Tuesday, January 6, 2015

“Wish for 2015: mindful common sense,” The Colorado Springs Business Journal, January 2-8, 2015, 15.


When CBS’ “60 Minutes” covers the benefits of meditation for business creativity and productivity (at Google), we know mindfulness has gone mainstream. So much so, that on every self-respecting urban corner you can find a yoga studio or meditation center.

The Americanization of Eastern practices comes at a price. Gone are the philosophical commitments and the aspiration to transcendental other-worldliness that accompany these practices. In their stead, a heavy pragmatic diet of market-driven “measured outcomes” is offered in hourly sessions, with or without sweating.

Can you measure the benefits of mindfulness? It’s as ludicrous as measuring the outcome of college education. In both cases, only on one’s deathbed can one fully appreciate the benefits, the gifts that come with being mindful and/or educated.

The business-minded critic laughs at the thought of waiting till the dusk of life to reflect on one’s quality of life. He who has the most toys wins, no? Income and wealth are likewise easy ways of measuring and comparing oneself to others.

What would it look like to measure one’s quality of life in terms of mindfulness and education, that is, enlightenment? The cynic would answer: just see how long it takes for you to answer a question or make a decision; the longer the time interval, the more contemplative.

But of course this measurement is flawed because slowness in itself connotes nothing more than being slow: some are slow because they really think deeply before answering a question or making a decision, while others are just cognitively slow. How can we tell the difference?

Perhaps testimonies could do the trick: just ask the person what kind of slowness is being practiced. But as the psychologist Daniel Kahneman reminds us, we are prone to self-deception. In short, we can’t be trusted.

Maybe we don’t have to wait till we are on our deathbed to be reflective. Why can’t we actually practice mindfulness daily, and every time we are expected to answer a question or make a decision, we can become self-conscious of the fact that we are being mindful in the process.

Instead of taking stock of our life only once before we part from this world, we can do it all the time. Some meditate, some pray for the same reason—to stop the hustle and bustle of the daily grind and detach from small annoyances (and big ones) so as to see the big picture more clearly.

No wonder that we are prone to make New Year resolutions, promise to change our life. These promises are usually prompted by reflecting on what we did wrong in the past year, what we think is changeable, and what deserves our attention in the future.

Our reflection on past experiences is a sort of mindfulness that forces us to be honest with ourselves, self-police ourselves. Even when family and loved ones correct us, it’s up to us to act. This kind of mindfulness we cannot delegate or outsource; we can’t pay a yoga instructor to do what only we can accomplish.

Since political economists and businesspeople alike have historically claimed that their theories and principles are based on common-sense rather than speculation, they can endorse the kind of mindfulness advocated here. They believe that how we act and what we do in fact reflect on who we are.

You can’t be a “good guy,” as is commonly said about clients and vendors, partners and fellow-workers, unless you show it or prove it in your everyday work-ethic. Talk is cheap, and actions speak louder than words, right?

If this is so, then mindful common-sense should be easy to accomplish. It’s not about Americanizing meditation practices, or turning board-meeting and sale-calls into awkward moments of silence.

Instead, mindfulness forces you to anticipate your own reactions and those of others, allows you to anticipate unintended consequences, and ensures that you see a continuous thread running from your past to your future, where the present is the only place you really occupy.

It makes sense to slow down, to think more carefully and critically about what you are about to say or do; it makes sense to retract a statement if wrong, and to compliment others when they say something smart or do something well. It also makes sense for you to be kind to yourself and count your blessings—they are all too many to recount.

As 2015 is about to begin, I implore everyone to be more philosophically-minded. It’s easier to do than you think; it’s more rewarding than anything else you regularly do; and if you practice it often enough, it’ll become second nature. Happy New Year! 

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com

Thursday, December 18, 2014

“What we really need in America is moral consistency,” The Colorado Springs Business Journal, December 12-18, 2014, 21.


President Obama suggests that the federal government pay for 50,000 new lapel-size cameras for police officers as part of the response to the killing of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Missouri.

