalism through examples of corporate greed and job outsourcing—and the growing wealth inequality. Maybe they’ll even embrace the social aspect of religion and its teachings of helping the poor. And surely proponents will find reports minimizing the perceived waste and fraud in government systems.

With the confirmation of beliefs so readily accessible to both sides—it’s easy to understand why many beliefs do not change.

While none of us are immune from our biases—it’s a part of who we are based on our life experiences and perspective—we can hope, at least, to sort out the most convincing arguments. That is, we need to try to relieve ourselves of our own biases and fairly evaluate the issue and evidence as though we are hearing about it for the first time.

The criteria should be a preponderance of the evidence, not confirmation through reasonable doubt. It should be weighed equally or plotted on a bell curve to attach statistical significance. We need to view it as an impartial judge, and not like someone who has a horse in the race.

Friday, November 1, 2013

211. Being sure to embrace that one last moment together

In the late 90s, when my father’s health was beginning to suffer, we went to an otherwise rather insignificant Cleveland Indians game together. My dad loved baseball and the Indians, but did not like crowds and rarely went to a game. In fact, I think he only took me once when I was very young—when I was too young to understand baseball or even where I was. There may have been another time or two, but I do not think so.

 So when he agreed to go to the game with my wife and me, to watch the Indians battle the Kansas City Royals—not only was this a special occasion, I was pretty sure this would be the last time we ever went to a game together. Somewhat skeptical that he really wanted to go, I was excited to see that he had his Indians shirt on.

 When you know that you are seeing someone or doing something for the last time, the moment can be appreciated—and enjoyed or embraced—to its fullest.

 Unfortunately, there are a lot of times when we do not know that something will be happening for the last time. I never knew when I saw my brother-in-law a few days before he died tragically in a fire that I was seeing him for the last time. I didn’t know that the late May baseball game of my sophomore season was the last college baseball game I would play. I also didn’t know that when I left the naval base in Annapolis in 1989 that it was the last time I would see my then girlfriend. The last time might be an emotional end, or perhaps even a celebratory beginning—or somewhere in between.

 The beat goes on for scores of friends, classmates, coworkers and even family members. When I joined Facebook a few years ago, one of the things I often wondered when was the last time I saw that person. One day I am playing football with my friend in the backyard—the next I am off to college and he is off to Columbus, never to connect again. At graduation, we often speak of staying “in touch,” but I have learned that most of the time we do not. I have worked with coworkers for years, shared our most personal day-to-day experiences, yet never spoken to them again after they move on. It often happens so nonchalantly.

 If we know it is the last time, of course, we’d go all out—like we tried with the baseball game with my dad. We got the best seats we could and splurged on the food. I wanted the afternoon to last forever.

What is difficult sometimes is when we don’t know. We might not be in the moment—sure that there will be another moment. We might rush it or not appreciate the finality of the event. There is certainly not the emotional attachment—not many are sensitive to the “next to last time.”

At the same time, we can’t treat each occasion like it is the last time. If I knew I would never see my mom ever again—of course, I would spend the entire day with her, the entire week. I would take her to dinner, or the theatre, wherever she wanted to go. But unfortunately, I can’t live every day like that—nobody can. We’d go broke, if nothing else. We have to risk it—that there will be another time.

The significance of the last time is not limited to the important moments of our lives. It might include the last summersault you did as a kid, the last walk you took with your dog, the last time you visited the park you grew up near or the last time you sang karaoke with your high school friends. It’s also interesting when a correspondence spontaneously ends with a friend—who writes the last letter, makes the last phone call, or sends the last text or email.  Those relationships that end for no other reason than that’s the way life works.

I remember the last Browns game I watched with my dad as it was the first win by the “new” Browns. The remarkable October 31, 1999 game ended when Kevin Johnson caught a Hail Mary from Tim Couch. Somewhat appropriate that it ended on a Hail Mary, I had no idea it was the last time we would watch a game together—though I am grateful that we shared that moment together, just the two of us.

In the day-to-day activities of life, we sometimes forget how precious it can be. We sometimes take things for granted—that we will have the same opportunity again at some future point in our lives.

Other times we understand the time and place in our lives—and we just know it is the last time.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

210. How much does owning a home really cost?

Home ownership has always been part of the American dream. Complete with a dog, two kids and a white picket fence—it is our slice of American pie.  Millions of American workers get up and work long, hard days to make their house payment—week after week, year after year.  For most of us, it is a 30 year commitment.

Even in the current housing market and after the loss of billions of dollars in home equity during the housing collapse, many people still place value in owning a home. Americans also generally regard home ownership as an investment.

However, despite our perceptions, owning a home can have its financial shortcomings.

Anyone who has purchased a home has to gasp for air when they consider how much they will pay in interest over the course of the loan. Depending, of course, on the loan terms, the interest can be as much or even exceed the value of the home itself. This is particularly common on 30 year mortgages, since interest equals principal multiplied by rate and compounded over time.  Thus the interest on a $150,000 loan at 5% for 30 years is $139,883; for 20 years, it is only $87,584.

5.30% is the interest rate in which you will pay double the price of the house for the cost of your loan. If you take a loan for 150,000 over 30 years, you will pay 150,000 in interest.

The problem with home loans is that the interest is paid up front, as much as 80 percent the first five years and 70 percent the next five. So while the interest rate in a fixed loan may remain constant, it is calculated first and subtracted from the payment amount. Whatever is left is applied to principle. Thus a higher percentage of the payment is applied early in the loan.

On a $150,000, 5%, 30 year loan—at 10 years, the homeowner would still owe $122,308 despite making total payments on the loan of almost $96,000. Thus, although the homeowners have paid one-third of the loan term, they still owe 80 percent of the home value.

In a sense, when you also consider closing costs, renovations and repair, maintenance, taxes,  private mortgage  insurance (the cost paid by the homeowner to secure the lender’s loan) and the current state of depreciation, homeowners are really only renting their home for the first ten years. There are many factors to consider, such as down payment and tax advantages, but all things considered the first ten years of the loan are difficult for the homeowner (and actually, even at 20 years, the homeowner has only paid 50 percent of the loan value).

The problem is that many people live in their home for 10 years or less—due to changing family size, relocations, etc. From 2001-2008, the average was 6 years. With little salvageable equity over the first ten years, the new loan starts all over again with the purchase of another home—with all that interest again paid up front.

Thus, if a home is sold after ten years, the bank collected $96,000 in mortgage payments and the payoff value of the home, which is about $122,000. They loaned $150,000 and in ten years recovered $218,000—the same amount an 8 percent loan on $150,000 would return in 10 years.

If the homeowners stay in the home for 30 years, less and less of each payment is dedicated to interest. The formula dedicated to the value of money over time works out. Over the last ten years, only about $20,000 is interest. So while interest rate is constant, depending on the circumstances—and subject to debate—one might be able to do better through investment.

Prior to the housing crisis, homeowners and lenders relied on appreciation to balance the interest heavy loans. If the house had appreciated to $175,000 over the first ten years, the homeowner would at least walk out of the loan with $50,000. Today, homeowners are lucky to get the $122,000 still due on the loan. Thus, the homeowner is back to where he or she started.

When housing values and home equity were rising quickly, many people were tempted to cash out their home early in the loan and purchase a larger one. For lenders, this was great, because as noted, the earlier in the loan it is paid off, the more interest the lender collected (as a percentage of the entire loan). It also affected the availability of second mortgages. Due to declining equity, banks can no longer double up on the same house.

Owning a home is still part of the American dream, but as those underwater in their mortgage can attest, it is not the investment it was in the early 2000s. Homeownership favors those who can take out shorter loans or make additional principal payments—a couple ways to reduce the interest advantages afforded to mortgage lenders.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

209. Being a fan is like a part-time job

With the addition of FOX Sports 1, there are, by my unofficial count, over 40 dedicated sports channels—not counting the sporting events covered by other network and cable channels.

Each sport seems to have their own channel-- there is the NFL, NBA, and MLB networks, as well as the golf channel and tennis channel.  Even college conferences have their own channels—such as The Big 10 Network.

In addition to television, there are sports talk stations, and sports talk shows on television. These radio shows not only provide sports opinion, information and coverage—it lets listeners participate and often join the meaningless debates.

Some events are now covered in their entirety. Whereas in the past, you might only see the final few contests, now you may be able to see every game.

For example, a few weeks ago or so, ESPN 2 was showing the Little League World Series. While many years ago, only the finals were televised—when the International Champion played against the American Champion. This year not only did they televise all 32 World Series games, but also 75 regional games. Though very good baseball, even with the infliction of major league showboating, the coverage seems excessive.

