Thursday, December 31, 2015

A few numerical milestones for New Years Eve 2015

1100/100 -- This year I "ran" (well, ambulated rapidly) 1100 miles over trails and asphalt paths. That was what I'd hoped for. Since 2008 when I adopted my current record keeping software, I've run over 8000 miles. This past year I also "hiked" 100 miles, by which I mean I wore boots and carried a light pack. Some of that was in the mountains of Montenegro, the rest on California hills. All of this was a delight and I'd sure hope to traverse similar distances next year.

81 precincts walked and photographed. "Precincts" are the small areas into which cities are carved for the purposes of organizing polling places. In December 2012 I started the 10-year project of photographing all 596 San Francisco precincts. Having completed 201 (not all posted on the site yet), I'm slightly ahead of schedule and still fascinated. Almost every time I venture out, I think something like "Oh, this one has nothing interesting -- what can I shoot?" Then I bring the pics home and work through them and discover, "yes, that was quirky" and less frequently, "Nice shot!" Given the extremely rapid changes happening in San Francisco, I'm glad that the 20 or so shots from each precinct that never go up on that blog are documenting sights and neighborhoods that could be swept away any day by the new economy. Maybe when I finish walking, I'll do something with those kinds of pictures.

480 posts at this site this year; 5080 since 2005, some serious, some silly, and some in between. What a world! I continue to think it worth modeling that we can practice political and ethical engagement with the country and the world we live and love in. When new acquaintances ask me, "what do you do?" I sometimes answer "I AM a blog." Not true, but I do try to produce coherent, researched, and thought-provoking content in this space. I learn a lot from doing it. I don't expect all my subjects to interest anyone but me, but some people do seem to appreciate the variety of topics.

Happy New Year to all who visit here!

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Mysterious exclusion unraveled: she's married!

In a couple of days, it will be eleven years since Stanford PhD and distinguished Malaysian affordable housing architect Rahinah Ibrahim was arrested at SFO, told she was on the TSA no-fly list, and then excluded from visiting the United States. Since 2008, she's won a court order for disclosure of why she's barred, experienced lengthy government stalling, been forced by her visa denial to testify from abroad on videotape, been the beneficiary of a secret ruling, finally been told that her listing came because an FBI agent checked the wrong box, and then, once more, denied a visa because of "terrorist activities.

The determined investigative journalist Raymond Bonner has tried to untangle the complete, shameful, saga for ProPublica. Bonner is the reporter who first uncovered the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador in 1982. He's used to getting to the bottom of cover-ups. For this article, he wrangled the first extensive interview with Ibrahim about her long case.

And it turns out, this story is also about the inability of U.S. authorities to separate the activities of an accomplished woman who follows her faith by wearing the hijab from their doubts about her husband!

[Judge William] Alsup provided a hint to the answer in three sentences, easy to overlook in his 38-page opinion, and carefully crafted so as not to reveal any classified information. Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, there are nine grounds for denying a person a visa. “Some of them go beyond whether the applicant herself poses a national security threat,” Alsup wrote. The judge did not list the nine grounds. But the immigration law is a public document. Eight of the categories apply to the applicant. One does not. The ninth basis for turning down a visa application is if the person “is the spouse” of a foreigner who has engaged in any terrorist-related activity in the preceding five years.

Thus, the basis for Ibrahim’s place on the watch lists would appear to be something the law purportedly abhors — guilt by association, or in this case, by marriage.

The U.S. government's suspicions of Ibrahim's husband Mustafa Kamal seem flimsy indeed.

While his wife was at Stanford, Kamal undertook several humanitarian missions to Mindanao, the predominately Muslim province in the Philippines. A civil war had been simmering there for nearly two decades, waged by Muslims seeking independence from, or at least greater autonomy in, the overwhelmingly Catholic country. The war had created more than 200,000 refugees. When Kamal visited for five days in 2003, providing food for widows and orphans, building wells and schools, restoring mosques, the province had become a front in the Bush Administration’s war on terrorism; CIA and FBI agents were all over the place. ...

Former FBI and CIA agents who were working in that area at the time told me that Kamal, by his mere presence in Mindanao doing humanitarian work, would have come to the attention of American intelligence.

There may be another reason Ibrahim ended up on the no-fly list. “Maybe they got the wrong wife,” said an American official who has followed the case closely.

As allowed in Islam, Kamal has two additional wives. It is not something Ibrahim or her husband try to hide. He lists his wives, and posts photos of the families on Facebook. Altogether, Kamal has 13 children. They often gather at Ibrahim’s house on holidays. “We are one big family,” she told me.

Kamal’s third wife, Kurais Abdullah Karim, a Filipina, could also be a cause of Ibrahim’s problems. A lecturer at the International University of Malaysia, Karim, is from Mindanao and is, as Kamal put it, a “humanitarian activist.” In addition to having her own blog, about fashion, and posting regularly on Instagram, she is an unabashed supporter of the Muslim liberation movement in Mindanao. ... (In 2014, the Philippine Government and the secessionist Muslims signed a peace treaty ending more than four decades of civil war.)

Kamal said he has never had any involvement with Jemaah Islamiyah, or any other terrorist organization. Malaysian intelligence and security agencies keep close tabs on Malaysians who go to Mindanao, American and European intelligence officials told me, but they do not have a file on Kamal or Ibrahim. If they did, she would not be allowed to be a professor, let alone dean, at the government university, current and former Malaysian officials said, a conclusion shared by American officials who have worked in Malaysia.

... The State Department still considers her ineligible under the terrorism category, and she will have to apply again for a waiver should she seek to come to the United States.

I find Ibrahim's persistence in seeking truth and redress through all this quite inspiring. Perhaps that sort of grit is what it takes for a girl from a rural village to become an internationally recognized architect.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

"Religious liberty" as employment insurance for lawyers

Really, that's all I can make of this screed from the Catholic News Service which turned up in the National Catholic Reporter.

Some people want ordinary Catholics to be be very afraid that, since the Supreme Court affirmed a right to civil gay marriage, their very faith and their churches will be threatened.

The landmark decision in Obergefell v. Hodges won't just ensure that states cannot deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples, said John Breen, a law professor at Loyola University Chicago. It could also have a ripple effect on the tax-exempt statuses of religious organizations; the rights of business owners to deny services based on religious beliefs; the ability of religious colleges to deny married student housing benefits; the right of religious organizations to hire for mission; the participation of ministers in civil marriages; the right of religious adoption agencies to decline to place children with same-sex couples; and much more.

"It's not the end; it's the beginning," Breen told Catholic News Service. "It will be pushed further. I have no doubt that all of these challenges are coming."

