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Our Cake of Twenty-Three Percent

November 5, 2014 Leave a comment

As of 2013, Ohio’s population was thirteen-million people. Of those, 7.75 million are said to be registered to vote. This is 59.6% of the population. Only 3.1 million people cast ballots in the 2014 mid-term election. This is roughly 40% of those registered and a mere 23% of all citizens in the state. While lack of registration of election day means its impossible to vote, one does have significant swaths of time to register to vote. So-called “motor-voter” laws encourage voter registration by including the ability to register to vote at DMV offices.

One wonders why one wouldn’t vote. Yes, some argue that a single vote has no difference (reducing down to being a 1 in 10 million chance of being decisive), but statistics are unrelated factors here. Instead, I view voting as an act of participation. To be a citizen in a democracy is to be a member of a social machine of sorts, a human construct designed to have human representation as its gears and parts. We vote for representatives who form symbolic collectives of our community who then go on to represent our views in government. The idea is that these representatives will enact, detract or propose legislation that reflects our collective belief. This, of course, is Civics 101 and stupid, simple logic.

But what are we to make of a system where 23% of the population participate. Imagine society as a car. How would a car that is 23% complete function? How might a child respond to a birthday cake that is 23% whole? Unfortunately this is just the cake we’ve baked. Worse yet, while the solution remains in grasp (people can register and vote), the likelihood that they will remain highly doubtful. We live in a world where people will camp outside stores to buy the latest model of expensive electronic toys and yet find no reason to bubble in the teeny tiny dots of a ballot. What purpose does it have? some ask. One wonders where the hesitancy comes in? Is it useless? Well, so what. What other daily chores do we complete that have no functional utility? To vote is to participate and build the machinery of state. At the very least, vote simply to have the right to complain. See those who complain without voting as the baker’s complaining about how bad their 23% completed cake is. What would we say to them? Finish your work, do your job. Low voting rates are tragic. One wonders how such lack of concern for a civic action stems from a country where people died for such a right. Though I know that no one reads this, please, if so inspired take the second to register:

No Photos, Please

August 17, 2014 Leave a comment

The cameras are everywhere. From pockets to street corners, to concerts and games, the world is full of image and video capturing devices. One can venture into the eyes of these devices without willingly participating. Walk the dog on the trail, take a friend to a concert and one might just be photographed.

Given that one might not desire such “captures” to take place, modern technology should include an option to protect the identity of those involved. If one does not want to be captured, he or she should have the right to be blurred or distorted in some form that renders the captured image free of identifying marks.

As Native Americans were suspicious of the photograph, contemporary citizens might find similar concerns with technology of today. For whatever reason one feels uncomfortable it is to the benefit of all involved that technology work to embrace the rights of privacy and establish means to remove the unintended subjects of photography.

Consensus Conversations

June 20, 2014 Leave a comment

While cultural values vary from community to community, it is society’s role to facilitate discussion and enforcement. Varied and wide-ranging, the perspectives we hold stem from numerous sources.

Perhaps a religious group believes in varied rights between the genders, or another feels that certain foods should not be eaten. These are real examples from our society that we allow to exist and often celebrate as unique features of the group. Of the Amish or other orthodox communities we recognize a unique way of living and see their existence as a sign that we live in a rational and fair society. Only tyrants squash any sense of “other.”

Who is to say that one group’s ideas are better than another? As a society we collectively discuss the varied ideas and come to a consensus about ideal rules. Such “universal values” come as products of consensus. We allow for massive differences and yet work to make sense of the diversity. What is best for the group is not decided by a specific person; instead it is a concept determined by a massive conversation. One of our greatest accomplishment as a society is this allowance for diversity.

Narrative Nets

March 11, 2014 Leave a comment

Given unknown circumstances there is often a need to create details. Observe an individual standing by the side of the road with a sign requesting help. What are the details of this person’s story? Why are we not in this sad position, asking the anonymous public for assistance. One might wonder why its this person and not himself in this position? What actions or factors of my existence have delivered me to a place where such humiliations are avoidable?

To fill in missing details strings both from curiosity and panic. Charged with the countless questions born from these observations, one must wonder both why it exists and what protects himself from this existence. We are fearful of such calamities and seek out reasons to justify our sense of security. How close are we to such a life? Are we so secure that begging for money by the side of the road is above us? Who am I to feel its tragic? Could I handle such a deed if my children were in need?

