Archive for September, 2009

Greed and Materialism

2009/09/29

There are many things which have contributed to the decline of the United States, but I consider two of them to be the most important.  Greed.  And materialism.  These two things are completely unrelated, yet they operate together in a synergy which is far more destructive than either operating alone.  Greed will cause selfishness, lack of empathy, anger, and a disrespect for the community.  Materialism causes isolation from others, false perceptions, and skewed morality.  But together, these two ways of being bring about huge calamities.

Greed led tobacco company executives to sign off on artificially raising the level of nicotine in their cigarettes, to stimulate profits.  Materialism led those executives to view their customers as non-entities, mere numbers, not mothers and fathers, friends and co-workers.  Greed led Detroit automakers to redesign what had been reliable, durable vehicles into worthless lumps of metal.  Materialism prompted those same executives to replace dependability with flashiness, quality with pretension.

Instead of seeking spiritual enlightenment to improve our relationships with others. materialism confuses us, making us believe that having things will make us more desirable or attractive to those around us.  Greed comes into play when we forget that things of this world are impermanent, transient, and that only through spiritual rapport can we create truly enduring relationships.  People feel isolated and alone, and crave things to alleviate their feelings of insecurity and rejection.

Materialism has caused Americans to lose their sense of community, of identity.  Because we are so focused on the worldly aspects of those around us, we ignore the hidden spiritual similarities. Differences in skin color, upbringing, or affluence come to outweigh the sharing of sacrifice, the results of working together, the comfort of trusting those around us.  Greed blinds us to what we share with each other, and prevents us from feeling hurt when one of our own is hurt.

Through materialism, Greed has been running the US since the early 20th century.  People will risk their lives to gain in worldly wealth, yet they will not cross the street to find spiritual happiness.  Frustration with the inability to find happiness through ownership pushes people to destroy themselves and those around them.  Our media keeps repeating that we can achieve happiness by spending money, but, no matter how much we spend, we end up feeling empty, cheated.  Our fixation with instant gratification leads people to hate other people when they refuse to gratify us when we desire it.

Up until recently, the wealthy in this country have been satisfied with the results of their efforts, because people have spent impulsively, purchasing shoddy items at high prices.  Profit margins have been wide, and wealth was easy to accumulate. But the Greed got out of hand, and became commonplace.  Borrowing money to buy a home you had no intention of living in became chic, eating up the equity in the home that you do live in was considered sound financial planning, and no one gave a hoot about what the future held.  Disaffection with materialism is beginning to take hold all over the country, as people discover that spirituality is free, and very rewarding.

From founding fathers who were extremely spiritual, a nation of people obsessed with worldly material goods has emerged.  This nation is almost completely ignorant of basic spiritual concepts, yet there are many in it who are fed up enough with what has been to try something different.  We may still discover ourselves, realize that we are a great people, with much energy and strength to offer the world. But we must be wary of Greed and materialism, because they are constantly pulling us away from our spiritual selves.

Hemp for fuel!

2009/09/26

Growing hemp is currently illegal in the United States because of federal law.  Hemp has been illegal to raise in the 1930’s as the result of a campaign by a small number of individuals.  Their interest was in getting the most popular source of fiber off of the market.  Hemp was widely used, in many applications, including making clothing and paper.  It was also a source of animal feed, and the oil from hemp seed is one of the highest quality oils in the vegetable kingdom, being so fine that it could be burned in lamps.

Synthetic fibers produced from petroleum were just coming on the market, but they were not popular.  At the same time, William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate, was anxious to get paper made from hemp off of the market, so that he could profit from a new process which made paper from wood pulp.  Hearst owned vast tracts of forest in the American west, which were not very lucrative during the Depression, and he had just purchased rights to a process which used sulphuric acid to break down wood pulp, releasing the fibers in it.

A third character in this tragedy was a rabid law enforcement official who was trying to create an empire in criminal justice.  Harry Anslinger was the top cop in the country, and he wanted more cops, even though Prohibition was coming to an end.  He became aware of the interest Hearst and members of the DuPont family had in taking hemp off of the market, and proposed (well, one of them did,) a prohibition on hemp, in disguise.  Hemp was far too popular to be driven off of the market, but by outlawing the production of a little-known hemp product, Anslinger was certain that he could twist the law enough to keep farmers from planting any more hemp.