University of Virginia president Sullivan closes fraternities till the spring semester and suggests a coordinated police action against underage drinking on campus as a response to the prevalence of rapes on campus.

The New York Times reported on 11/3/14 that “Hyundai and Kia would pay a combined $300 million penalty for overstating vehicle fuel economy standards on 1.2 million vehicles, a violation of the Clean Air Act.” 

General Motors’ recalls in the past two years have been in response to several deaths because of faulty parts.

Bank of America, among other financial institutions, has been fined billions of dollars in 2014 for mortgage fraud which contributed to the Great Recession of 2008-2012 with millions of people losing their homes to foreclosure.

And the list goes on. 

Seemingly unrelated on one level, because of the diverse issues they deal with—racism, misogyny, greed, and fraud, on another level all of these cases illustrate that what underlies questions of legal culpability are moral failures.

If all we do is act after the fact or simply fine this or that criminal activity, we’ll never be able to root out such behavior from our midst. To be clear: it won’t be easy to eliminate these moral hazards because we’ll have to dig deeper than we are used to.

The moral expectation of the marketplace was that crime doesn’t pay, that trust is built into the system, and that self-policing is the way to go. As the standard refrain from fifty years ago went: what’s good for GM is good for America.

That refrain wasn’t as arrogant as it sounds nowadays since it tied the good fortunes of corporate America with the country as a whole. It was in line with Henry Ford’s dictum about paying his employees high enough wages to be able to buy the cars they produced.

The “good old days” when business leaders felt responsible for the nation as a whole are gone. They show their contempt for the country and its laws by seeking tax havens in Ireland and Luxemburg (as the latest scandals remind us).

As self-policing becomes limited if not obsolete, we turn to local police forces and federal agencies, the ones our taxes pay for. Obama’s brilliant idea about cameras will be as fruitful as the one administered by our city leaders when they installed surveillance cameras downtown on Tejon street. Has behavior around the same night clubs radically changed? 

Cameras record, they don’t prevent crimes. Camera footage can be used after the fact if and when courts agree to such use. But they offer a band aid for open wounds that require drastic treatment, perhaps even surgery.

What we saw in Ferguson and Staten Island reflect racial and socio-economic issues as well the militarization of police departments. When citizens are viewed as “enemies” rather than members of one’s community, cameras worn by officers will not change anything—cameras will be off (deliberately or accidently) in crucial moments.

I still recall like yesterday when I was stopped twenty years ago by a police officer who demanded to know where my accent was from. Relevance? When I was stopped three years ago by a very young deputy-sheriff, his contempt and condescension flowed so naturally as if I were a criminal. Do I look like one, given my age? I’m not trying to compare my experiences with those of young African-Americans, only to indicate the prevalence of officers’ cultural deftness.

Yes, people of color are more likely to be profiled, arrested, and found guilty than Caucasians; but much of that also depends on the attitude that police officers convey. Where is the humility that comes with the responsibility of maintaining the peace and serving one’s community?

Campus rape must be stopped by any possible means. Drinking may enhance a twisted mindset, but it doesn’t necessarily cause it. What causes misogynistic behavior has as much to do with telling young girls that they can’t be scientists as with wage disparity and domestic violence. The web is tangled, the remedies must be broad-based.

If drinking were lowered to 18, driving licenses raised to 18, adulthood could be defined simply. This would be consistent with military service, voting, and a variety of other legal restrictions and privileges. Would this help expecting students to be responsible adults. 

As for the marketplace, fining banks and manufacturers after the fact becomes their “cost of doing business” rather than a lesson to eliminate greed. There is a fine line between competition and greed—it’s a moral line that shouldn’t be crossed!

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com

Friday, November 14, 2014

“Applying lessons in a political economy,” The Colorado Springs Business Journal, November 7-13, 2014, 23.


As the latest mid-term election results are digested, and as we prepare for the onslaught of the 2016 elections, perhaps thinking about political economy is a more fruitful exercise than separating the two domains of our lives, the economy and politics.

