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Trump is Certainly a Transformative Figure

February 14th, 2020 by dk
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When the insurrections invade, they don’t send their brightest and best to scale the walls erected to protect the status quo. The barbarians leading the invasion are brash and brutish. The walls of our status quo are crumbling around us.

René Descartes died 370 years ago this week. The intellectual movement he helped to start is dying now. I’ve written before that the Enlightenment Era gave us most of what we know, but that system is now losing touch with world around us.

I’ve written less (for reasons that will soon be apparent) about what epoch will replace the Enlightenment and who is leading us into it.

How will humans organize their behaviors and aspirations in this new era? When epochs shift, those who excelled at the old system recognize the new system slowly. “The first shall be last and the last shall be first,” noted another epoch-shifter from two millennia ago.

I don’t know where we’re headed, but I know who does. President Donald J. Trump has demonstrated a savant-like ability to tear down the structures that have kept Western civilization safe and contained for centuries. We can debate whether he has the makings of a leader. There’s no disputing that he leads.

He leads by emoting. Whether it’s a 75-minute stemwinder speech or a brief pre-dawn tweet, he engages his followers. Emancipated from all things conventional or wise, he reels off whatever riles him (and them) — at a feverish pitch and a ferocious pace.

His detractors can’t keep up and his supporters love it. They say a lie can be halfway around the world before truth has laced its shoes. Who has ever demonstrated this better than Donald Trump?

The Washington Post’s Fact Checker counts 16,241 false or misleading claims so far in Trump’s presidency. Does Trump care? Not at all. Do his followers? Nope. Most importantly, do most voting Americans care? Not as much as you might think.

Trump dismisses these judgements as “fake news.” He dares the system to attack him, knowing it will only somehow make him stronger. He debunks facts that can be verified, and then claims to know what cannot be known. (How exactly does he know that Speaker Nancy Pelosi does not, in fact, pray for him?)

He knows what he feels and he feels what he knows. Truth barely enters the picture. Truth no longer matters. Descartes’ epoch is ending. Trump’s epoch has begun.

Liberal firebrand Bill Maher this week asked Steve Bannon why he continues to support Trump. Bannon’s answer was quick and profound: “He’s a transformative figure.” Maher, caught up short, replied: “Well, I agree with that.” Transformative, indeed.

Trump is a bully and a buffoon, but he’s gotten our attention. He marks not a desirable destination, but a deserving direction.

A new system to organize human behaviors and aspirations will emerge. It will incorporate the measurable forms of knowledge we’ve been honing since 1650, but it will add intuition, emotional intelligence and empathy.

Humans are not machines. Facts alone cannot tell the truth. We know more than we think — sometimes even the unknowable.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.

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Sex is Becoming Old-Fashioned

February 13th, 2020 by dk
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When is the best time to bring up bad news? Is it better to drop it into conversation at a random time when it might not be noticed? Or when the topic is already front and center, impossible to ignore?

My family chose the frontal model. On my 16th birthday, my grandfather asked me why I didn’t have a job yet. (I had two by the next day.) During a rough patch in my marriage, I gave my wife a single red rose (thorns and all) inside a clear balloon on Valentine’s Day. It seemed appropriate.

A leopard can’t change its spots. I’m going full frontal here. You may want to gather some Valentine’s chocolates before reading on.

Heteronormatively speaking, men and women are doing without each other at a quickening pace. Americans living without an intimate partner increased from 39 percent to 42 percent over the past decade. More adults reported having no sex in the past year in 2018 than ever before. An alarming 23 percent of Americans under 30 abstained, doubling the rate from a decade ago.

What’s causing the Great American Sex Drought? I’ll venture a guess. Women pick pets and men prefer porn. Both offer more control than any human partner promises.

Men and boys are invited into the realm of fantasy first with combat games and virtual violence. Video games and movies typically feature bodice-rippers drawn straight from a Harlequin romance heritage. Fantasies swirl around having and holding whatever ideal body type they have imagined. Intimate contact in the real world pales.

Women develop their distractions from human intimacy later, but they last longer. How many emotional support animals have masters who are men? Pets offer companionship without judgment. Their needs are easily satisfied by an attentive owner. 

They resemble men in at least one way. They’ll listen, if that’s what’s required, so long as they are well fed first. But pets won’t hog the dessert if it’s been a bad day, and they’re happy to curl up on the couch with a good rom-com.

What can be done?

Brain scientist Ruth Feldman draws a straight line from motherhood to romantic love in an essay on aeon.co. In “The Biology of Love,” she writes: “Thanks to the parsimony principle of evolution, [the oxytocin-based] system of caregiving also evolved to support other human attachments.”

That’s the good news. Unfortunately, there’s more.

Feldman continues: “The same oxytocin that supports love and kindness, also underlies prejudice, parochialism, and outgroup derogation. … They are all triggered by this 500-million-year-old, nine-amino-acid molecule.”