And it is not just Little League baseball. Many sports, and non-sports, like fishing and poker, get extensive coverage.

For the television rights to cover sporting event, networks often pay millions, even billions. Salaries have accelerated beyond comprehension. In 1982, Mike Schmidt made the most money in Major League Baseball at 1.5 million; in 2012, Alex Rodriguez made 30 million. The 2012 average salary in Major League Baseball was 3.2 million, about 1 million more than just 10 years ago.

College sports are out of control, as the NCAA spends most of its time tracker down cheaters—who, with all that is at stake, have an incentive to cheat. Stadiums are cathedrals, tailgate parties last days, and opposing fans are often mistreated.  Playoff systems are absurd, catering to whatever makes the most money.

Tickets to the biggest sports events easily top the $1,000 mark—even much more with ticket resellers. The collective worth of NFL franchises is estimated at more than $37 billion.

All in all, sports continue to grow as an economic force in our culture. The question is: When is the sport bubble going to burst?

Year after the year, fans foot the bill for their favorite sports. They attend games, pay $10 for a beer, buy jerseys and support those companies that sponsor events. All in pursuit of a championship—the chance to say “my” team is the best.

Being a fan is like a part-time job.

Granted, there are other reasons to watch games—enjoyment of the sport, passing of time, family functions and parties with friends. They are all worthwhile social activities.

But has it gone too far? Does Alex Rodriguez deserve to be paid over $185,000 per game? Is that the social value we have placed on sports—in comparison to other occupations?  Is that the value we have placed on winning or having a good time?

Sports has become so entrenched in our culture that fans of the Cleveland Indians have been criticized by local sports talk shows for their low attendance. At times, it almost sounds like we have some sort of moral obligation to support our local teams when they are playing well—regardless of cost.

The bubble will only burst when fans stop watching, or stop supporting, their teams. If fans stop attending games, ticket prices will fall. If fans watch fewer games, rating will fall and the advertisers will pay less to run their commercials—and networks will pay less for the rights to cover the game.  Eventually, salaries and owner profits will fall—inspiring a housing-bubble type economic correction.

However, for foreseeable future of the most popular sports, the bubble will continue to grow. Sport leagues are reaching out to other countries—making them global events. The Super Bowl was broadcast in over 230 countries last year—and, with a population of over 1 billion, China is an emerging market. The estimated annual revenue of the NFL in 2025 is $27 billion.

I have always enjoyed watching sports—but I’ve narrowed my interest to those teams and events that I really care about. I have no desire to watch little leaguers from California battle it out with youngsters from Arizona. Or college lacrosse or international soccer. The Browns, Buckeyes and some tennis is enough for me.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

208. What do you look like on tape?

In the 1998 Seinfeld finale, all of the bad deeds of the cast were put on display in court by a string of character witnesses. Although not one of my favorite episodes, what I recall from the episode is how bad I might look (or anyone) if our worst moments were rolled out as evidence as to what type of person we are.

It used to be, confronted with such testimony, that we could just deny it, lie about it—or claim that it was taken out of context. Make up an excuse, propose a reason. And that still happens today—athletes claim they never took steroids, only to admit later that they did, for example.

But we have entered a new era—an era of cell phones and surveillance cameras. The right of privacy does not exist in public, and at any given time there is a surveillance camera recording our activities – our comings and goings—as well as many cell phone cameras as there are people. Do anything unusual or curious—or even amazing—and you can bet that someone will be ready to make record of it.

In this relatively new era of technology, our lives are more vulnerable to the recordings of our worst moments. No more need for those character witnesses—just roll the film. People, and their lawyers, may still try to spin the situation, but, as they say, a picture is worth a 1,000 words.

The list of examples is growing each day, but probably the most famous is the 47 percent remark by presidential candidate Mitt Romney that was secretly recorded at a political fundraiser. The history of this country might have changed on that recording—as many regarded it as the classic premise “what we do when we think nobody is watching.”

Other examples include former Ohio State president Gordon Gee, whose comments about Catholic priests inspired his retirement. We also recall the Steubenville community that was devastated and appalled when party photos were shared on social media. Recently, Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Meizel was recorded allegedly receiving payment for signing autographs and Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper was recorded using a derogatory racial term at a concert.

While each has its own circumstances and consequences, each was recorded without their knowledge. These individuals each had one of their worst moments, life changing moments, captured on tape—to be shared, in a blink of an eye, with the world.

And while I certainly believe that the consequences should follow the actions, we all have our moments. In fact, You Tube is filled with embarrassing moments captured on video and shared with the world—just like the Seinfeld episode.

The positive side of cameras and surveillance is that people might be inspired to behave better. Not only can crimes be caught on film, but also the driver with road rage, or the baseball dad who berates an umpire. It’s a greater risk to commit a crime or lose your cool in public—it could be on Facebook in minutes.

It can also be used to positively settle an issue—proving more reliable than witnesses, such as when Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde was relived of charges after a night club video caught the altercation that landed him in trouble.

The issue takes on several social perspectives. Aside from the legal aspect, which is a positive aspect of the video technology, there is the social aspect. Should our free expressions between friends be secretly recorded? And do these recordings represent our true personalities?

We all say things we regret or don’t really mean. And conversely, the good is not often recorded—who records someone writing a check to a charity, saving an injured bird or recycling an aluminum can? The public loves extremes—the shocking, our worst moments.

Did Mitt Romney really mean what he said about the 47 percent, or was he just trying to tell supporters what they wanted to hear. Does Gordon Gee really have a problem with Catholic priests, or was he just making a joke in the company of colleagues? Is Cooper really a racist, or simply ignorant and insensitive while intoxicated?

I don’t know the answer to any of those questions—though like most people, I have my opinions. I think actions speak louder than words—and that people deserve, except when breaking the law, to be judged on a fair sample size of their lives, not just a pressing moment caught on tape.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

207. 'I wanta be' moments are rare

Bull Durham, the 1988 baseball classic, is known for its quirky look into love, life and minor league baseball. Mired in the depths of this quick and witty dialogue are a couple of social ideologies. The most obvious is the contrast between the hard-working wily old veteran and the naïve rookie who possesses lots of “God-given,” talent.

As veteran Crash Davis explains this injustice to the rookie, “You got a gift. When you were a baby, the Gods reached down and turned your right arm into a thunderbolt. You’ve got a Hall-of-Fame arm . . .”

For baseball fans, the movie is loaded with fun quotes and eccentricities about the majesty and “religion of baseball.” As a college baseball player at the time, my teammates and I had lots of fun reenacting the highlights of the movie, “You know what that makes you? Lollygaggers!”

However, as I have gotten older, it is a quote near the end of the movie by Davis that sticks with me.

Through his jagged career, of which he only spent “the 21 greatest days of his life” in the major leagues, Davis endured to set the minor league home run record.

After he sets the record, he immediately quits baseball and returns to his love interest—who throughout the movie shares her theories about life.” He says, “I got a lotta time to hear your theories and I wanta hear every damn one of 'em... but right now I'm tired and I don't wanta think about baseball and I don't wanta think about Quantum Physics... I don't wanta think about nothing . . . I just wanta be.”

It is the words, “I just wanta be,” that sticks with me. It is a moment of complete contentment—a moment of peace with one’s self. It encapsulates the accomplishments of the past and sets aside the quiet anticipation of the future. It is often the end of a journey. Any regrets have been reconciled and there is solace with how it all came to an end. It is a self-acknowledgment that the journey is over—and nothing else, for the time being, matters.

I think “I just wanta be,” moments are rare in one’s life. They need not be moments of grandeur; they can be the end of a personal journey or endeavor—or maybe even heartbreak.

For some, it may be graduating from school or college, the moment when your child gets married, or maybe, like Crash Davis, at the end of a career. It might be completing a project, winning a championship or even checking something off your bucket list. We get to decide individually.

I can identify perhaps a couple of “wanta be” moments. Winning the Lorain County Open racquetball tournament, after a year of concerted training, was one. I remember the calm satisfaction I felt after winning—and knowing it was because I worked so hard for it. I wanted to just go home and let that moment—that calm—last forever. Passing the First Year Law School Exam was probably another—even more so than graduating from law school itself.

At Baldwin-Wallace College, I missed a “wanta be” moment after I completed my senior thesis presentation to professors and students. A terrifying requirement for graduation, I had agreed to a game of racquetball a couple of hours after the presentation. It was a worthless endeavor . . . I was physically and emotionally absent. I just “wanted to be,” and should have been.