... Even publicly declaring opposition to same-sex marriage could put Catholic organizations like colleges at risk, added Daniel Mark, a law professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. The 1983 Supreme Court decision in Bob Jones University v. United States enabled the IRS to revoke the tax-exempt status of a religious university whose policies are contrary to a compelling government public policy, such as eradicating racial discrimination.

"This is the obvious place where this is going," Mark said. "I think we should expect very direct challenges in the courts. It could happen quite soon. Religious institutions are very dependent on this significant monetary benefit. If they lose that, I think a lot of institutions will go under."

... Breen and Mark say the government can't compel a Catholic priest to celebrate the sacrament of marriage for a same-sex couple, but it's only a matter of time before the first lawsuit is filed against a parish that refuses to rent out its church for a civil ceremony.

Well, maybe. But I doubt it. Nobody is mentioning that it took decades after policies against racial discrimination in publicly supported schools were put in place before the I.R.S. sanctioned Bob Jones University. BJU had notoriously forbidden interracial relationships between students. For all the sound and fury, Bob Jones U. still goes strong with 2800 students today. And the I.R.S. has not, that I know of, gone after any other institution that asserts a religious right to practice racial discrimination. Yet the case looms large in the imaginations of some people. The case was a major impetus for the organization of our religious right-wing, as historian Randall Balmer has documented.
Today the NCR reports on a real (not theoretical) case in which a "religious freedom" claim has run into a legally-affirmed marriage. An all-girls Catholic school in Milton, Mass. hired a fellow to run their food services -- then quickly un-hired him when they learned he had a "husband." So far, the dismissed near-employee is winning in court. It's awfully hard to show that the guy who buys and oversees cooking of provisions is performing a religious role. Maybe this should be a spiritual task (I could perhaps make that argument), but that is not what is being argued. The school wants to "govern their internal affairs free of state interference."

Our employment laws have tangled up marital status with our rights at work. We receive health insurance, many other benefits, and are taxed according to our marital status. I think this is bizarre -- why should forming a durable pair-bond determine whether a person can go to a doctor? But that is where our history of piecemeal development of social policy has left us. So the legal recognition of same-sex marriages immediately bleeds over into employment law.

And the employment law that confronts institutions and individuals is largely a state by state matter. In some places, members of LGBT couples are fully protected by statute. In others, we have nothing but what some court decides. There are an awful lot of gray states on that map which can be taken to be indifferent/hostile to gay and gender identity employment protections. And even where we have wide protections as this Wikipedia map indicates, there's plenty of scope for litigation, as in this Massachusetts case.

If we had an effectual Congress (probably requiring a majority of Democrats but that may change), we'd have a federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). But for the time being, that's not happening, so anticipate more lawsuits, more ginned up fear of largely hypothetical threats, and more employment for lawyers.

Monday, December 28, 2015

What do they tell the relatives of dead soldiers?

Do they become "boots" when they come back in body bags? I've been wondering for a while. And, then, among those who don't come back dead, there are the maimed -- physically, mentally and morally. What happens to their families?

And, of course, what happens to people who just happened to be in the way of their "targets", whoever those are? We always have to wonder, do they really know who they have been sent to attack? The record is not good.

Will our ninjas be able to tolerate the panicked, yet complacent country that sent them off fight? History is not encouraging on that score either?

See article by Schmitt and Mazzetti on Specials Forces doing our dirty work around the world.

Who works in tech?

A serendipitous discovery while browsing this and that:
This chart breaks down the racial composition of the work force at major tech firms. It's from a thoughtful and heartfelt article by a former Twitter engineer, a Black man, who writes as @Shaft.

This writer loved that African Americans and Latinos make up more than 30% of U.S. monthly active users. He was thrilled that Twitter the company responded with pride to the proliferation of the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #Ferguson. He learned that

in 2013, 4.5% of [computer science] graduates from the top 25 schools were African-American, and 6.5% were Hispanic/Latino.

He attempted to encourage his bosses to increase the diversity of qualified new hires, but felt he was met with blank incomprehension. He left Twitter feeling "conflicted."

... Twitter as a platform has empowered underserved and underrepresented people. It has fomented social movements and brought to the forefront of American media and politics issues that impact me personally and professionally.

Twitter’s issues with growth and engagement and the issues with internal diversity are somewhat related. The over-reliance on a limited number of schools and workplaces for talent has caused a type of group think to dominate. Any change would be approved by people who all think alike. There was very little diversity in thought and almost no diversity in action. To quote Mark S. Luckie “Without a variety of voices contributing ideas, the workplace becomes a homogenized environment where potential brilliance may never be achieved. Diversity should rightly be seen as a benefit to growth, not an obstruction to avoid.” For some at Twitter, diversity is an obstruction to avoid. With my departure, Twitter no longer has any managers, directors, or VP’s of color in engineering or product management. ...

It doesn't take much depth of insight to notice that the tech sector fails to mirror the demographics of society at large.
For those of us in the San Francisco Bay Area (and probably more other regions than I know), the winners in the tech economy are our new overlords. It's worth knowing who they are -- and who they are not. Keeping it real about this has to be part of progressive efforts to rein in gentrification and the excesses of new wealth.

The "Asian" column in the chart above leaves me with more questions than answers. Nobody is "Asian" except in popular U.S. journalism. People come from different countries -- China, Taiwan, Korea, India, Vietnam, the Philippines and more. They bring different histories, cultures and values.

Which "Asians" populate tech? Do some "Asians" feel as isolated as @Shaft does? Asians look to be getting their share of jobs in tech and then some, but do they feel as constrained as @Shaft? I need to do some asking around ...

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Traveling troublemaker

Historian of religions Karen Armstrong's catalog of books is prodigious: twenty-four so far, and counting. As might be expected of such a wide ranging collection, some are better, and some are more challenging, than others. I appreciated her latest rather small effort: St. Paul: The Apostle We Love to Hate.

Less than many, especially women, I've never been a Paul-hater. As an organizer who tries to think about liberation at scale, I have found that what we know of this apparently effectual individual fascinates me. He is credited with somehow carrying the Jesus movement out of Palestine and across the Roman world, a very improbable trajectory for a little Jewish heresy.

Paul probably gets more and less credit than he deserves. All we have of his exploits are seven likely-genuine letters preserved in the Christian part of the Bible, other Biblical accounts that seem to have been constructed to advance intramural squabbles, and a further collection of letters that imitators with their own agendas wrote using Paul's apparently authoritative name.

What Armstrong does in this little book is put the apostle in his historical context. I'm going to excerpt at some length here as a sample of both her method and content. After early missionary efforts in cities such as Damascus and Antioch where there were many Jews, Paul apparently decided to carry his "good news" to the "land of Japheth" -- peoples in Asian Minor including Greeks, Macedonians, Phrygians, and Anatolians. And there he found exotic peoples, but also fertile ground.