One calming source of answers is delusion. Create the details for the person: make a back story and justify the differences. Did the person commit a crime? Is it a scam that they are playing? Creating these lies is less about the individual observed and more about us as the observer. A certain sense of safety comes from thinking their plight comes from action. If they’ve done something wrong we can feel that by acting correctly and protecting ourselves we’ll never live their life. Of course these are just lies and we cannot know what protects us from the tragedy. From what source do our privileges stem? Mere resources that can disappear by whims. Nothing is for certain and the resources from which we build a life are profoundly vulnerable. Are we merely our paycheck? Does our life come less from who we are and more from what our income does allow? Are our dreams framed in income brackets? For many the difference between luxury and destitution are but weeks without a paycheck.

Cashing Out

March 8, 2014 Leave a comment

A fascinating discussion on transactions takes place in this EconTalk podcast from 2007. In it Viviana Zelizer discusses the confounded relationship we have with ‘intimacy’ and ‘money’. She observes that society sees these as distinct cultural norms and strives to keep them separate.

How does money taint experience? Are there moments when a cash equivalent is simply rude?  Attend a dinner party and choose to give your host a $20 bill “I know you wanted wine, but this is so much better.” Say a neighbor learns of another community member being ill. Coming to her door, she offers chicken soup and says, “I hope this kills the sickness.” Does the neighbor offer cash?” When does rudeness make its entrance? 

Money makes things murky. We pay for food from the grocery but never at family holidays. Is the fastest way to ruin Thanksgiving the act of leaving $10 on the table. “This isn’t a restaurant”, this hose might say. And yet both restaurant and family meals involve the consumption of food. In both situations another space is used. Wherein lies the difference?

Relationships are key. In family dinners the introduction of money symbolizes a misunderstanding of the transaction. Money is not working here: the family meal is one in which emotion is transacted. “I care for you so this is free.” Our grocer does not “care for us” in this sense: their business is dependent on our money to continue in its function.

What role does money play in human life? With currency we exchange one thing for another. The bottle of water is a dollar. Exchange your dollar for the water and the transaction takes place. Economies function on these most basic actions. And yet, despite this seemingly simplistic action we manage to complicate the issue. Perhaps it is because these transactions are so cold and simple that introducing them into intimate relationships spell trouble. The payment of cash is one without emotion. I want it so I give it. What function does money play? Often its a symbol of indifference that, divorced of our emotion, works to get to what we want without the murky work of feelings.

Artistic Picks

December 23, 2013 Leave a comment

To assert one’s identity is to re-assert and codify identity politics. Why was one selected for this position? What qualifications garnered the individual with the opportunity? In moments of competition literally person versus people- the factors that are used to make a decision are more important than the decision itself. Yes, the ways you decide are far more important than what you decide.

To provide one with an opportunity on the basis of identity is to disregard or discount skills unrelated to identity. A great artist is judged not by background, heritage or culture; instead, it is the work itself that persists through the ages. Art outlasts the artist. Contemporary culture has moments where background, heritage, or culture trump artistic skill. In these situations the artist’s work is not the major focus; instead, we ask where did she come from? Who or what does she love? Or, worse yet, how can her selection say something about who we are?

All decisions are expressions of the deciders. President George H.W. Bush is often quoted as saying he “is the decider” when challenged that his vice president Dick Cheney was actually in charge. We treasure our authority and use it explain who we are. In selecting someone we express a preference for perspective. Selections are symbols and in decisions where people are involved (i.e., artistic nomination) symbolic stand-ins for our beliefs.

Nominations of artists are particularly interesting on a meta level. Artists often work with symbols and manipulate meaning. One who nominates an artist for a position is manipulating symbolic manipulators to manipulate a symbol.

Incentivized to Action

September 30, 2013 Leave a comment

Maybe understanding the reasons why people do things isn’t all that difficult. Maybe we’re not as complicated as we claim to be? Do our motivations say less about who we are and more about what we stand to gain? Can we ever act without that simple question, “What’s in it for me” being at the heart of all we do? In the end, all things boil down to this simple state of affairs: what do we stand to gain in doing what we do?

To consider the incentives for action is to seek answers to this question. We do not act without incentives; though, in some cases, hidden or delayed incentives may mask our true intentions. Does one donate blood only for the good of other people? At some level that blood donor senses an incentive to give: maybe pride or maybe just a free cookie- no matter what its a personal perk that drives intention.

Of course these incentives are far from simple. Great sacrifices often accompany our actions and a simplified observation that incentives run all decisions paints a very dire, cynical image of the world. Do we limit our perspectives of society by thinking in such terms? Perhaps a better model recognizes incentives as powerful triggers and mirrors. Incentives both drive future action and mirror what makes us work.

The binary of “carrot versus stick” is often used to consider programs to drive action. Prod with the stick in the form of taxes, punishment or denied pleasure. On the other hand, the carrot here is a reward or gift for action. One who wants a group of people to stop smoking might make insurance more expensive or provide free counseling. The choice remains with leadership and depends on a philosophy of motivation. What makes people change? Is it fear of punishment or desire for reward?

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