‘Marijuana’ was little-known slang term for hemp, a Hispanic word which means ‘the flower of the hemp plant.’  By creating a furious newspaper campaign against something which no one had ever heard off, and getting biased testimony in front of Congress, Anslinger managed to get a bill passed which had the effect of making growing hemp  illegal.  Use of hemp as a drug was not perceived as a problem by the general public, because it was so rare.  Therefore, the propaganda that ‘marijuana’ could make people murdering maniacs after only one use was not disputed.

One of the reasons why hemp is so widely cultivated in areas not under the sway of the US is that the plant will grow practically anywhere, so fast and tall that it shades out most other plants while producing more fiber per acre than almost any other plant, including trees.  That fiber is biomass, the stuff that we break down to produce alternate fuels.  Hemp will out produce corn in biomass production hands down, and do it in soils that are marginal, or even worse.  Hemp does not require large amounts of water to grow, like corn, nor does it require intensive cultivation or pest control.

Human beings have been cultivating hemp for thousands of years, and with good reason; it is one of the best, most versatile, and strongest natural fibers that we know of, while being cheap and easy to grow. We can produce large amounts of biomass for alternate fuels without having to take away room for plants that we can eat.  The United States is still trying to keep other countries from producing hemp, but increasingly, they are being ignored.  There is simply no rational explanation for the attitude of the American government towards hemp.

Is health care socialism?

2009/09/21

Many people are upset because they think of national health care as socialism.  They can’t understand why everyone should be able to receive care when they need it, from a regular provider, instead of the Emergency Room.  To them, capitalism means treating the workers as a resource, to be exploited as much as possible.  The fact that the workers make it possible to create wealth seems irrelevant, not part of the equation.

These same people can understand spending money to keep plant and equipment in operating condition, investing in repairing something so that it will keep working.  When the line breaks down, getting it fixed as soon as possible is worth whatever it costs, because until it is fixed, no one can work.  But if the workers are sick, or injured so that they cannot work, taking care of them is different somehow.  It used to be that people who were injured on the job and could no longer work were fired, without any benefits or pay, to fend for themselves.  There were always more workers to replace them.

But today, most workers must be trained, sometimes for months, as well as being educated by the school system.  So there is an investment needed to bring new workers into the production system.  Keeping the workers who have been trained healthy is a worthwhile investment, which makes sense in terms of the capitalist viewpoint.  This is one of the reasons that health care packages were included as benefits of employment with many companies.

But the cost of providing those health care packages is rising rapidly, and health care benefits are one of the biggest cuts that employers seek when bargaining with unions, and new hires are often receiving less health care benefits than those of senior workers.  But companies in the United States are competing with companies in countries that provide national health insurance, so they have costs that those foreign companies do not.

Until we can view the population of the US as part and parcel to the production of wealth, we are likely to be less and less competitive, as health care costs hobble the profitability of American corporations.  We have to view taking care of the workers as keeping the methods of wealth production in good order, not as giving away wealth.  What we are doing right now is tantamount to letting our production lines crumble, our warehouses fall down.

You lie, I hope!

2009/09/15

When something does not fit our preconceptions, we discount it, try to ignore it, pretend that it is wrong.  When a white Southerner shouts, “You lie!”, he is trying to convince himself and others that what he sees ain’t so.  Many people want to believe that the system isn’t broken, that average people are not being smashed flat by the wealthy, that a sick little girl can go to the doctor.  But what is the truth is the opposite of those wishes, an ugly, twisted truth that decent people don’t want to believe can happen here.

The crisis in health care is indeed a crisis, because it is destroying our trust in our system, in our belief of equality.  This crisis threatens the financial stability of state governments, the future of large companies with retirement plans, the very health of our children.  People are literally dying because they do not believe that they can afford the health care that they need, or because they fear the financial burden that befall them if they seek that care.