This was alien territory indeed; unlike Cilicia and Syria, it had few Jewish communities and Jews rarely traveled so far into this wild part of Asia Minor... Communication was difficult because Paul was now speaking to people with entirely different cultural presuppositions and expectations ...

[The Galatians] were an Indo-European people, Aryan Gauls whose native language had been akin to Welsh or Gaelic; in the early third century BCE, they had migrated from Europe and settled in what is now north-central Turkey. An itinerant warrior people, they hired themselves out as mercenaries, before finally adopting a sedentary lifestyle, living in farming communities ruled by elected assemblies and celebrating the feats of their ancient heroes in rowdy banquets similar to those described in the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf. They worshipped their Mother Goddess, a fierce deity who enforced justice and was often identified with a mountain that towered above their village; at her major cult centers, young men would sometimes castrate themselves in her orgiastic rituals. What on earth could these savage Celts have in common with Jesus and his Jewish followers?

Yet Paul soon realized that like the Judeans and Galileans, the Galatians had been conquered by Rome relatively recently and were still struggling with imperial rule. ...An intrepid race of heroes now existed for the sole purpose of providing a continuous flow of crops in tax revenue to the imperial capital. ... from the letter [Paul] wrote later to the Galatians, we can deduce that he urged them to cast off servile habits of dependence and submission together with the Greco-Roman religion of their masters that supported the imperial order: "Stand firm, therefore, refuse to submit ... to the yoke of slavery."

... as they watched the Romanization of their society, some of the Galatians may have been attracted by the prospect of affiliation with Israel, an ethnic group that had won acceptance in the empire, which would enable them to retain some distance from Rome. They [may] not have understood that Paul was insisting on something more radical. He would later remind them in his letter that with the cross [execution of Jesus] the old ethnic, social, and cultural divisions that characterized the present evil age had been obliterated: "Baptized into union with him, you have all put on Christ like a garment. There is no such thing as Jew and Greek, slave and freeman, male or female; for you are all one person in Christ Jesus."

... the Galatians had to liberate themselves from habits of servility and ethnic prejudice by creating an alternative community characterized by equality.

Of course I've listened to frequent readings of Paul's famous injunctions to the Galatians, but this becomes much richer in the context which Armstrong provides.

Paul's life presents us a miracle very much like the miracle presented by the stories of Jesus: the true improbability is that we've ever heard of these obscure agitators at all. The Roman Empire was full of traveling troublemakers; it was also good at disposing of them. All we know (as attested history rather than legend) is that Paul led a delegation of non-Jewish Christians to the mother-congregation of Jesus followers in Jerusalem; neither the local congregation nor the Roman rulers were welcoming. Paul was seized by the Romans.

Nobody seems to know how or when Paul died. ... Once in Roman custody, Paul could also have simply disappeared. In our own time, we have seen how easily a powerful regime can dispose of small-fry subversives who stand in its way. The fact that there are [several] variant views of his death indicate that once he was taken into Roman custody, he simply vanished, dispatched like Jesus with "casual brutality.

Yet the ideas of Paul -- and idea of Paul -- permeated much of the world that had known Rome and beyond.

This is a thought provoking little book.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Saturday scenes: fungi burst out

So far, this El Nino thing hasn't brought us downpours. In fact, I haven't yet missed an outdoor exercise day, somewhat to my surprise.

But along the trails in the parks, I have new company.
These weren't there just a week ago.

And now they are everywhere I look.

In many kinds ...

and configurations.

Meanwhile the Golden Gate Park turtles seem to like the wet weather.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmases past

The eve of the feast of Jesus' birth was not always what it is today.

In the years 2010 to 2015, the New York Times marked the 150th anniversary of the U.S. Civil War with a series of "Opinionator" posts about that conflicted time. I especially enjoyed historian Adam Goodheart's snapshot of how the Christmas holiday figured in the U.S. cultures of 1860.

If you were a slave or an abolitionist, you might have approached the season with dread. Slave masters

... encouraged their slaves to eat, drink, and be merry. Field hands were commonly given the entire week as a holiday – their only one of the year. ... On the morning of Dec. 25, right after opening presents and emptying stockings, masters would bring their families down to the slave cabins to watch blacks perform dances and songs that had been handed down from Africa.

Meanwhile, despite the break from forced labor, the season was a time of anxiety for people held in bondage.

... In the antebellum period, the end of the calendar year was – as it is now – a busy period for financial transactions. Assets were liquidated, debts settled, taxes paid, balance sheets scrutinized. Any of these might lead a slaveholder to divest himself of some human property. Based on the evidence in contemporary newspapers, New Year’s Day slave auctions ... were common. The estimated five to 10 percent of American slaves who were rented from one master to another (in some regions the figure was more than 60 percent) had their own reasons to be terrified. Jan. 1 was when old rental contracts expired and slaves’ services were auctioned off for the year ahead, sending them to different, often far-flung, plantations.

Like just about everything else in a nation poised to go to sectional war, Christmas was claimed and appropriated by the contending parties.

In the South, the Augusta Chronicle accused the Yankee Puritans of being joyless Christmas-haters: “Our broad Union is divided between the descendant of the Norman Cavalier reverencing Christmas, and the descendant of the Saxon Puritan repudiating it … Let us hear no more of a “Cotton Confederation” but let us have instead (what may sound like a jest, but which has something of seriousness in it) a Confederation of the Christmas States.”

Meanwhile, several hundred miles closer to the North Pole, the same day’s Philadelphia Inquirer called Christmas a “good old Yankee custom” ...

Yet Christmas had not yet been entirely woven into the national calendar of major holidays.

Culturally, Christmas in 1860 was also at a strange transition point. In many parts of America, it was still celebrated as a riotous old pagan Saturnalia: working-class revelers known as “callithumpians” paraded through the streets in drag or blackface (sometimes both), firing off guns and starting street brawls, defying annual attempts by the city fathers to ban Christmas, as it were.

... Many, if not most, Protestant churches did not even have Christmas services, though some staged holiday parties, pageants, and “entertainments.” The New-York Tribune remarked in 1860 that only gradually was the festival starting to become as widely observed as more important national celebrations like the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and New Year’s Day.

Many of the pieces which made up the Times series have been published as a book: New York Times: Disunion: Modern Historians Revisit and Reconsider the Civil War from Lincoln's Election to the Emancipation Proclamation. This was a volume that I read by ear and appreciated very much. There was an effort to match the readers with the gender and even the ethnicities of the various historians. All the chapters are naturally quite short. This is an easy way to absorb some Civil War history, 150 years out from that time's passions. And so many of that time's dilemmas remain: the moral challenge embedded in the nation by the our long acceptance of and profit from slavery continues today.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Religious co-existence

If several commentators that I follow hadn't opined about it, I would surely have missed this development. Apparently a Vatican commission announced last week that the Roman Catholic Church should end institutional missions to convert the Jews.