Regardless of the personal “wanta be” moments during our lives, I think the goal is to be in a “wanta be” moment at the end our lives. That is, to have that moment of peace and be able to rest satisfied with our lives—the wonderful moments celebrated, the difficult moments reconciled.  To have done the things we wanted to do, whether it is the diligence of a bucket list or the freedom of spontaneity.

While none of us will probably live the perfect life nor we will leave the world as we would like it—we can strive to be fulfilled with our efforts and contributions.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

206. Kitten killer was a coward

Like many people, not only in Lorain County, but across the country, I was appalled at the shooting of five kittens by a North Ridgeville Humane Officer. I was emotionally sick and angry for about a week. For those who endear themselves to any sort of animal compassion, the event is unconscionable.

At this point, there is no reason to revisit the incident itself. Many people have shared their feelings of outrage (or support) over the event. I will add though that I was just appalled at the cowardice exhibited by the police chief and mayor in their reluctance to discipline the Human Officer— his poor judgment was inexcusable.

North Ridgeville has changed its policy on feral cats, basically acting like a child and essentially saying, “If you don’t like the way we do it, then you can do it yourself.” The city will provide traps for residents instead of responding to calls. Responsibility and accountability is apparently as fleeting as the cats themselves.

The entire occasion has been a source of embarrassment for the city—one that will be known for some time as the place where they needlessly shot five harmless kittens.

The issue that everyone should support is the capture and spaying or neutering of feral cats. The rate of reproduction for feral cats can be overwhelming. Had that family in Ridgeville caught the “momma” cat and had her spayed before she gave birth to a litter of kittens, none of this ever would have happened.

We can be so shortsighted in our perspectives.

Although the vicious hissing of six ounce kittens is laughable, it does lead us to another underlying issue of this story. Human beings continue to be intolerant of the natural world. We’ve sterilized our lives so that many favor the eradication of all natural inconveniences—whether it is the grubs that eat our lawns, deer that cross our roads or the local residence of feral kittens. We don’t tolerate bugs or odors or hissing either. We’re a “kill everything” society.

For us there is a place for animals—in zoos or parks. And in cartoons, videos and cute chain emails. Our compassion is so selfish that we even often mistreat our pets—asking them to lie in the corner or be quiet until we command otherwise. That other, “wild animals,” are abused should not come as a surprise.

And, of course kittens hiss. When you are a six ounce kitten living amongst human beings and other potential predators, what other measures of protection do you have? Using the hissing of the kittens as justification for their execution is simply ignorant and absurd.

Finally, many people have responded that, “it’s just a few kittens, who cares?” They argue that there are more important issues to worry about, like drugs, jobs or the poor— and that the entire discussion is a waste of time (and media attention). The argument of relativeness is a weak one—one that can be made in almost any situation based on one’s interest or perspective. After all, I might respond that those people are just a human being, one of seven billion on the planet—and suggest they get over themselves.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

205. What is cognitive dissonance?

In response to a recent column I wrote about Rob Portman’s change of perspective on gay marriage, a reader wrote to me and noted that it was a case of “cognitive dissonance.” As these things sometimes work out, I was thinking about that psychological conflict when I saw a tweet from someone who noted that a greyhound rescue group was raising money by having a “meat raffle.”  He termed it as “cognitive dissonance defined.”

I’ve often used the word “disconnected” to describe the situation in which competing ideologies are not consistently considered. However, I realized that this isn’t completely correct. Disconnected applies in the sense that there is a lack of connection between two ideologies or when there is a failure in the understanding of one or both ideologies. But when there is understanding of the competing ideologies, and yet there is an inconsistency between beliefs and actions, the proper term is “cognitive dissonance.”

Cognitive dissonance is really about conflict and the anxiety that results when “simultaneously holding contradictory or incompatible beliefs.”  This, of course, is manifested in the inconsistency in one’s beliefs and actions—such as Portman suddenly supporting gay marriage.

The difference between cognitive dissonance and being disconnected is subtle, and not mutually exclusive. Being disconnected may be a result of a lack of understanding, and therefore, without the recognized conflict necessary for cognitive dissonance.

When such a conflict arises, and it is not necessarily unusual to have competing cognitions, how is it resolved?

As referenced in Wikipedia, “The theory of cognitive dissonance in social psychology proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance by altering existing cognitions, adding new ones to create a consistent belief system, or alternatively by reducing the importance of any one of the dissonant elements.”

In a famous Aesop tale “The Fox and the Grapes” a fox comes across some grapes he wants to eat but cannot reach them. To resolve the conflict, of wanting the grapes, but finding them unattainable, the fox rationalizes that the grapes are probably sour or bad and does not want them. He reduced his internal conflict by criticizing it and altering the existing cognition.

Like the tweeter I mentioned, I recall a similar experience with cognitive dissonance and an animal rescue group. The group was organizing a golf outing in which the dinner included steak. I wrote the director about the conflicting ideologies—how could they be killing one animal to save another? I asked if it really would be too much to ask that supporters of the animal rescue group give up their steak for one day.

The director of that group used a different sort of justification and noted that we live in “a largely rural, agricultural-based county” and that this was “a pragmatic decision.”  He tried to turn the cognition into sour grapes—the end justifies the means?

The resolution of cognitive dissonance is basically an exercise in reconciling conflict. And disconnect is a practical, although sometimes dishonest, approach.

This approach is highlighted by Jonathan Saffron Foer, author of Eating Animals, and blogger Mark Hawthorne in the debate over eating meat.

Foer notes that “disconnect” is easier than facing the cognitive conflict created in the desire to eat meat. “We have such a resistance to being hypocrites that we would rather be fully ignorant and fully forgetful all the time,” he wrote.

Likewise, Hawthorne explains, “One theory of cognitive dissonance holds that it is not the result of people experiencing dissonance between opposing cognitions; instead, it surfaces when people view their actions as conflicting with their self-image. For the meat-eater, this means not wanting to see themselves as contributing to animal abuse; they would rather not hear the truth than think they are selfish and cruel.”

For many, cognitive dissonance is about getting through the moment. It is the rationalization and justification that finishes the sentence, “I know it’s wrong, but . . . “

Life is full of competing values and difficult decisions. The value of cognitive dissonance is not in exposing hypocrisy, rather it is about learning something about ourselves—our beliefs and values—and considering and realizing some sense of consistency.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

204. Fans and the power to forgive

Tiger Woods is the best golfer on the planet again, and Nike is marketing Woods around the slogan that “winning takes care of everything.”

Among the “everything” that winning takes care of is, seemingly, the forgiveness of his fans. Woods was not only the best golfer before his admitted “transgressions,” he was also the most popular. Television ratings when he was in contention to win a golf tournament were significantly better than when he was not.

With Woods winning again, his fans seem to have returned. In an informal Today News poll of about 4000 votes, 65 percent said that fans should give him a second chance.

A second chance?

The concept is interesting, particularly since Woods had never really seemed appreciative of his fans to begin with—it was always about him. When he spoke of his transgressions, he said he felt “entitled.”  And, he has not really asked for a second chance.

Brad Kane of, wrote, “In Tiger's exact case, he hasn't really asked for the public to forgive him for all the sordid headlines generated by his good old-fashioned sex scandal. He's not really the warm and fuzzy, easily emotional type. But the public has given him a pass, anyway.”

The question is who am I to give Woods a second chance? He didn’t cheat on me, he didn’t ruin my marriage or destroy my family. That fact often seems to get lost in fans’ inflated view of themselves and the value we place on our favorite player or favorite team on winning.

This column isn’t really about Woods, it is about all the athletes and entertainers, the fans that become emotionally involved with them, and the ability of fans to give them a second chance.

This is about people like football player Michael Vick, cyclist Lance Armstrong and singer Chris Brown.  As the television show Glee asked in regards to Brown, “Can we separate the art and the artist?”

Each has their circumstance, but for me it is simple—I am supporting the quarterback who didn’t murder dogs, the cyclist who didn’t cheat to win, and the singer who didn’t beat his girlfriend.

I am not a big golf fan to begin with, and Woods’ success or lack of it is a matter of indifference to me, but if I were to support, or root, for a golfer, it would be one who didn’t feel “entitled” to cheat on his wife—or even a whining multi-millionaire like Phil Mickelson. There are a lot of golfers, assumingly, who are really good guys, who just don’t win enough—and that’s all that many fans seem to care about.

Fans need to realize that it is okay to root for guys who finish in second place.