State governments across the country are seeing the health care benefits that they extend to their employees bankrupting the public coffers.  General Motors collapsed because of the cost of health care for its retirees, not because its cars were not as popular as another automakers.  A rapidly increasing number of Americans have no health care provider beyond the local Emergency Room or fire department paramedic.

And all of this for what?  To make sure that the wealthy continue to get wealthier.  The health insurance industry will always be profitable, right up until the time that the health care system collapses, because the companies involved will always consider their shareholders first, last, and always.  No matter how many people it takes to process claims, handle the accounting, or wash the windows, the insurance companies will charge enough to show a profit.  Nor do they have any incentive to keep their operations as slim and efficient as possible, because people who want assured access to health care will have to pay those companies the premiums the companies set.

These are hard truths, that strike at the very core of our beliefs about equality and justice.  Discounting them, calling them lies, makes it easier to pretend that they are not truths.  But it does not change the fact that there are children all over the country who cannot go to the doctor.

Law of Distraction?

2009/09/08

Because most people refuse to recognize the dangers of cellular telephones in automobiles, it is possible that technology will have to be used to prevent people from texting themselves, and others, to death.  Of course, text messaging is not the only problem, which states have tried to deal with by requiring the use of so-called ‘hands free’ devices when driving.  It is not what your hands are doing, it is what your brain is doing.  Just imagine being in a speeding car on a busy freeway while the driver is conversing on the phone, when they yell, “He said what!?”  Emotion can overwhelm our awareness of things outside of our selves, blinding us to impending events.  Cellular phones have become enormously profitable, and companies who provide the service are loath to restrict, in any way, the use of the devices.

But evidence is accumulating that the we may have exceeded the ability for the average person to multi-task with our gadget laden mobile communications devices.  The day may come when law requires that cellular service be withheld from any cell phone which is moving faster than 5 miles per hour, and that the phone automatically locks itself up when it is moving that speed or greater.  Such draconian measures probably will not be enacted until the accident rate directly attributable to cell phone use climbs beyond the toll that drinking and driving currently takes.

As an intermediary step, laws may require that cell phones send a record of their movements to a database that can be examined to determine if the phone was in use at the time of an accident, for evidence in criminal persecution.  Even though such information is highly sensitive, the death and mutilation of large numbers of people outweighs our right to use a device when we are posing a risk to others by using it.  And simply turning the phone off when we are not using it will protect our privacy, in more ways than one.

Many people are unaware that all modern cell phones contain a Global Positioning Satellite receiver, which allows the phone to know its exact location and speed at any time.  Creating the software to use that information to restrict or prevent phone use while driving would not be difficult, even though the phone companies are likely to claim otherwise.  Of course, this means that passengers will not be able to use their phones, either, which will cause much distress.  This may result in innovations to protect those who are not engaged in operating the vehicle from being held incommunicado, which will probably only be available for an extra fee.

Expecting that laws will prevent deaths resulting from cell phone use while driving to work is as reasonable as expecting laws prohibiting drinking and driving from working.  Human nature insists that we can handle the distraction that conversation represents, even when it is an emotional one, or that we are talented enough to write a message on a tiny keyboard while driving in traffic.  On the other hand, most of us do not like the idea that we may be killed or seriously injured because someone else was busy talking to another person about something which is completely unimportant in the greater scheme of things.

 

This is a perfect example of capitalism working against the greater good, by providing a product which is easily abused, which can lead to death for not only the user, but others.

Have we lost space?

2009/09/03

Earlier this year, President Obama convened a panel of experts to review the near-term goals of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and report to him what the panel considers should be done within the existing annual budgets.  Included in this review is the Constellation program, which President George W. Bush initiated after the loss of the space shuttle Columbia.

Dr. Sally Ride, former astronaut, has been the spokesperson for the Agustine Comission, the panel convened by President Obama.  She has been very candid in describing the comission’s findings and conclusions, even to the extent of declaring that the comission failed to find a mission that NASA could carry out within the budgets proposed for the agency over the next 15 to 20 years.  There simply is not enough money to do more than one thing with manned space exploration.