Who knew the Catholic Church was still attempting any such thing? I didn't, though I suppose if I'd thought about it, I'd have realized that a church which doesn't offer the communal meal (the Eucharist) to non-members and to its own divorced people might cling to such a project. Still, the idea seems a little shocking.

I was glad to see the always informative James Carroll expound about this in the New Yorker. He insists this obscure theological tweak is momentous. According to his reading of history, it was through the Spanish Inquisition's effort to (literally) smoke out secret Jews who were only "pretend" Christians that the notion of blood-impurity slipped into European consciousness.

In 1449, the city council of Toledo, Spain, passed an ordinance decreeing “that no converso of Jewish descent may have or hold any office or benefice in the said city of Toledo.” The papacy promptly condemned the so-called limpieza de sangre, or “blood purity,” requirement, but soon enough such restrictions spread, taking firm hold on the Catholic imagination. At the turn of the seventeenth century, the Jesuits, to take an egregious example, declared that “no one will hereafter be admitted to this Society who is descended of Hebrew or Saracen stock … to the fifth degree of family lineage.” Although the exclusion of “Saracens”—that is, Muslims—later dropped away, Jesuit authorities allowed the restriction against converted Jews, their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, to stand until 1946.

This embrace of the blood-purity standard marked the epoch-shaping move from religious anti-Judaism to racial anti-Semitism. Indeed, the assumption of Jewish biological inferiority amounted to the invention of racism, and it gripped the European mind just as adventurer-explorers were setting sail for Africa, Asia, and the New World. A religion-based white supremacy defined European encounters with people of color everywhere. The totemic date for this fateful turn in the story of the West is 1492—the year of Columbus, but also the year of the expulsion of Jews from Spain.

Remembering his own Catholic education, Carroll insists this declaration creates a larger opening than may seem obvious.

Last week’s renunciation may seem like a routine religious matter, of little interest outside the circle of Jewish-Catholic dialogue, but a basic principle of pluralism—other people have the right to be other people—is being affirmed. The absolute claims to religious superiority that have long been part of Catholic identity are being mitigated, if not dismantled.

The theological magnanimity implied by the Vatican pronouncement raises serious problems for the Catholic faith, which continues to put Christ at the center of all salvation. But that faith is clearly undergoing a change, as dogma gives way to experience. Because the theological contradictions reside in, as the pronouncement puts it, “an unfathomable divine mystery,” the Church can live with them, for now.

J.J. Goldberg, a columnist and former editor of the Jewish Forward, also thinks the Vatican declaration is a BFD.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the new document on the conversion of Jews that the Vatican released December 10. ... For Jews, it means that the 2,000-year scourge of persecution and forced conversion is finally over. ... Jews have long memories.

It’s an even bigger deal for missionary groups like Jews for Jesus. Converting Jews is what they do. If this thing spreads, it could put them out of business. Protestants don’t always admit it, but Vatican thinking has a trickle-down influence beyond Catholics. What happens in Rome doesn’t stay in Rome.

[In 1965, the Second Vatican Council] annulled supersessionism. The Jews’ covenant was still in force. The Christians’ New Covenant hadn’t replaced it. The two existed side by side. This is called dual-covenant theology. ... Mainline and liberal Protestant churches, including Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Lutherans, have largely adopted dual-covenant theology, mostly within the past decade.

... the Vatican itself has difficulty explaining how it can reconcile its belief in the continuing Jewish covenant, ... with the equally clear principle appearing elsewhere in the New Testament that salvation comes only through Jesus. The new document puts it this way: “That Jews are participants in God’s salvation is unquestionable, but how that can be possible without confessing Christ explicitly, is and remains an unfathomable divine mystery.”

The key phrase here seems to be "unfathomable divine mystery." Okay, that probably works for most contemporary persons who find something of value in our various religious traditions. We also know we don't know it all -- or we should know it.

With that in mind, it didn't surprise me to read Mustafa Akyol's oped in the New York Times about the theological history of how some Muslims have tried to discern who is a "true" believer and who an infidel or apostate. It seems that religious tradition has also struggled with how to deal with those whose approach to God was somehow different. Akyol wants to raise awareness of one ancient solution:

Unless you have some knowledge of medieval Islamic theology you probably have no idea what irja means. The word translates literally as “postponing.” It was a theological principle put forward by some Muslim scholars during the very first century of Islam. At the time, the Muslim world was going through a major civil war, as proto-Sunnis and proto-Shiites fought for power, and a third group called Khawarij (dissenters) were excommunicating and slaughtering both sides. In the face of this bloody chaos, the proponents of irja said that the burning question of who is a true Muslim should be “postponed” until the afterlife. Even a Muslim who abandoned all religious practice and committed many sins, they reasoned, could not be denounced as an “apostate.” Faith was a matter of the heart, something only God — not other human beings — could evaluate.

Perhaps another "unfathomable divine mystery"? Perhaps in our interconnected and interdependent world, ancient faiths can recognize there is more we can't know than there is that we do know. This is how we live together, as we must.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

For a joy-filled long game ...

Last week I published here an opinion so optimistic that friends asked me if I really believed it. I asked myself the same thing. Later I was in discussion with some wise progressive political thinkers who take a much more dire view of our times. In response to their political pessimism, and my own, I wrote this. I do think this is true in these waning days of 2015.

Trump and the Republican presidential clown show are manifestations of the death rattle of a particular phase of United States white supremacy. Periodic eruptions of violence create an atmosphere that serves the interests of the declining power centers. The resulting panic could lead to a genuinely fascist outcome.

But it need not. For people engaged in struggles for justice, the moment requires hanging on to realities that elites of all stripes would prefer we look away from. And it then requires "keeping our eyes on the prize" -- continuing to work for a world of relative equality of material enjoyments, of justice, and of peace within and among peoples.

Some realities to hang on to amid the noise:

1) The current collapse of unlamented states in the Middle East and the very dramatic violence wrapped in religious garments that has ensued are NO threat to the United States or any large number of its residents unless we are so unfortunate as to go to those places.

2) Small, even Paris sized, violent episodes happening periodically will not materially change reality in this country unless we let them. And, in fact, there have been no such planned, efficient terrorist events here. There have been a couple of pairs of individuals (in Boston and San Bernardino) who claimed overseas inspiration wreaking local carnage because this is a society where people can. But nothing like an actual terror campaign has been directed from outside. And, of course, being a country where nuts settle their disputes and unleash their demons with guns, we have violence from individuals and the daily state-sanctioned violence of the authorities.

3) It is in the interests of elites of all sorts to keep us focused on "all terror all the time." It is not in our interest to comply.