It is a weird relationship and interesting that fans feel like they are a part of the athletes and entertainers—with their self-fabricated intimate connection and the power to grant forgiveness.  Perhaps we need to consider boundaries.

Many athletes and entertainers have been worshipped since a young age—when their talent first surfaced.  And while most athletes, and probably all entertainers, desire to be liked—what they want most is to be relevant. We forget that the fans pay their salaries—they owe the fans, not vise-versa.  They love the atmosphere and the excitement (and the financial rewards) of their profession—and few really care if their fans are you or me—or from Cleveland, Toronto or Miami.

Sadly, winning does seem to take care of everything, just ask LeBron James. After “The Decision” he was one of the most despised athletes in sports—until he won a championship. Now even Cleveland would welcome him back.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

203. 40,000 hotdogs at an Indians Game

Twitter continues to be relevant, maybe more than Facebook, as we are mired in an environment of trending topics and hashtags. It is used in different ways, and as I have written on a prior occasion, I use it to follow a variety of interests—mostly newspapers, cable news sources, sport teams and social organizations. I like the timely quick bits of information, which I can follow up as I wish. When our house caught on fire in 2011, I took to Twitter and a local newspaper feed to get information on what had happened.

But Twitter information is selective, I follow that which interest me—such liberal news sources, lots of animal rescue and welfare groups, and vegetarian/vegan advocates.

One danger in my selectiveness, or anyone’s selectiveness, is perspective. Whether it is Twitter or the friends we choose, or the news channels we watch, we tend to gravitate to those who believe as we do. For advocates, it provides motivations and celebration; for the ideological, it reassures one’s philosophies.

Thus, as a follower of animal welfare and vegetarian organizations, I read about, on a daily basis, everything going on in that community. I am appalled at the military use of animals in their training exercises, university animal testing and the news that a greyhound was electrocuted. At the same time, I celebrate when a school goes vegetarian, a research lab is shut down, or news about the latest health benefit of following a plant-based diet. Every day, I have an emotional response to this information—often several of them (Chipotle is testing tofu!). It becomes a relationship.

While this information is extremely important to me, it’s easy to lose social perspective. Being active in a social movement, and engaging with others who share the same values, it’s easy to overestimate its relevance among others. And this is often noted when I read an article from a “neutral” news source, in which the comments, often harshly, criticize those who believe in animal welfare and vegetarianism. It’s easy to forget that vegetarians are only three percent of the population. Because I notice each vegetarian and am exposed to the issues on a daily basis, it seems like a lot more to me. In reality most people don’t care.

It’s the same with news organizations and talk radio, in which it selects issues to raise passions and reassure perspectives. Turn on a liberal radio show recently and you will be outraged at the five year-old boy that killed his sister and the gun company that markets to toddlers. Turn on a conservative radio show and you will hear how liberals want to take away your guns. In the same way, viewers and listeners overestimate perspective—it reassures how reasonable their beliefs are and how outrageous and extreme other perspectives are. It has, in part, created the polarization of this country.

I thought of this distortion the other day at the Indians game. My wife and I attended on “Dollar Dog Day.” As I preface, I begrudge the fact that this promotion did not exist when I ate meat—thankfully, I suppose, because I might have averaged a hot dog per inning. But more than I imagined, the promotion was very popular, as the concession lines were very long. My wife and I sat in amusement as hot dogs were consumed in considerable quantity. However, we were reassured when a young girl in front of us turned down a hot dog from a friend, “I am vegetarian,” she said.

We had a personal moment of celebration, and my wife said, “See, it’s catching on.” And while I think she is correct, because I do think there is a positive movement toward a plant-based diet—our perspective might be biased.

The unfortunate truth was that, according to the scoreboard count, they had sold over 36,000 hot dogs by about the seventh inning. Figuring that number easily topped 40,000 by game’s end, and calculating that there were about 20,000 fans, it averaged out to about two hot dogs per fan (and at least a few had more than two, since me, my wife and girl in front of us did not have any). We saw a couple of teens go through a near half dozen all by themselves.

The point, I suppose, is that despite our exposure to vegetarianism, and the importance it plays in our lives, and because we have a lot of vegetarian friends, it is still a movement that only represents three percent of the population. It’s popularity is exaggerated, in our minds, by our exposure, reassurance and advocacy with vegetarian organizations, news and events.

By selecting who we follow on Twitter, newspapers we read and news organizations we watch, we find our comfort zone with our beliefs and acceptance. Most people only care about what they care about—and there are enough issues, interest and causes to go around.  But it is easy to exaggerate our perspective and the importance of the things that matter to us based on the company we keep and the information we select.

40,000 hot dogs is a lot of hot dogs.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

202. Accurate forecast? Sometimes

The changing weather can be both an endeavoring and depressing characteristic of Northeast Ohio. It can be 65 degrees and sunny one day, then snowing the next. Last year, March brought summer temperatures; this year, heading into May, it seems like we are still waiting for spring.

As I have gotten older, the weather seems to matter more to me. When I was young, and as a kid who loved baseball, I remember going to my room and crying when our little league games were rained out. On the flip side, like most kids, I loved snow days-a day home from school to sled or play football. But that was basically the extent that I cared about the weather.

There was no Internet or smart phones, for 24 hour radar updates and projections, or a cable channel dedicated to weather forecasting-there was a local news segment and the newspaper. I don't recall paying much attention to the weather forecasts, I watched the news for the sports segment, and I treated each day individually.

Today I pay more attention to the weather forecasts, and am surprised how depressed a few gloomy days in a row can make me. I even pay attention to sunrise and sunset times-and how long the days are.
With age and technology, I now regularly check the weather and the local radar-and like many people I speak with- I am amazed at how poorly the weather seems to be forecasted. We can locate the Higgs boson particle, but cannot figure out when it is going to rain? Locally, weather forecasts seem compromised as competing stations each try to out sensualize the other-with many extreme weather forecasts seeming to fall short.

I wanted to learn more about the weather and recently began watching a Teaching Company class on the subject. Coincidentally, I also began reading Nate Silver's book on predictions entitled, The signal and the noise: Why so many predictions fail-but some don't. In the book, I was pleasantly surprised to see a chapter on weather prediction.

Silver's book briefly describes the history of weather forecasts-the challenges, successes, and the difference between the government weather center (The National Weather Service), for-profit weather centers like the Weather Channel and local television forecasts.

Weather predictions are, of course, based on statistical models-in which very slight fluctuations, due to exponential functions, can have a distinct impact. Thus, when you see a weather forecast that has a 20 percent chance of rain, what it means is that when a similar forecast is made, based on the current weather module-it should rain two days out of ten. This is called "calibration" and its accuracy is easily tested.

The National Weather Service forecasts are well calibrated; however, the Weather Channel admits to "fudging a little under certain conditions." The reason, Silver surmised, "People notice one type of mistake-the failure to predict rain-more than another kind, false alarms. If it rains when it isn't supposed to, they curse the weatherman for ruining their picnic, whereas an unexpectedly sunny day is taken as a serendipitous bonus. "

Silver described this as a "wet bias" and it is worse in regards in to local forecasts, "The TV meteorologists weren't placing much emphasis on accuracy." In one study of a Kansas City meteorologist, when he predicted a 100 percent chance of rain, it failed to rain one-third of the time.

"The attitudes seems to be that this is all in good fun-who cares if there is a little wet bias, especially if it makes for great television," Silver concluded.

In making weather temperature forecasts, there are a couple of factors that must be considered as baseline statistics-that is predictions that will be tested against. There is "persistence," which is the basic "assumption that the weather today will be the same tomorrow (and the next day) as it was today," and there is "climatology," which is the "long-term historical average of conditions on a particular date in a particular area."

What Silver discovered was that commercial forecasts beat persistence and climatology up until nine days out. After day nine, climatology was actually better at making predictions than commercial forecasts-thus, the last couple days of those ten day forecast (or greater) ought to be ignored. I've noticed recently, that many local forecasts stop at about eight days, apparently aware of the meaninglessness of forecasts beyond that point.

Silver's book makes the convincing argument to weather forecasting as an overall success (despite the fudging and wet bias). He believes we have improved significantly over time-and particularly in comparison to other types of forecasting, like earthquakes and economic factors.

It's important to realize that forecasts are statistical projections, not certainty. That it rains on a day when there is only a 20 percent chance of rain is actually quite normal, actually expected, two out of ten times. It is easy to dismiss the accuracy of the forecast on many of those other eight days-days we probably fail to offer credit to the weather forecasters.