Currently, the primary mission NASA is pursuing is the International Space Station, which is finally nearing completion.  In order to free up money to do any other mission, NASA has proposed de-orbiting the space station in 2016, barely 5 years after it is due to be completed.  All of NASA’s partners in the ISS venture object to this destruction of something that they have invested in, very heavily, in some cases.

NASA has been criticized over the last decade for not sending humans beyond Low Earth Orbit, either to the Moon or to Mars.  There also has been discontent with the reluctance of NASA to allow private involvement in space exploration, through the construction and operation of launch vehicles to support NASA operations.  Many space advocates believe that we have advanced enough to return to the Moon, and there is a large faction which claims that we are capable of sending a manned mission to Mars at this time.

Central to all of these issues is the planned retirement of the only spacecraft that NASA has in operation at this time, the Space Shuttle.  Under the budgets proposed by the Bush administration, the shuttle is to be retired in 2010, even though there is no vehicle to take its place.  Astronauts from the United States will have to ride Russian rockets to reach the ISS, at least until 2015, when the proposed Orion capsule could be be launched by the Areas-1 rocket, which is currently in development.  The space shuttle is capable of continuing operations for many more years, especially after upgrades to the vehicles, but flying the shuttle consumes nearly all of the budget for manned space exploration.  In order to develop a new launch vehicle, we will have to stop launching people into space.

NASA is working hard to build this new launch vehicle, but many people have serious reservations about it.  Called the Ares-1, it is adapted from the Solid Rocket Boosters used by the space shuttle.  The spacecraft that it would launch would be a capsule, called the Orion, which is similar in size and shape to the capsules used in the Apollo program.  They would basically duplicate the Russian Soyuz spacecraft capabilites, although the Orion could carry at least 5 people instead of the 3 that the Soyuz carries.

At the same time, private companies are building their own launch vehicles, hoping to be able to land the contracts for sending supplies to the ISS.  At least one of these private rockets appears to be large enough to carry humans into space, using a different kind of spacecraft than the Orion.  Supposedly, the Orion spacecraft is to be used primarily for sending people to the Moon, and as part of a spacecraft that could travel to Mars and back.  However, due to the extremely small budgets that NASA is supposed to receive over the next decade, there is no money to develop any equipment for landing on the Moon and doing any kind of work there.

How small are the budgets?  Only about 8 billion dollars a year is slated for investment into manned space exploration through 2020, an unrealistically small sum.  The Bush administration apparently did not believe that space exploration was worthy of any increase in funding, in spite of the need to build new spacecraft, operate the space station, and prepare to return to the Moon.  Even maintaining the level of activity we have become accustomed to was considered too expensive, apparently.

What little money the Bush administration wanted to spend on space exploration was primarily to be spent with a major defense contractor, for the development of the Ares-1 rocket.  No new technology is involved in either the Ares-1 or the Orion capsule, they are only the cheapest possible replacement for the space shuttle.  But this does not mean that the science of sending people into space and bringing them back has been perfected.  The space shuttle is the closest we have come to a real system to reach space and return, and it is far from the ideal design.  But it can land on a runway, which the Orion capsule will not be able to do.  As a matter of fact, the Orion appears to need the oceans to land safely, splashing down like the capsules of the 1960’s.

Therefore, it appears that NASA is going to spend billions of dollars developing a launch vehicle which is already obselete, just so that America can continue to claim to be a ‘space-faring nation.’  This vehicle is too small to be able to launch the payloads needed to return to the Moon or to go to Mars, so a larger rocket, the Ares-V, is supposed to be developed in the late -teens. At this time, there is no money in the proposed budgets for this development, which insures that the ISS would have to be de-orbited if the US space program is to have any future.  But destroying the ISS would mean that the Ares-1 would have no where to go for at least 4 or 5 years, which probably would result in space exploration being abandoned entirely by the US.

The government is supposed to pave the way for the development of industry in the future, but it seems that ours has given up on the future.  What we have spent forcing democracy on Iraq would have paid for a proper return to the Moon, with long term exploration and development of resources.  We may be able to recover from the financial melt-down of the past few years, but without investment in key technologies, the future will not be as good as our past.