Growing… Growing… Gone

In Boulder, Colorado, we talk a lot about climate action, but our city council attracts large scale employers to the city (which puts the squeeze on a tight housing market) and we allow high end developers to build and build and build. Whenever we question the rapid growth we’re told we should support more housing so workers will commute less. That might sound logical, but 99 percent of the development is high priced, so workers (many of whom can’t afford a $700,000 condo) will still commute. Only now they’ll do it on roads which are much more crowded into a city which is much more crowded (with a dwindling supply of affordable commercial space for local businesses).  If we really wanted workers to commute less we wouldn’t have allowed all those developers to buy their way out of the city’s affordable housing requirement with a “cash-in-lieu” program. Lower and middle wage earners are the people who keep a city physically running- many of them couldn’t afford to live here before this latest growth craze, and it’s only gotten worse. I can’t speak for other places, but in the case of Boulder, all those assertions by well-meaning people that densification is better for the environment have proven utterly false. The winners in this situation have deep pockets, and you can bet they’ll fight any growth control measures as hard as they can.

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Let the sparks fly…

If you’re a younger person reading this, do you think traditional higher education is too expensive and/or not right for you? Do you wonder about getting an office job with that expensive degree only to have your job outsourced to cheaper labor in another country? Do you wonder about the health risks of sedentary office work? Those are all signs that something is seriously wrong with the way we do capitalism here in the US, but they could also be signs that you’d be happier in the trades. The average age of an electrician in this country is 55 (I’m 3 years over that average myself) and as we retire there will be fewer and fewer of us to do the nation’s electrical work, and that work is important- without electricians (and tradespeople in general) society would come to a grinding halt. Higher demand usually means higher pay (which is already pretty good), and it’s something which can’t be outsourced to a call center. To be sure, there are risks associated with electrical work, but I wouldn’t call them unreasonable if you’re in decent physical shape and practice general mindfulness. If you’re the kind of person who enjoys puzzle/problem solving and working with tools, and you like ending your day with the knowledge that you actually accomplished something tangible you might want to look into becoming an electrician.

Coming to a Wal-Mart near you…

Anyone who knows even a little about me knows I’m no fan of President Trump, and would like to see him leave office as soon as possible. That said, I’ve noticed quite a few stories in liberal and centrist media outlets about import tariffs hurting low income shoppers. OK, fair enough- price increases always hurt low income people more than anyone else, but the people decrying Trump’s actions are often the same people saying we should raise motor fuel taxes in order to promote sustainability and that excessive consumerism harms the environment. Non-income based taxes (“flat” taxes, like sales tax, gas tax, etc.) do the exact same thing as tariffs on Chinese goods- they reduce the buying power of low income people. Not long ago, when oil was trading at $150/barrel, the cost of making goods overseas was high enough (due to transport costs) that some of the manufacturing the US had lost began to move back here. These days, oil costs around $60/barrel and outsourcing isn’t as expensive. I’m not prepared to say which is “better”, because it depends on who you ask. I am prepared to say that we liberals need to check ourselves regarding the type of disingenuous behavior we often accuse the GOP of engaging in. Wal-Mart, with it’s cheap imports and low wage jobs, supposedly sucked during all those years before Trump- has that changed, or are we just willing to overlook certain things in our dislike for him?

“All the News That’s Fit to Print”… and then some

 

Among the news from science I’ve paid attention to recently is the idea that our brains can get into a kind of feedback loop with itching sensations on the skin. For example, scratching a mosquito bite brings temporary relief, but that sense of relief is connected to endorphins which we can form a short term addiction to, meaning the brain will send more “itch” signals to the bite in order to get more of those “relief” endorphins which come from further scratching.

I’m not a neuroscientist, but I’m guessing it’s also possible to form an addiction to our reactions to other sensory input, like news- the anger which comes from hearing about an injustice might potentially feed a mental cycle which informs our views about news in general, biasing our response to new information. I suppose the joy from hearing about something good might feed a similar cycle, but there seems to be something about fear and anger that overrides other impulses- old and powerful wiring, which probably served the immediate survival needs of our ancestors better than it serves us today. While people on the far right seem to fall into a fear/anger cycle more easily, most people are capable of similar behavior.

The internet allows us to custom tailor news we get in a way we never had in the days when there were only newspapers, radio and television. We tailor it for ourselves by selecting various topics which interest us, and social media tailors it for us with algorithms based on what we respond to and how we respond to it. Which means, if we’re not careful, we can get into a cycle which reinforces our world views while dismissing the world views of others. Add “news” which didn’t happen to that mix (since anyone can contribute to the internet), and you get what we have now- a significant number of people who, despite having much potential information available, are less informed than people 40 years ago who only read the morning paper.

False choices

It seems like a lot of people aren’t interested in any middle ground. Either you support the rights of mentally unstable gun fanatics to obtain any weapon of mass carnage they want or you’re for government tyranny. Either you support Israel’s right to bomb Palestinian civilians and shoot protesters or you’re anti semitic. Either you support for-profit health insurance which denies care and drives people into bankruptcy or you’re a socialist who hates free enterprise. Either you want an extremely expensive border wall and inhumane treatment of central American refugees or you want completely open borders with violent drug gangs freely entering the US. Either you base your life decisions on silly, made-up fairy stories which cause violent civil conflict or you’re an amoral, un-fulfilled godless heathen. Either you’re the gender you started life with, following a rigid set of rules about behavior and dress or you’re an amoral, un-fulfilled godless heathen.
These are among the false choices people argue about, and the arguments are rarely productive because they’re, you guessed it… false choices. The world of the internet and social media seems to involve a lot of black-and-white and ethical purity. The physical world is rarely so simple. At times like this, it’s worth asking who these false choices serve. I know who they don’t serve, and that’s most of us.

Gender roles

March 31st is International Transgender Day of Visibility… despite what various photos might suggest, I’m perfectly happy being the gender I am. However, I find traditional gender roles assigned by society terribly limiting. Not all of us feel this way- plenty of people are well adjusted and satisfied with their circumstance. Others are quite sure they didn’t start life out with the correct body parts. How much of that could be addressed by simply allowing folks to fully express themselves isn’t for me to say, but it certainly couldn’t hurt. For some people, though, that wouldn’t be enough to make them who they deeply feel they really are. I can’t imagine the courage required to make those changes (amid resistance from so many) but I can add my voice for recognizing everyone’s basic rights and treating them as fellow citizens, fully equal and deserving of love, support, and opportunity.

Taking risks

As a beginning climber (in the late 70s) I probably took risks I wasn’t fully aware of- not many coaches or training facilities back then, and, like most other climbers at the time, I pretty much taught myself whatever I figured I might need to know. The book “Mountaineering- Freedom of the Hills” played a prominent role in my self-schooling. I picked up some bad habits along with the good ideas, like rappelling way too fast because it was fun (there was an Army TV ad at the time which featured that, and they must know what they’re doing, right?). As I gained experience, I was better able to tell when I was doing something dangerous, but it took additional emotional maturity and better self awareness to make better decisions at those times. I’m very fortunate to have (so far) escaped major injury while climbing, though I’ve certainly scared the shit out of myself at times. In recent years I’ve come to view to the physical risks I took as a poor substitute for the emotional risks I wanted to take in other parts of life. Activities like climbing can be conducted in relatively safe ways while still delivering much in the way of fun, adventure, and satisfaction. Failure to take emotional risks, on the other hand, can lead to loss of fulfillment, isolation, and even depression. It’s not for me to say whether or not somebody else should take serious physical risks in order to feel more alive, but in my case I discovered it isn’t quite as necessary as I’d thought when I was younger.