4) Yes, the policies of our rulers are very much implicated in the mess in the Middle East. What's done is done. We can call this out, but it is currently largely irrelevant except as inspiration not to allow them to repeat and extend their meddling. Yes we need a peace movement and, being the world's number one imperial colossus, will need one for the foreseeable future.

Not all is terrible. This is a country that -- after kicking, screaming, and violent protest -- has managed again and again to incorporate and normalize new populations with diverse cultures and more or less make it work. White backlash cannot stop demographic change and demographic power shift. Sure, the losers will throw up every possible obstacle to losing their dominance, from police aggression against vulnerable communities, to suppression of democratic participation, to outright fascist thuggery. That's the nature of struggle.

Yes, the Trump/Republican fascist alliance is terribly dangerous. It must be denounced, exposed, and blocked everywhere we can. But it is also a symptom that change is happening and that's where we need to focus. We do not have to let this moment throw us off our game -- but we do have to understand that our game is a long one and there will be casualties. (In fact, the most oppressed communities tend to know this better than the relatively well off, especially the latter sad truth.)

We need to continue to work for equality: that means curbing the abuses of the owners of capital as much as possible and spreading the wealth more fairly. But also we need to understand that the sort of labor that societies of the future will need will be different than in the past. We've got a lot of envisioning to do if we don't want our economic system designed for us by Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Martin Shkreli.

We need to keep up the fight for safety in the communities at immediate risk. This means first and foremost being there broadly and respectfully for #BlackLivesMatter, for other victims of state violence, for Muslim communities under threat, and for abortion providers. This is not sweating the small stuff; this is people's lives.

There are moments when elite interests coincide with broader human interests. Really. We need the capacity to recognize this when it happens and get in there and push in the right direction. A couple of recent occasions included Obama's decision in 2013 not to go jumping into Syria chasing Assad's chemical weapons and also the recent Iran nuclear deal. There seems to be some chance that climate unsustainability is scaring our elites so badly that they will move toward curbing CO2. Again, time to get in there and push, while elaborating and deepening our own understanding of the crisis.

We have to work the democratic levers of power that exist within the system. Electoral politics is almost always a fight to hold space so as to preserve the possibility that outsider movements can coalesce and grow to change the system. But that tiresome truth is no reason to give up on it. Every popular movement in this country needs to do what it can in its circumstances to ensure that we come out of the 2016 election with a Democratic president (any Democratic president will do) and as many Democratic Senators as possible. This is about living to fight another day.

Finally, for those of us in the progressive forces who are white, there's a necessary job to be done to help white citizens of this country live through the demographic transition with joy instead of fear. We aren't going to win all of 'em, but there are more plausible converts than always seem apparent and it is our job to nurture those we can bring along for our country's next wild ride.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Cool? or Creepy?

This text and graphic turned up in a New York Times article about Medicare costs I was reading the other day.

Apparently the Times guesses my location and feeds me data tailored to where they think I am.

The effect is interesting, but I was not pleased. I want to know about other locations as well as my own. For me, the data is most interesting when visualized comparing different locations.

The article contained a search box which was supposed to enable me to look at data from other locations, but I never could get it to work.

What do you think? Cool? or Creepy?

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The astronomer and the monks

When I heard Chris Impey interviewed on radio, I knew I had to read his story. Humble before the Void: A Western Astronomer, his Journey East, and a Remarkable Encounter Between Western Science and Tibetan Buddhism was worth the effort, though the science this University of Arizona astronomer was teaching frequently exceeded my grasp. This was partly due to my mistake, as I'll explain at the end.

Here's how Impey describes his project:

It was a modern day encounter between Buddhist philosophy and science. I'd been given the opportunity to teach a select group of three dozen Tibetan monks about modern astronomy, physics and cosmology. We met under the aegis of the Science for Monks program, an initiative supported by his Holiness, the Dalai Lama.

... At home in Arizona I work at an observatory in the desert, ringed by mountains. I use telescopes with giant mirrors and powerful digital cameras, able to snare light from the beginning of time. During my time in Dharmsala, India, we had only handheld telescopes and the naked eye. But we also had a place at the edge of the rooftop of the world, and a ringside view of the pristine sky that backs the haunting, timeless Himalayas.

This technological and geographical contrast alone could tell much of the story of my experience as a Western scientist immersed in a distant world of Buddhist tradition, which anchors itself in so much that is ancient. The West seeks to understand and control the material world. Buddhism views the material world as, in many ways, illusory. ...We were engaging in a freewheeling dialogue after centuries of persistent antagonisms between science and religion.

In that spirit, Impey led his little flock of monks through the Western mathematics of scale, the scientific description of the universe and its origins in the Big Bang, some quantum theory, and our understanding of the evolution of life. All in three weeks, and with marvelous imagination and creativity. Any teacher of math and science at any level would gain from reading about his teaching methodology; if I'd had teachers like him, I might have absorbed more science.

And Impey is well aware that he is teaching students with an extraordinary capacity for patience and curiosity. These are men who will spend days moving individual grains of sand into mandalas -- and then sweep their creations away in moment. Impey's undergraduates are nothing like this.

So where did Impey and his crew arrive at the end of three weeks? Here's a bit of his conclusion, arrived at when he has arranged for the monks to spend some time looking through small telescopes:

We've done the science. Later we will simply look out on the universe. By falling silent, we can all think about what's left -- the meaning we want to give to what we see. I'm not sure science can help with meaning. Science is still in its childhood, an unruly teenager of great promise that doesn't know its own strength. It's capable of great good and it also has the potential for harm. As a singularly human enterprise, science reflects all our strengths and faults.

... In a universe with 10,000 billion billion stars and probably a myriad of life forms, we are special in some ways, yet we are not in a cosmic sense. The profound question science is unable to answer: Why are we here? ... Buddhist cosmology has the idea of a trichiliocosm, a system of a billion worlds, and a highly enlightened being, or supreme nirmankaya, with a purview over that number of worlds. It occurred to me when I first heard this that the concept maps perfectly to the likely number of habitable worlds in a galaxy and the most advanced life form in that galaxy. I doubt that it's us.

Impey and the monks are worlds apart and not so different after all.
I made a major mistake by reading this book by ear (as I often do with works I mention here). It worked poorly as an audiobook for me. This was in part because I'd heard Impey interviewed: he's a Brit with the accent you might expect. The reader of the audio edition is an American with a bit of a southern tinge. I found the contrast to the voice I'd heard very jarring.

But in addition, the reader needs the illustrations that accompany the text. By this I mean not only the line drawings that illustrate the science, but also the wonderful photos of the monks, learning with playful joy. It would be worth looking at this book just for those images.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Whatever is that?

Yes, on closer inspection, this did prove to be exactly what it looks like.

Drying fish to preserve it is an ancient human practice.