Seems I still have something to learn about weather forecasting. Maybe the forecasters are not a bad as I thought. Or maybe Northeast Ohio is really unpredictable.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

201. Portman's selfish move helps US

I've often noticed when celebrities get involved in medical causes that it is because of a personal interest-usually themselves or one of the their children has been overcome by the disease or illness. Think of Michael J. Fox and his work for Parkinson's disease as one example. As a celebrity, they have an opportunity to bring tremendous awareness and funding to the cause--and it is great that they do.

However, it's obvious that there is a self-interest in the undertaking. Finding a cure would help them or someone they care about overcome the disease, and I guess nobody can be blamed for that. The fight also stems from personal awareness. In being inflicted with the disease, they have likely met many others who share the same struggle. Suddenly, it is an issue worth fighting for.

I thought of this sudden awareness when I heard that Senator Rob Portman had abruptly changed his position on gay marriage--because of his gay son. This perspective, of course, goes against the conservative mindset and the values that he embraced. His change of position is selfish and hypocritical.

And of course, Portman is not the first Republican to have this change of heart; former Vice-President Dick Cheney had the same revelation, for the exact same reason.

In writing "Consider this . . .," I have always worked to challenge perspectives. We should think about the issues, from many perspectives and come to a moral and ethical position. It should not be driven primarily based on self-interest, but rather what is right or wrong. Until sparked by a personal interest (and notably after he was no longer a possible Vice-Presidential candidate) Portman was willing to ruin the lives of gays who wanted to marry.

Matthew Yglesias, of Slate magazine, makes this distinct point:

"Remember when Sarah Palin was running for vice president on a platform of tax cuts and reduced spending? But there was one form of domestic social spending she liked to champion? Spending on disabled children? Because she had a disabled child personally? Yet somehow her personal experience with disability didn't lead her to any conclusions about the millions of mothers simply struggling to raise children in conditions of general poorness. Rob Portman doesn't have a son with a pre-existing medical condition who's locked out of the health insurance market. Rob Portman doesn't have a son engaged in peasant agriculture whose livelihood is likely to be wiped out by climate change. Rob Portman doesn't have a son who'll be malnourished if SNAP benefits are cut. So Rob Portman doesn't care."

Trying to find some sort of justification, Portman wrote in the Columbus Dispatch, "We conservatives believe in personal liberty and minimal government interference in people's lives."

That is not entirely true. Many Conservatives believe that government should be based on the principles of Christianity--which is quite adept when it comes to telling people how they should live their lives. And they have no trouble limiting liberties when they want to tell woman what they can do with their bodies, who should be allowed to live in this country, what language we should speak-and who is allowed to marry.

Conservatives, like everyone else, pick and choose when they want regulation and when they want personal liberties. When people do not behave how they would like them to, they ask government to make them. Whether their arguments about a particular issue are right or wrong, Portman's assertion is ridiculous.

If that wasn't enough, Portman then said, "The overriding message of love and compassion that I take from the Bible, and certainly the Golden Rule, and the fact that I believe we are all created by our maker, that has all influenced me in terms of my change on this issue." Huh? That doesn't even make sense--it's just an attempt to use as many key words as possible in a sentence (Bible, Golden Rule, created by our maker, love and compassion). In fact, it's his interpretation of the Bible that shaped his view of gay marriage.

Conversely, by many counts, the Bible includes over 100 passages on serving the poor. Yet, Portman misses this message when he works to protect the interest of the wealthy. Where is his love and compassion when it comes to the poor?

The truth is I do not care how we get there, as long we move progressively forward. Having to choose between his son and his values, I will accept the public enlightenment of Portman as a positive revelation that will help move this country forward.

Admitting that you were wrong, especially on a moral issue, is something that many people-particularly public officials-are reluctant to do, so I give Portman credit for his public announcement.

Maybe he will take this opportunity to also revisit some of his other perspectives.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

199. Soda's bad, but a ban is a bad idea

In New York, the debate rages on about the ban on soda. At the moment, it has been held up by a New York State judge and it is unlikely that an appeal will be successful.

I have long had a battle with soda, essentially addicted to the combination of carbonation, sugar and caffeine. When I was little, I used to volunteer to get soda for my parents. Bottles back then, I would load up the glass with ice-enabling a few more leftover sips for myself.

The fact is I love soda, regular more than diet, but either is better than neither, and I could easily drink a twelve pack every other day. Nothing is more refreshing after a long workout and I never shied away from drinking it first thing in the morning to get me going. I drank it like others drink coffee.

One of the best things about eating at restaurants was always the unlimited refills. I like almost all types of soda, I was not loyal to Coke or Pepsi, orange and root beer is good too, and I often just bought whichever was on sale. In the worst of my addiction or when I was studying for a law school exam, I would go out at 2:00 am and buy a two liter-and drink it all before I fell asleep.

Undoubtedly, even as a kid, soda contributed to my weight issues. The thousand or so extra calories each week is difficult to overcome as you get older. Many studies suggest that diet soda is actually more of a hindrance to losing weight than regular soda. With the nation's increasing obesity problem, it's not a surprise that soda has been identified as one of the causes.

The question is one of government responsibility and asks when should government be expected to step in to act in the best interest of its citizens-and when that obligation infringes on the rights of citizens to make their own decisions.

It is a difficult line to consider--balancing public safety and the freedom of choice. We have seen the same question in the past with alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. In fact, there is a national debate whether to legalize medical marijuana as the right to choose one's own method of treatment. Some businesses, ironically, find themselves on both sides of the perspective--selling soda, and paying for healthcare costs.

To be fair to soda, there are also many other unhealthy foods. At the hospital not too long ago, I was amused that they did not sell regular soda but offered single serving cheese trays-loaded with an unconsciousable amount of calories, sodium, cholesterol and saturated fats. As a measure of consistency, the infamous "slippery slope," and economic interest, where should government step in? People will almost always choose the right to make their own decisions.

From the beginning, I did not agree with the ban on soda-nor have I ever suggested that they should stop selling steaks, cheese or ice cream either. I think that health should be shaped through nutrition education-unbiased and without the pressure of special interest groups.

As a nation, we had better start getting our act together. Our healthcare system is unsustainable-and there needs to be a shift to prevention, rather than treatment. It is not easy and I do not mean to understate the challenge; many of us have habits that go back to our childhood.

Most of last year, I abstained from any soda, regular or diet, and drank more water than at any other time in my life. After a bit of a relapse around August, when I began drinking "a few here and there," I drank about six cans of soda at the Cleveland Air Show on Labor Day weekend. Realizing that I was back on the wrong track, I have not had one since.

I consider it my personal ban on soda.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

200. 200 opinions that not everybody agreed with

By my unofficial count, this will be my 200th column for the Amherst News Times. It has been nearly a decade since my first column, which ran back in August of 2003. That averages out to a little less than two per month--which is usually what I aim for. I believe I have them all correctly chronicled on my website, I put the first 50 into a small collection and had planned to do so with each subsequent 50, but it is a lot of work and time consuming. Now I have the website and they are just as easily accessed there.

Despite ten years of opinions, many are surprised that I am still sort of quiet. I truly enjoy sitting back and listening, and watching-and then reading and researching column ideas. Inspiration is wide-spread-from things like documentaries, editorials, books, news headlines, displaced or random comments, or cable news. They sometimes originate from personal experiences or just hanging out in public-- and most touch my passions (or my nerves).

No surprise then, I've occasionally touched on the passions of others. Some have responded in agreement; others in adamant opposition. Although my passions sometimes get in the way, I am always rooting for an engaging discussion. My favorite topics are the ones that have good arguments on both sides-and I love the challenge of trying to formulate a unifying theory in my mind. Once I've convinced myself, then I offer them to others-to test them, which also means that sometimes my opinions do change.

The most sensitive of my column topics seems to be religion, and, of course, President Obama. Though I do not think I have ever taken a position on abortion, I have received emails--very passionate emails as you can imagine-- linking the three. Abortion is one of those topics that I still have not landed on with a confident position. To the frustration of some of my liberal friends-I find the merits, and flaws-in the argument made by both sides (though, I certainly do not put the blame of a 1973 Supreme Court decision on President Obama). It is interesting that some people see this issue as clearly as I see the merits of vegetarian/veganism.

I very much still enjoy writing this column, though I realize that some topics get repeated and might bore readers. I have a number of issues I still want to cover, including some topics I have not yet written about. The ones that require research often get pushed back in draft stage; others are written in a matter of minutes--in which I could not stop writing even if I wanted to.