The idea that the economy has nothing to do with politics is untenable, even in the ideal market capitalism of Adam Smith: who takes care of executing and enforcing contracts? Who ensures fairness of exchange?

There is an easy, somewhat cynical and definitely real way of thinking about the overlap of the economy and politics: the rich buying elections (through media advertisement). This has become especially true since Citizens United v Federal Election Commission (2010).

But there is a sober way of combining the two: the political and legal domains provide the conditions for markets—the economy—to thrive. Without the rule of law, markets become outrageously inefficient (and costly, if you have to hire the mob) if not outright dysfunctional (when no one can be trusted).

So, political economy encompasses the legal and political frameworks that reinforce the fairness of markets, the safety of exchanges, providing agencies and courts to make markets as efficient and inexpensive as possible.

Incidentally, this view isn’t limited to leftists who argue for market-socialism, but has been fully understood by the heroes of Milton Friedman and his Chicago School, namely, the Austrian School of Economics.

Two recent incidents reinforce this long-held belief. The first has to do with the newly appointed chairwoman of the Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen. While monitoring interest and unemployment rates, the flow of the money supply and the strength of the dollar, she reflected publicly about the hazards of inequality.

To be sure, chairwoman Yellen is concerned about economic and not political inequality; she cares less about the systematic disenfranchisement of voters in states like Texas and much more about income and wealth inequality.

As far as her comments can be interpreted, she’s channeling the view that financial inequality (of income and wealth) leads to reduced overall national demand (for goods and services) and therefore hampers economic growth.

Gone are the Reagan days of trickle-down economics, the theory that the very rich are supposed to spend so much that eventually the very poor will benefit as well. Likewise, the view that lowering taxes for expanded expenditure of the overall economy has been empirically discarded.

So, it’s reasonable to ask an economics question—is inequality undermining growth?—without having a moral question necessarily being asked as well (Pope Francis has taken care of raising the moral alarm bells).

But the economic question cannot be answered without changing policies associated with minimum-wages and closing tax loopholes for the corporate elite. All these, then, are political hot issues. Economics without politics is barren, and politics without economic consideration absurd.

The second case is less ideological but more frightening: the threat of the Ebola epidemic. Here we have political hot-button issues related to the balance that should be stricken between public health policies and individual privacy rights.

Should we quarantine those suspected of having been in the proximity of those infected by the Ebola virus? Should they be isolated from the general population? Where? When? For how long? Is this a state or federal policy?

How does this public health issue become an economic nightmare as well? Simply put, when a federal agency, like the Centers for Disease Control, wants to dictate a policy that affects private businesses, also known as hospitals. Where does one jurisdiction begin and the other ends?

Must private hospitals treat Ebola victims even if they have no insurance whatsoever or when the costs of treatment can never be recouped (even partially) by private or federal insurance agencies? Not every hospital takes all cases, and not every hospital has expensive and specialized units for rare disease: it’s not cost-effective.

But when it comes to public health, should economic questions even enter the equation? While the Affordable Care Act has been debated endlessly on ideological grounds, not much was heard from the private insurance companies that are the main beneficiaries from the Obama Administration’s largesse: the larger the pool of insured, the lower the risk; the lower the risk with additional premiums, the greater the profit.

Once again, the ideological debate cannot remain exclusively in the political domain, where candidates for political office can raise the issues without really dealing with them. For those wanting to blame Obama personally or his entire administration for the Ebola cases that were discovered on US soil, they should remember that health care remains a market-driven enterprise with federal mandates.

If we had universal health care like other industrialized nations across the globe, then of course the government has the power (and therefore the responsibility) to monitor and control the spread of an epidemic. But until we are more consistent in the application of our ideological differences, we cannot expect much progress.

Thinking of political economy as an interwoven set of ideas and practices that require a delicate balancing act between economic and political interests is the only way forward. With this in mind, we should expect piecemeal engineering, fine-tuning of policies that ensure the balance between the well-being of the nation as a whole and individual privacy.

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com