Drying is a method of food preservation that works by removing water from the food, which inhibits the growth of microorganisms. Open air drying using sun and wind has been practiced since ancient times to preserve food.[1] Water is usually removed by evaporation (air drying, sun drying, smoking or wind drying)...

What was unusual was to encounter this at the end of a cul-de-sac in a working class neighborhood of our still somewhat weird and wacky city.

A Walking San Francisco out-take, obviously.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Solidarity against Islamophobia

The community of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley responded on Thursday to the current national eruption of hate, fear, and random attacks targeting Muslims with a public dialogue. Left to right above: Naomi Seidman, Center for Jewish Studies; Munir Jiwa, Center for Islamic Studies; Rita Sherma, Director of the Hindu Studies Initiative and Associate Professor of Dharma Studies; Jim Hopkins, Lakeshore Baptist Church in Oakland as well as the American Baptist Seminary of the West; and Safir Ahmed of Zaytuna College. The event, pulled together by The Ignite Institute at PSR, drew a crowd of some 60 or so very concerned academics and clerics.

It's hard for members of such a panel to say anything deep or novel in their few minutes. These tried.
  • Dr. Ahmed asked, seriously, are we about to go back to Jim Crow and the internment camps?
  • Dr. Sherma advocated from a South Asian vantage point for "spiritual hospitality" and for moving "beyond solidarity to empathy" in the face of threats to any community. She pointed out that Muslims and any religious groups treated as "other" by the U.S. mainstream learn to have empathy for a different culture whether they want to or not. That doesn't come as naturally to those who can claim their religious identity as normative.
  • Dr. Jiwa described the "five media frames of Islam" that constrain our ability to think about the world's fastest growing faith. These include a fixation on 9/11; a focus on "Islamic terrorism" that overrides any awareness of the devastation U.S. armed attacks are wreaking in other countries; our insistence on judging Islam on western liberalism's current cultural litmus tests about sex and gender roles, without any regard for other peoples' contexts and cultures; the "clash of civilizations" trope; and viewing all of Islam as if the religion were confined to the Middle East.
The organizer in me always asks, do little panels like this do any good? It demands effort from the panelists to condense strong feelings and sharp thinking into manageable segments; the audience is usually not really there to learn anything, but simply to identify with the worthy sentiments that bring the panel together. It's easy to be dismissive.

But I can't be. When the country succumbs to a crazy panic and some people are literally endangered, we need a broad range of responses. Some of these will be educational and low key. That's alright. Kudos to GTU for knowing it has to do its part.

Friday cat blogging: bring on the rain!

Morty contemplated an unfamiliar sight last week. He seemed surprised; do cats remember phenomena they haven't seen for years? Who knows.

All the weather forecasters say El Niño rains are coming this way.

Friends of the Urban Forest offer wisdom we may have forgotten during the drought:

WEED: Weeds will grow with the winter rains. Remove any weeds in your garden and tree basin now so they won’t compete with the plants and trees you want to keep.

The SFPUC emailed to alert citizens to their preparations.

In advance of the rain forecast for this weekend, San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) crews are planning to drop off pallets of sandbags nearby the intersection of 17/Folsom early afternoon today (Thu, 12/17). Sandbags are also available for free at the SF Public Works yard, 2323 Cesar Chavez (at Kansas/Marin St.), Monday-Saturday, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.
We also wanted to let you know that all of the area catch basins have been cleaned and inspected since early November of this year, and are being monitored on a regular basis.

Let's hope the rains really do come to California. So far we've had one moderate storm.

Here's a clear explanation of what an El Niño means around the world.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Death and a difficult birth

The growls from debating Republicans make our situation ever clearer.

On the Intersection podcast (go subscribe if you don't already) Wajahat Ali of Al Jazeera named the Republican presidential campaign "the death rattle of white supremacy." That seems accurate.

Rebecca Traister spells it out: "This moment, this election, these years represent the death throes of exclusive white male power in the United States." She goes on:

... the presidential-primary contest, while absurdist and theatrical, is reflecting very real fury and violence in the non-electoral world: the burning of crosses and black churches, the execution of black men by police, the resistance of male soldiers to women in elite combat positions, a white man with a history of rape and violence against women himself a “warrior for the babies” after killing people at an abortion clinic, and a younger white man killing nine black churchgoers with the explanation “You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country.”

I have no doubt about this: something new is being born. The birth process is painful and dangerous.

More from Traister:

It is not coincidence that after seven years of a black president people are calling for lynchings at Republican rallies. It’s not some random quirk that eight years after a woman almost became the Democratic nominee, Republican candidates are crowing about their commitment to making pregnancy compulsory and accepting the endorsements of those who support violence against abortion providers.

But new life is coming if we help it along, just as the winter solstice will soon arrive and the light will once again increase.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

On the uses of Big Data in campaigns

Apparently the Ted Cruz for President campaign is making an expensive effort to use the massive trove of information that data analytics companies can collect about all of us these days to build his Iowa campaign. The Washington Post describes a door knocking encounter guided by his data geeks (a company owned by one of his backers):

URBANDALE, Iowa — As Cecil Stinemetz walked up to a gray clapboard house in suburban Des Moines last week wearing his “Cruz 2016” cap, a program on his iPhone was determining what kind of person would answer the door.

Would she be a “relaxed leader”? A “temperamental conservative”? Maybe even a “true believer”?

Nope. It turned out that Birdie Harms, a 64-year-old grandmother, part-time real estate agent and longtime Republican, was, by the Ted Cruz campaign’s calculations, a “stoic traditionalist” — a conservative whose top concerns included President Obama’s use of executive orders on immigration.

Which meant that Stinemetz was instructed to talk to her in a tone that was “confident and warm and straight to the point” and ask about her concerns regarding the Obama administration’s positions on immigration, guns and other topics.

All very high tech and creepy, except that, if you think about campaigning, it really is not.

As Paul Waldman points out, campaigns have been making their best guesses about how to approach voters for decades, as long as they've had fairly accurate lists of who voters might be and where they are. For most voters, some combination of knowing age, ethnicity, neighborhood, voting history and Party affiliation will tell you all you need to know to predict a lot about their voting behavior.

In particular, if the voter didn't vote last time or the time before, she's probably not going to vote this time if she is even actually registered.

So let's deconstruct the interaction WaPo describes here: it is immediately obvious that using the data trove in this interaction at the door requires subtlety and sophistication from Mr. Stinemetz. Whatever his own enthusiasms or fears which have made him a Cruz supporter, he has to be willing put those aside to follow the prompts given by his iPhone. We have to assume that the Cruz campaign has invested a lot of training effort in getting him up to speed on the various approaches to voters they've defined on the basis of their analytics. He is almost certainly paid for his door knocking efforts; campaigns can't achieve the level of messaging discipline their analytics suggest they need with a rabble of short term volunteers.