As for other ambitions, I would like to write a book--if I can ever make the time commitment. The book I have in mind is sort of a unifying theory of all my columns. It would be an opportunity to go into considerably more depth than I can in a short essay-and links a common theme. However, what I have in mind will require a lot of time spent researching ideas. I have no illusions of a best seller, or even maybe a publisher, but think the process might offer self-realization--and the product, self-definition. As Henry Miller said, "writing is its own reward."

I have a silly new blog, called Five Roos (, which is about a "retired racer's life." Sky, our retired greyhound, actually "writes" the blog from his perspective. Greyhounds "roo" when they are excited, and Sky rates his experiences on a scale of 1-5 "roos." We'll see if he can keep that going. Blogs are very difficult to sustain.

Either way, I very much appreciate the opportunity to present my ideas in this newspaper. Like most writers, I always appreciate feedback--whether it is positive or negative, or just an opinion. Despite the personal reward, writers do want to be read, just like singers want to be heard and dancers want to be seen. I don't know when this will end-at column 225, 250 or maybe 500--but it continues to be a wonderful experience. Thank you to the Amherst News-Times and those who take a few moments to read my column a couple times each month.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

198. Are you a carnivore or herbivore?

In the consideration of veganism and vegetarianism, a popular argument is that it is "natural" for human beings to eat meat.

The proposition is that eating meat is not only natural for humans; it is often also presented as a key to our evolutionary success. By becoming omnivorous, human beings were able to survive on an additional energy source (other than plants). In fact, it is widely accepted that ancient humans were hunters and gathers--surviving on plant energy, spiked occasionally with animal meat. Thus, some conclude, eating meat is a natural part of our diet.

I would suggest that this argument fails on two significant levels. The primary flaw is the extent in which the human body has evolved to eat meat. The second flaw is that, if indeed if it is natural for human beings to eat meat, it is an inconsistent argument when juxtaposed with the other foods that we eat.

Comparative anatomy, as wonderfully presented by Milton R. Mills, M.D., suggests that human beings are much more related to herbivores than they are to carnivores. It is a convincing journey throughout the human digestive system that consistently reveals our relationship to animals that exclusively eat plants--even more so than common omnivores.

To offer just a few examples, consider the act of chewing. Carnivores do not chew their food (they will break it apart so that it can be swallowed, but do not chew their food). Ever say to your dog, "chew your food, you're going to choke"? Herbivores, meanwhile chew their food extensively. Omnivores typically swallow their food whole or engage in simple crushing. Human beings, particularly if they are to access maximum nutritional benefits, are required to chew their food extensively.

The length of the small intestine respective to an animal's body size is revealing as to the type of diet consumed. Carnivores usually have a small intestine 3-6 times their body length; herbivores have a small intestine 10-12 times their body length. Omnivores are about 4-6 times their body length. Human beings, it turns out, have a small intestine approximately 10-11 times their body length.

The stomach acidity of carnivores and omnivores is less than or equal to a pH of 1 (with food in the stomach). For Herbivores and human beings, the stomach acidity has a pH of 4-5.

And this goes on and on. Space doesn't permit discussion on each digestive trait, but in each case--from everything like jaw type, teeth, saliva, stomach size, liver, kidney to nails and colon--human beings resemble the herbivore more than carnivores and even typical omnivores. Rare is any trait without exception in nature, but taken together--it is clear that human beings, though they can eat meat, were designed to eat a plant-based diet.

In analyzing the omnivore diet, there is evidence that less meat is healthier. It is not a secret that human beings who eat a large amount of meat and animal protein have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. Our bodies have simply not evolved quickly enough, within the context of the omnivorous or carnivorous diets, to process large quantities of cholesterol and saturated fats.

However, for argument sake, let us suppose that all of that is wrong. Let us argue that because human beings can consume meat, regardless of the amount, it is indeed natural--and not subject to argumentation. Then, I would encourage consistency, and offer examples of unnatural human habits--in comparison to other animals.

Other animals do not drink the milk of other species (except in unusual circumstances) and never past the infant stage. Human adults, who drink milk of cows or goats, are engaging in one of the truly most unnatural behaviors in nature. This unnatural behavior is the reason that a majority of the world's population is unable to digest lactose--it's natural for mammals to lose that ability after weaning. However, we do see some evolutionary movement on this trait (though the cause/extent of that movement is widely debated).

In the consumption of meat, carnivores typically use their large canines to rip apart their prey's body. Carnivores eat the meat right off the bone, and do not take the time to cook the food, or season it to taste. Thus, to be consistent with the argument of our "natural" omnivore tendencies, we ought not to find walking up to a cow and ripping off a piece of its thigh and eating it raw as unusual.

Eggs are a natural food source and many species will eat the concentrated protein and energy sources dedicated to a developing young. However, like our meat . . . in nature, it goes down raw. Snakes and raccoons do not add salt and pepper and eat them scrambled with ham, cheese and onions.

Finally, our "natural" foods are quite extensively altered in modern food processing. Milk is pasteurized and injected with vitamins. It is turned into cheese and sour cream--things you'll never find in nature. Livestock is genetically selected and injected with growth hormones and antibiotics to increase food production.

Human beings have long passed living in the "natural" world. While we can debate the merit of our cultural evolution, and the optimal human diet, I think it is a stretch to justify eating meat as a natural behavior of human beings. Human beings, through comparative anatomy, seem clearly to be designed to eat a diet made up of primarily plants. Furthermore, the argument that eating meat is a natural perspective of the human omnivore is inconsistent when we consider other unnatural part of our diets.

One can't argue it both ways.

We no longer live in the natural world, and, as such, we can no longer give credence to that argument as the justification for eating meat--unless we are willing to revert to a truly "natural" diet. While we can biologically consume meat, it is a choice--not a requirement or some predisposition based on our evolutionary history.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

197. Remember: Chocolate has a price

There is a line in the movie Men in Black 3 that attempts to sum up the key to happiness. It is explained that the key to happiness is not asking questions you don't want to know the answer to.

In other words, in many cases, it's easier just not knowing--ignorance is indeed bliss. We don't want to know how the diamond got there on your finger, what's in your hot dog or the realities of animal testing. It seems that nothing is sacred, and hearing the story behind the story is not only depressing--it's getting old.

Each time I am made aware of a situation of exploitation, I wonder, how did I miss this--why didn't I hear about this before. Why aren't the voices of the exploited being heard?

It's a story I am getting tired of telling.

Another Valentine's Day is upon us and with it perhaps about 60 million pounds of chocolate will be purchased and presented as a conduit in the expression of love. Soon will be Easter, and much more chocolate will be enjoyed, as enthusiastic kids will wake up and search for their cleverly--hidden Easter baskets.

It's tradition, it's fun and, of course, it tastes great. It is a weakness for many--a guilty pleasure best enjoyed in manageable portions.

Unfortunately, a deeper look into chocolate reveals that it is a highly controversial bitter sweet industry. Not even the pleasure of an endorphin-releasing piece of chocolate is safe from the scandalous endeavor of corporate profit seeking.

It is a battle that stems from forced child labor and human trafficking within the infamous Ivory Coast--where much of the cocoa beans that are eventually processed into chocolate are harvested by children.

A 2000 BBC documentary about the use of child labor in the industry initiated the Harkin-Engel Protocol, which is defined as "a voluntary agreement that partnered governments, the global cocoa industry, cocoa producers, cocoa laborers and non-governmental organizations. The agreement laid out a series of date-specific actions, including the development of voluntary standards of public certification. The Protocol did not commit the industry to ending all child labor in cocoa production, only the worst forms of it."

The 2010 documentary, "The Dark Side of Chocolate," however, evaluates the success of this protocol as it is related to child labor. The documentary investigates the reality of human trafficking of young children from Mali into the Ivory Coast--even if many local authorities deny that child labor still exists. There are conflicting reports about how many children are still working in cocoa agriculture--from thousands to millions--but it is clear that the protocol has not been successful in fully addressing the issue.

Self-regulation is difficult to measure and enforce-as the cheaters inspire others to cheat. Those who want less government regulation should support those corporations that play by the rules.

Fortunately, all is not lost when it comes to enjoying one of our favorite valentine treats. There are many "free-trade" chocolates, and a quick Internet search will reveal the different brands and where to purchase them. Doing so may make one feel a little less guilty about enjoying that guilty pleasure--even if it might cost a little more.

The fact is that we live in a world that revolves around profit and the corporations that will do almost anything to realize them. Most of this exploitation takes place out of the public's view--behind closed doors or in countries beyond our interest.