And, crucially, Stinemetz needs to be a person who is able to do what is asked of him: to assume a different tone and persona at each door in order to utilize what the campaign knows about the target. Hey -- if he's that good at the fundamental skill of retail politics, why isn't he running for something? Maybe not President, but how about dog catcher?

All around, this makes a nice tableau, but it isn't how campaigns work when they get to scale. As Waldman points out without using these terms, increased data is certainly good for identifying who is probably already a supporter based on a demographic profile. Therefore, in an election in which turnout is likely to be low but the campaign has the money to pinpoint likely supporters, the data can be usefully used to target people who must be encouraged to vote. Big data is good for turnout.

What data is less (verging on no) good for is persuasion. If voters need to be given a reason to make one choice rather than another, data helps much less. Most of us ignore social media ads. We are surrounded by TV and other media, but again, being a 21st Century citizen means shutting this stuff out. And we self-sort pretty effectively based on cues from candidates and our accustomed biases. The most accurate and expensive data analytics don't much change that.

Actually, the Wapo description of Cruz' door knocking project does catch what their data is good for: this stuff can help find valuable needles within the voter haystack: plausible campaign workers. The campaign still has to invest massively in training and organization, but it might find some more bodies.

Stinemetz went through his call list one evening and was pleasantly surprised at how quickly people signed up.

“I got three precinct captains to sign up just now,” Stinemetz said, after dialing just a handful of potential volunteers. “It’s like they were just waiting for us to call.”

Now the campaign has to be able to carry the costs of using them effectively ...

Contradictions of citizenship

Encountered in the 'hood.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Desperately seeking a peace movement

Unlike the United States, the Brits still have a functioning legislature -- and consequently there was an actual debate on Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron's plan to commit British bombers to attacking ISIS in Syria in the wake of the Paris massacres. The result was never really in doubt, though some Labour MPs including their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, pointed out that it was unlikely the bombing would accomplish anything the U.S. wasn't already doing better.

At the London Review of Books, James Meek, who has reported from Afghanistan and Iraq, brought to the fore what has gotten completely lost in the debate and in the metastasizing wars we are encouraged to consider a normal state.

Critics of Western intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya lament the deaths of civilians, the eruption of previously contained sectarian or tribal conflicts, and the provocation of terrorist attacks on the interveners’ home countries. Less talked about is a fourth unpleasant consequence – more interventions. For all the concern at the spread of Salafist ideology around the world, there is surprisingly little concern at the spread of interventionist ideology – the creed that country A is entitled to take military action against, or within, country B, without the consent of the government of country B (if it has one) or any evidence that it poses a threat to country A.

Such overt interventions – that is, not through proxies – happened many times between the United Nations being set up and the end of the Cold War. Britain and France intervened in Egypt, the USSR intervened in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan, the US intervened in Grenada. But the pivotal intervention was Iraq. What we are beginning to see is how the US and Britain’s invasion of that country not only seemed to other countries to legitimise their own interventions, but has inspired a set of newly prosperous countries to acquire and use the interveners’ tools.

Since 2003, we have seen Russian military intervention in Georgia and Ukraine; we have seen Saudi intervention in Yemen, with airstrikes galore. In August last year, the United Arab Emirates seemed to surprise the United States by using the fancy fighters and airborne refuelling aircraft it had bought from Western countries to fly thousands of miles and, with Egypt’s help, bomb Libya. As Cameron was mustering support for his Syria bombing vote, China announced it was setting up its first overseas military base, in Djibouti, close to the American base that flies drones to Somalia and Yemen.

In the long term, heavily armed, interventionist-minded states rubbing up against one another are a greater danger than scattered bands of intolerant dreamers performing sporadic acts of terror. In the short term, strong states are the answer to IS. Not states that demonstrate their strength by bombing Syria, but states that demonstrate their strength by guiding their clients within Syria towards a suspension of fighting as a prelude to peace.

Yes, the world still needs a peace movement.

Monday, December 14, 2015

A long march toward freedom from education debt

My friend Denise Libien has put a stake through the demon of her student debt. Here's that story and what she has come to understand about the crisis of "debtfarism."

December 9, 2015 is a date I will remember for perhaps the rest of my life.  It is the day I paid off the rest of my student loan.  Student loans have plagued my life for about 20 years now and they are finally paid off, in full, and I am done. ...

I came to Australia for a full time job in late 2012 with the intention and hope of paying off a student loan I had back in the states.  I had to borrow a pretty exorbitant amount of money to go to nursing school and I managed to pay off about half of it, a private student loan, when I was living in San Francisco working in an outpatient oncology clinic.  ... When I was out of school I decided to tackle the private student loan first, as the interest rate could change, which it certainly did.  In addition to paying the most I could on the private loan I continued to pay the minimum due on the federal part of the student loan.  ...

In 2011 my partner Josh and I moved to New York to be closer to his son.  My student loan problems were complicated by the fact that I couldn’t find full time work as a nurse in New York.  We were living about an hour and a half north of New York City in the Hudson Valley.  While it is a beautiful area, it was very difficult to secure full time, benefitted work, even as a nurse.  ...  I was getting nervous because all the while I still owed $54,000 in student loans.  I was also becoming increasingly more frustrated that I couldn’t find a full time job with benefits, despite my education and qualifications.  I had spent all that money just to be working two part time jobs with no health insurance, no sick time, no vacation time and no retirement.  I was getting cranky. 

I had always wanted to travel with my nursing and decided it was a good time to leave the states as I was underemployed.  I chose Australia because I have a relative here, it’s an English speaking country with a universal health care system and the economy was booming at that time.  I was able to find a full time job within 2 months.

When we first arrived in Australia the exchange rate was almost on par with the U.S.  At the time one U.S. dollar (USD) equaled 0.98 Australian dollars (AUD).  I even heard that the AUD had surpassed the USD for a while before we had arrived.  Things were looking up and I was formulating my plan for paying the money I owed back.  I was able to save quite a bit, but unfortunately, by the time I was ready to send over my first chunk of money in 2014, the AUD had taken a digger due to the mining industry tanking.  ...

By the time I sent over my first $30,000, the AUD had gone down to 0.85.  I got myself to the bank, all excited about handing over my hard earned money and got quite a shock when I spoke to the teller.  In addition to the exchange rate decline, the big banks also give you a lesser rate because they’ve got to make their money on your transfer.  As I scoured the numbers I heard, “This is not a game you’re meant to win.”  The teller’s words exactly. ...This is ridiculous, I kept thinking, but if I didn’t pay it, interest was accumulating on the loan back home.  I was stuck between a rock and a hard place amidst global economic turmoil and seesawing financial markets which I had absolutely no control over.

... I did a bit of research and decided to transfer my money with a company online that didn’t charge fees and gave a better exchange rate than the banks.  They, of course, make their money by giving you a lesser exchange rate as well, but at least it’s somewhat better than the banks.  But wait, there’s more… 

Meanwhile, loan payments were being withdrawn automatically from my U.S. account every month and my balance was beginning to look sad.  In October 2014 the federal government decided to up the monthly payment to $344.00 from $315.00.  A unilateral decision that I was not consulted about.  Apparently, the $315 per month was not enough to pay off the balance by 2025.  Ok, more money….  I was starting to really lose it (no pun intended). ...

... With much agonizing debate I decided to bite the bullet and devised a plan to pay if off in 2 years by the time I turned 50.  I also asked my family for some funds to offset the money I’d already lost in the exchange rate.  Thanks to a bit of help from my mother, I was able to pay off the loan a year ahead of schedule. 

Another driving force for my paying off the loan early was the fear of the Fed raising interest rates in the U.S. in December of this year.  I kept hearing from the rep at the Australian transfer company that if the Fed raised rates it would lower the AUD even more.  Any way I cut the cake, I just could not win.  That was crystal clear. ...

I am not writing this email to elicit sympathy or pity.  I borrowed the money, no one held a gun to my head.  I borrowed the money to get an education, a job that pays decently and be part of a profession that helps people.  I am writing this because I want people to know the reality about student loans in the United States.  Student loans have become quite a profitable business and educational debt currently amounts to over $1 trillion in outstanding loan balances.

Debt protest at Wells Fargo Bank in San Francisco, spring 2012
About 40 million Americans have an average debt exceeding $27,000, writes Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney.  According to Susanne Soederberg in her May/June 2015 online article ‘The Student Loan Crisis and the Debtfare State’, the industry has grown steadily over the last few decades along with rapidly rising tuition and fees in addition to the  government’s prioritization of loan-based funding over grants.  In her article she discusses how the student loan industry has a lot in common with the sub-prime mortgage industry which went into major crisis in 2007-8.  Both rely on what’s called “asset-backed securitization” to raise capital and hedge risk for investors.  Student loans asset-backed securitization, or SLABS, are the main channel through which the lending industry moves funds from investors to students.  Like the sub-prime mortgage industry, SLABS depend on the ability of borrowers to pay back their debt. 

Since as far back as the recession of 2001 most student debtors have the same problem I encountered when I moved to upstate NY: they have not been able to get decent paying jobs upon leaving college.  Per Soederberg, default rates on student loans have been climbing since 2003.  Contributing factors include poor job prospects and mounting health care and housing costs.  By 2012, student loans registered the worst delinquency rates in consumer credit surpassing even mortgage and credit card debt.  Educational loans are the only form of consumer debt to increase markedly since 2008.

Soederberg associates the growth of the student loan business with a basic alliance between government and finance.  Both private lenders and the federal government securitize their loans by selling debt bundles to an outside investor like a pension or hedge fund.  The Department of Education generated $101.8 billion in revenue from student loans from 2008-2013 by exploiting the difference between the low 2.5% interest rates it pays to borrow money and the 6.8% it charges students for loans.

The basic premise driving SLABS, according to Soederberg is the “commodification of debt” or the ability of financial institutions, through legal sanctioning, to transform a debt obligation into a financial asset that can be traded on the markets.  All financial complexities aside, we’re still left with the basic problem:  the success of the investment still relies on the ability of the debtor to make enough money to pay back the loan, plus interest and any fees.  For the student loan industry to continue to be profitable in the face of increasing rates of default, laws have been enacted to discipline debtors.  Soederberg refers to this new feature of ‘neoliberal governance’ as “debtfarism”.  She defines this as “a set of institutional and ideological practices aimed at regulating and normalizing the growing dependence on expensive consumer credit to meet basic needs, such as education”. 

To ensure debt obligations, regardless of the borrower’s ability to repay, personal bankruptcy law was altered in 2005 with the enactment of the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act (BAPCPA).  BAPCPA made debt relief under Chapter 7 (where most debts are cancelled) nearly impossible for both private and federal student loans.  BAPCPA also made filing for Chapter 13 (an adjustment of debts) much more difficult.  Students have to prove ‘undue hardship’ which Congress has refused to provide a clear and transparent definition for.  So essentially, someone like Donald Trump could declare bankruptcy more easily than someone mired in student debt.

What is important to remember is having to borrow so much money for education is something our parents never had to worry about.  States have slashed their support for higher education.  With states investing almost one-fourth less in public universities from 2003 to 2012, universities have had to charge more and students have to borrow more (Maloney, 2015).  From 2001 to 2011, state and local financing per student declined by 24 percent nationally. Over the same period, tuition and fees at state schools increased 72 percent, compared with 29 percent for nonprofit private institutions (Lehren & Martin, 2012). 

Lehren & Martin also report the sharp drop in spending is a direct result of the decision by an increasing number of lawmakers to transfer more of the financial burden of college from taxpayers to students and their families.  This “normalization of students’ increased reliance on loans” to fund higher education has been constructed by the ‘Debtfare State’ Soederberg reminds us.  “The increasing reliance on expensive personal loans to obtain an education is not a natural phenomenon”, she argues and I quite agree with her.  “It is a social construction that needs to be revealed, attacked and uprooted” which is why I’ve chosen to write this.

There was a time in my life where I could not see beyond my student loan debt.  I’ve gone through so many feelings of despair, anger, frustration, uncertainty and sorrow because of my debt.  And I know I am not alone in this.  But you feel so alone when you’ve got so much of a burden to carry.  My loans dictated where I lived, what I did, how much money I could make, the setting I worked in…  I couldn’t make below a certain amount, or it would have taken me forever to pay the loans off.  It was a constant concern and factor in my life- it dictated everything. 

I firmly believe anyone who has the initiative should have the opportunity to go to school without being burdened with a lifetime of debt.  Particularly those who go into helping professions.  Former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich, long time Berkeley economics professor, asserts that ultimately the U.S. has to move to a system of free higher education as it was prior to the 1980’s.  “When I first came to the University of California, Berkeley in the late 1960s as a research assistant, tuition and fees at Berkeley were almost zero. We’ve been there. We’ve done it and succeeded with free higher education and we need to return to an idea that worked”.

I am overjoyed/thrilled/ecstatic that I was finally able to pay off my loans and it is such a wonderful feeling of relief to be free of this oppressive financial burden.  I suppose this experience has really opened my eyes to the many inter-related social inequalities that exist in the United States which seem to be intensifying.  I have also come to realize that one of the main reasons I left the U.S. was because I essentially felt betrayed by a system I invested everything in that did not reciprocate.  While I am now free to move on and focus on other things, I will never forget this long, harrowing, seemingly insurmountable affair.  It has only made me more concerned and compassionate towards those who continue to struggle with their own debt.