They hope you will not ask the questions--if fact, they bet your happiness, and their profits, on it.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

196. So Armstrong lied. Do you?

Most of us are familiar with the common quote about cheating: "If you are not cheating, you're not trying hard enough."

Perhaps tongue-in-cheek, or maybe a form of justification, some have interpreted the axiom to mean that we should do everything in one's power to emerge victorious. Leave no stone unturned-after all, it is only cheating if you get caught.

Lance Armstrong's admission to taking performance-enhancing drugs comes on the heels of the vote by the Major League's baseball writers not to yet enshrine into the Hall of Fame any players from the steroid era in baseball. For all those involved, or thought to be involved, there is controversy, embarrassment and disgrace.

But if cheating can lead to embarrassment and disgrace, why do so many people do it?

Unfortunately, there are many incentives to cheat. Obviously, the most powerful temptation to cheat is money. Those who win, or who get into the best schools, or get the best jobs, often stand to financially gain from their cheating. There is also fame, ego and competitive spirit-which might be particularly tempting if one believes others are cheating.

We are obviously aware of the cheaters who grab the headlines, but what other cheaters?

We learned about high school students who paid to have others take their SATs--which would allow them to get into the best schools or maybe even receive a scholarship? And about the students who plagiarize their papers or work together on on-line exams to pass their classes or improve their grades?

The competition for employment is steep and one employment recruitment firm estimates that up to 40 percent of all résumés include a lie or embellishment.

And what about those who cheat on their income taxes, who knowingly and purposely evade paying the amount of taxes owed? Nobody knows exactly how many people cheat--maybe 30-40 percent--but the amount is estimated to cost over $250 billion per year.

Of course, the major league of immorality sometimes includes government, corporation and political cheaters.

Corporations are often fined millions for breaking the rules to gain a competitive and financial advantage. Cheating might entail anything from failing to adequately test a drug to bribing legislatures to get favorable laws passed.

On a global economic scale, the stakes are high and "economic hit man" John Perkins, wrote, "This empire, unlike any other in the history of the world, has been built primarily through economic manipulation, through cheating, through fraud, through seducing people into our way of life, through the economic hit men."

Capitalism, for many, is winning at all cost.

The consequences for large scale cheating in business or politics include the world's most heinous crimes--from destroying the environment, bankrupting nations, exploiting workers and, of course, death.

In this sense, it seems that the extent we are appalled with Lance Armstrong is a bit excessive. After all, he is probably right that if he did not cheat-when many others in his sport were cheating-he would not even be Lance Armstrong. He was just the best cheater, wasn't he?

If some weekend softball players are willing to use an illegal bat to hit a large ball tossed underhand simply for bragging rights, or maybe to decide who buys the first round of drinks, imagine the temptation to create a competitive advantage in a sport of cheaters, in which the winner stands to earn millions.

Certainly, I am not defending Armstrong. He lied for a long time and hurt a lot of people--he deserves to suffer the consequences of his intentional and calculating actions.

But let us not lose perspective.

We embrace a society that not only rewards success, but is obsessed with it. The intense pressure to win, to be successful, provides an incentive to cheat--especially when competitors cheat. Competition, in most areas of American society, is fierce and often the margin between winning and losing is razor thin--yet, the financial difference is often measured in millions. The best are rewarded with fame and excesses, even worshipped; others may struggle to survive.

Sophocles said, "I would prefer even to fail with honor than win by cheating." Today, that perspective might require a paradigm shift.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

195. We don't like Congress, now what?

Recently, in frustration with the Republican-led House of Representative's decision not to vote on whether to provide disaster relief to the areas affected by Hurricane Sandy, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said, "It's why the American people hate Congress."

Hate is a strong word, but the current Congress did end with an approval rating of about 18 percent, and, in fact, Congress hasn't had an approval rating above 40 percent since 2005. There is much to be considered in these types of polls, but every once and awhile I get a chain email pleading with Americans to vote out "everyone" in Congress. The continued fighting between political parties on major economic issues and polices--like the debt ceiling and the fiscal cliff--are testing the patience of the American public. With such a meager approval rating, voting members out not only sounds like a good idea but a plausible one. Thus the question is, if we are so unhappy with Congress and its members, why do we continue to reelect them?

To answer this question, I think there are at least two reasons why members of Congress, even an unpopular one, are reelected time and time again. The two reasons, not mutually exclusive, are the political advantages of incumbency and the lack of choice from a viable third or fourth political party.

Incumbents enjoy many advantages over their political challengers. They have name recognition, campaign funding, full-time staffers and political--as well as community and corporate--connections. These advantages have resulted in the extraordinarily high reelection of political incumbents. In the House of Representatives, for example, reelection of incumbents is traditionally over 90 percent.

One of the biggest advantages, however, might just be gained during the primary election. Many incumbents do not face a primary challenger. In fact, their political party might actually discourage potential primary challengers from running. Without a challenger, campaign funds can be preserved and the incumbent can watch the other party fight it out. For example, President Obama was able to watch Mitt Romney fight it out with Republican candidates-which is not only costly, but also exposes political weaknesses.

In the instances in which there is a primary challenger, again, the incumbent, almost always wins. This advantage is amplified when there are multiple primary challengers. Even if a change is desired, the vote is often split--favoring the incumbent. We saw this situation in the 2012 Democratic Lorain County Commissioner primary, in which Lori Kokoski won by gaining 10,000 votes--while her challengers split 15,000 votes. Thus, although she only received 40 percent of the votes she moved on to the general election.

The problem for voters trying to oust an incumbent is that the only other choice after the primary is voting for a candidate from the other political party. Thus if a community is unhappy with a Democratic congressman or congresswoman, the only other choice is to vote for a Republican--and vice versa. The problem for many is that no matter how unhappy they are with their incumbent, voting for the other party, with opposing political philosophies, is potentially worse.

Consider for example that if in the recent senate race I was a little unhappy with Sherrod Brown--that perhaps he was not liberal enough, or maybe too liberal. The problem is that the only chance I have to elect someone who better represents my views is probably in the primary--which in this case Brown ran unopposed. After the primary, and in this example, I am faced with either voting for Sherrod Brown or Josh Mandel. And even if I am unhappy with the job Sherrod Brown has done in the Senate, there is no way I am considering, or willing to vote for, a polar opposite like Josh Mandel. Sure, there might actually be a couple of third party candidates--but none with any chance of winning. So, once again, the incumbent wins.

Where there might actually be choice--to elect a moderate Republican, perhaps-- is in the Republican primary. But Democrats, obviously and fairly, have no say in the Republican primary. Thus, if there was a Republican candidate that I would vote for, I only get that opportunity if he or she wins the primary.

Thus, if we really do not favorably approve our Congress, we need choice. We need another choice besides the incumbent, who almost always gets a free ride into the general election and the "other party" which often operates at the opposite end of the political spectrum.

To defeat an incumbent without changing political philosophies, we could benefit from additional political parties who offer different wave-lengths along the spectrum. Liberals might consider Green Party candidates-and fiscal conservatives might be enticed by a Libertarian. Or both sides might consider an Independent. But this consideration is dependent on an actual chance of winning--otherwise fear is that the vote is wasted.

And additional parties would offer more real discourse. For example, there would be depth to the conversation as to what separates the views on climate change between the green party candidate and the democratic candidate. There we might find real differences and be able to make real decisions. There is no reasonable discussion, or decision, between a democrat and a republican if, for example, the latter denies that climate change even exists.

A third or fourth party might also put pressure on campaign funding, and donors, particularly large corporate donors, who would have to be more diligent in who they might support. And Political Action Committees would not be able to spend millions trying to defeat just one candidate.

Finally and when everything else fails, we could fall back on term limits to force turnover. As a last result for voters, term limits are a double edged sword. In the short term it might actually increase incumbency as potential challengers might decide to let an incumbent "term out" before engaging. It also serves to remove the really good ones, like Sherrod Brown--who has the passion and experience to get things done-in favor of "someone else." It is a cop out for voters, a skirting of responsibility, but something I would support.

Like many things in politics, a world in which winner takes all, there are no easy solutions. But it is time to consider a reasonable political system which will allow voters to remove incumbents without completely sacrificing political values. We need contested primaries and we would benefit from multiple political parties. We need campaign finance laws that would level the playing field. Some Congressional races cost from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars to run. We need to make it easier for ordinary, but qualified, Americans to run for office--in terms of time and cost. Finally, and in addition to term limits, we need active voters--those who are willing to learn about their candidate, vote in primaries and support third parties. An 18 percent approval rating and a 90 percent reelection rate just does not seem to add up.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

194. Let's take the stigma out of entitlements

From the presidential election to the fiscal cliff, the debate on entitlements is far from over. As a significant part of social structure, entitlements provide many different functions in our society--they play a critical role in providing resources to those who need, deserve or have a right to them. For some, it is a retirement program or form of health insurance. For others, it is a costly and unnecessary burden on our Federal Government. Either way, its impact is so significant that Robert Samuelson, columnist for the Washington Post, stated that, "supporting retirees is now the federal government's main activity."

This difference of perspective is often reflected in the diversity of programs and definitions, which range from a legal right to benefits to a perceived lack of personal responsibility.

I think Wikipedia's definition of entitlement is actually pretty good: "An entitlement is a guarantee of access to benefits based on established rights or by legislation. A ‘right' is itself an entitlement associated with a moral or social principle, such that an ‘entitlement' is a provision made in accordance with legal framework of a society. Typically, entitlements are laws based on concepts of principle ("rights") which are themselves based in concepts of social equality or enfranchisement."

Wikipedia also offers the other perspective of entitlements: "In a casual sense, the term "entitlement" refers to a notion or belief that one (or oneself) is deserving of some particular reward or benefit--if given without deeper legal or principled cause, the term is often given with pejorative connotation (e.g. a ‘sense of entitlement')."

Before we can have the debate, it makes sense that we need to discuss the context of entitlements--inclusive of the individual right, social value, and of course, the social cost. Politically, the term has been contested--embraced by liberals as a social necessity, while fiscal conservatives and libertarians have created a sense of anxiety, or even resentment toward those who receive entitlement benefits. The number of entitlements and rights to them differ, but most embrace a form of social insurance--or socialism.

Thus some entitlements are participatory programs, in which many will receive benefits; others are disability or welfare programs, offering help to those enduring unfortunate circumstances.

Arising as a social insurance, due to the high poverty rates among seniors, some might be surprised to know that Social Security is actually a regressive tax. As worker's two percent tax holiday expired when it was left out of the fiscal cliff agreement, it is important to note that the tax liability ends at a gross income of $113,700. Thus those making one million dollars a year pay the same amount of social security taxes as someone making $113,700.

Medicare is a similar social insurance, meant to provide health insurance to seniors who likely no longer have health insurance available through employment or find it too expensive to purchase individually. Conversely, Medicaid and Supplemental Nutrition Food Program (SNAP and formerly referred to as food stamps) are means-tested social programs that offer health insurance and assistance to purchase food to low income families and individuals.

In terms of the participatory entitlements, consider the analogy to other forms of insurance, such as car or homeowner insurance.

Homeowner and car insurance are similar to many of our entitlement programs in that many people make payments, contribute to an "insurance" pool of resources, in which some members will be legally entitled to payments based on a qualifying event or circumstance.

In others words, members pay premiums for the legal right to access benefits if or when they become eligible. In essence, as a matter of protection, everyone in the pool has contributed resources--so that nobody suffers greatly in the time of need. Does anyone feel guilty about receiving a check from a homeowner insurance company if his or her home has been damaged? After all, if it is a significant claim, it is not your money--it is the money of the people in your insurance pool. Essentially, it's a handout.

And like Medicare and Social Security, there are "winners and losers." Some members pay homeowner or car insurance all of their lives, but in the absence of a qualifying event, they never receive--or are never entitled to-benefits. Likewise, some people will die before they can receive Social Security payments; others will live to 100 and collect it for decades. Similarly, the pool of resources becomes compromised if more people are collecting benefits (in the wake of a major storm perhaps) than are paying into it.

As for the idea that entitlements create a dependent society, the Center on Budget and Policy and Priorities released a report debunking the notion, "Some conservative critics of federal social programs . . . are sounding an alarm that the United States is rapidly becoming an "entitlement society" in which social programs are undermining the work ethic and creating a large class of Americans who prefer to depend on government benefits rather than work. Such beliefs are starkly at odds with the basic facts regarding social programs, the analysis finds."

The Center's report found that only nine percent of entitlement benefits go to young and able non-working households. It reported, "Federal budget and Census data show that, in 2010, 91 percent of the benefit dollars from entitlement and other mandatory programs went to the elderly (people 65 and over), the seriously disabled, and members of working households. People who are neither elderly nor disabled --and do not live in a working household -- received only 9 percent of the benefits. Moreover, the vast bulk of that 9 percent goes for medical care, unemployment insurance benefits and Social Security survivor benefits."

Entitlements will continue to be a political hot topic, and like any other government program, there needs to be an in-depth analysis of revenue and expenditures--to both project and protect viability. We also need to consider such programs in the midst of the federal debt. But in the discussion of these analyses, we need to be fair and realize that many of these programs are a form of social insurance-participatory and available to most Americans. They provide important health and retirement benefits to our seniors and the severely disabled. They exist as a social contract for each of us--and each other.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

193. Gun debate should not wait

The tragedy in Connecticut is as difficult to understand as it is to write about. There is no shortage of opinion, and I hesitated to offer yet another one. Emotionally charged issues are dangerous and I often feel that objectivity increases proportionally with time. However, this issue-and the many issues within--have struck a chord with the American public, and considerations and decisions on the subject are being fast-tracked.

Considering the number of mass shootings in the last few years, I think the conversation is overdue-and I completely agree with President Obama in that we don't need six months of research--which only gives interest groups time to work feverishly to contaminate the process. This is a time to use the emotion of the tragedy to initiate change.

In considering the number of mass shootings over the last couple of decades, there are a number of questions:

What are the underlying issues that are inspiring the mass shootings? Why are gun-related deaths more prevalent in the United States than other countries? Is it born out of our culture and history with gun violence? Is it a lack of mental health issue identification and treatment? What about economic issues and might it be an act of retaliation or desperation? What role does the accessibility to guns play; would criminals get them anyways? What about the media attention afforded to killers--where they are instantly infamous and their lives, and their complaints, shared with a national audience? And what about precedent--and those who follow the blueprint created by those before them? Finally, what about movies and video games, and the glamorization of violence?

For now, and in the midst of the most recent aftermath, the debate on gun ownership seems to occupy center stage.

My father was a gun collector and I grew up on a farm, where we were not a stranger carrying shotguns. Before I knew my way around the world, I begged to go hunting with my father. I always respected guns, and had a waning interest as time went on--but my father had many types of guns, including military--type assault rifles. He, like many Americans, would certainly protest any limitation on gun ownership.

On the surface, I am not against guns. I believe in the Second Amendment--even if it is worshipped out of context. The Second Amendment created the right to bear arms, as a measure to protect citizens against a number of then aggressors--but it does not define, nor could it anticipate, modern weaponry. For example, nobody has the "right" to arm themselves with five nuclear bombs that they keep stored in a work shed. Thus, the issue is not about a right or measure of liberty, but rather of degree. What do Americans reasonably need to protect themselves?

The reaction of Americans is an interesting dichotomy. One segment of the population is turning in their guns at a record pace; another is purchasing them as quickly as possible. Fatefully, the recent shootings happen to come on the heels of the re-election of President Obama and the already propagated fear that he would act to either make gun ownership more difficult or ban assault weapons altogether--or even take away all guns. The overreaction, while not surprising, carries some preposterous ideology, assertions and opinion.

While I support a ban on assault weapons (because I do not understand why people need the ability to fire a couple hundred shots per minute) I think the issues are much deeper than just gun ownership. Japan, for example, has very strict gun ownership laws and, not coincidentally, one of the lowest number of gun-related deaths. But ownership laws have their limits in the United States, not only because of the Second Amendment, but also because of our culture. And while each tragedy is individual and we do not know whether any measures or precautions could have prevented them, it does not mean we should not analyze and consider policy changes that have been successful in other countries.

It is here that is perhaps the most discouraging and upsetting aspect of this tragedy. Due to political interests, constraints and ignorance, we have to wait until disaster either strikes or is inevitably pending in order to engage in the difficult conversations. We have to wait until we are approaching the fiscal cliff, cleaning up after another storm of the century, or suffering from another mass shooting before we can consider negotiating across the aisle and with our powerful sacred cows. Media pressure and public opinion seems to oscillate just enough to assure nothing changes. And, it almost seems that we have to wait until legislatures have expended every shred of self-interest before change can happen.

There have been about 30 mass shootings since Columbine. If we were going to do something to try to prevent them, shouldn't it have happened by now? Let's not wait another 12 years to make changes. And while there is nothing anyone can probably do to ensure that it never happens again--doing nothing will certainly assure that it does happen again.