We wrestle with this deep dichotomy daily.  Feldman calls it “care or scare.” It’s only after we’ve chosen “scare” that our more familiar instinct — “fight or flight” — gets triggered.

Can we talk ourselves out of “scare” and into “care”? That’s probably too difficult for most of us. It might be enough to recognize how the “scare” reflex has served our species, and then to choose “fight” over “flight.”

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.

Aeon essay: “The Biology of Love” by Ruth Feldman (February 13, 2020)

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Presidential Campaigns Test What Changes Minds

February 7th, 2020 by dk
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Most of the time, I wish Oregon’s presidential primary was scheduled for earlier in the year, because I’d rather we have a significant voice in the outcome. But there may be an upside to being invited late to this party. Since I know I won’t be asked to state my choice until May 19, I can enjoy the spectacle for its own sake, and delay caring about the results.

Luckily for me, it’s especially interesting this year because of the stark contrasts between a few of the top candidates. Nothing that follows should be construed as an endorsement of any candidate or electoral strategy. Until early May, I have the luxury of watching what works, whether I like it or not.

Specifically, I’ll be watching how Bernie Sanders and Mike Bloomberg do battle, along with President Donald Trump’s responses. Each man’s campaign represents a bold departure from conventional wisdom.

Sanders has received funding from more supporters than any candidate in history — 5 million donors and counting. His best hope is to energize his electorate in ways that pundits and opponents will find difficult to anticipate. He hopes to mobilize his voters in ways that candidate Barack Obama only dreamed of in 2008.

Sanders’s vision for the country’s future is not measurably majoritarian, but that could end up being very misleading. Swing voters are important, but they are vastly outnumbered by those who don’t vote at all. Can Bernie get this uncharted plurality of eligible citizens — who are predominantly young people — to the polls? His vision of a latter-day revolution will require nothing less. Other candidates — in this cycle or later — will follow if he succeeds.

Bernie is refusing large donations, underscoring his determination to take his battle directly to the oligarchs and business titans. Mike Bloomberg, on the other hand, is refusing to accept donations of any size from anyone. The New York billionaire is self-funding his campaign, buying up TV advertising at a pace that’s never been seen. Bernie has assembled an army of volunteers. Bloomberg will deploy paid staff across the nation.

Which strategy will change hearts and minds? Will the battle be won by the missionaries or the mercenaries? The passion or the purse? The boots or the bucks? When the turnout numbers for the Iowa caucuses didn’t show a surge of voter interest, Bloomberg doubled his TV advertising budget.

We’re not the only ones watching how this all plays out. President Trump has perfected a third way to reaching people. His volunteers won’t match Bernie’s, and his budget will never approach Bloomberg’s, but he has an uncanny ability to dominate almost every news cycle. By some estimates, the media attention he received in 2016 would have cost him $3 billion. And that was before he had access to Air Force One and the Oval Office. He has 55 million followers on Twitter, which likewise costs him nothing.

Which method will work best? An army of volunteers, endless TV ads, or dominant free media exposure? I’ll be watching this for the next three months, before I have to make up my own mind.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.

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Accepting Cash May Soon Be Required in Oregon

February 6th, 2020 by dk
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Oregon’s retail landscape has long resembled the land that time forgot. Prices posted and prices paid are almost always the same, thanks to Oregonians’ refusal to consider a sales tax. And soon, Oregon may be one of the only states where Amazon won’t be allowed to set up its futuristic, fully automated convenience stores. The past is safe here, and it may get safer.

State Senator James Manning and five other chief sponsors introduced HB4107 this week for the short legislative session. If passed, it would (among other things) require private retailers to accept cash payments from customers. This may not seem like a necessary law to you, but that could be because you’re not among the estimated 10 million Americans nationwide who are what is called “unbanked.”

Latino and African American families are five times more likely than white families to not have access to a debit or credit card. When a store determines that taking cash is too risky or otherwise inconvenient, it might be called many things. But for those who have no plastic cards in their pocket, it represents one thing first: discrimination.

Massachusetts may be the only state where refusing to accept cash is currently illegal, though the law there is rarely enforced. Oregon is contemplating whether it’s a concept whose time has come. Amazon is not alone testing cashless retail, but they are the only company positioned to shake the status quo. SweetGreen sandwich shops are not aiming for world domination.

The bill currently proposed in Oregon carves out plenty of exceptions. Food trucks, airport kiosks, insurance companies, and all-night gas stations have asked for exemptions, to avoid becoming criminal targets. Unfortunately, the bill also currently exempts public agencies, which always opens lawmakers to a special sort of criticism.

Exemptions may expand and then contract to gain necessary votes. Public comments will alert lawmakers to unintended consequences. The bill will undergo many changes before it ever becomes the law.

But the purpose of a bill is easiest to see at its inception — before it has been “improved” to satisfy constituents in every corner. Allowing people to pay for their goods and services with the money in their pocket certainly has merit on its face. If payment policies are being used to exclude certain customers, that’s something that deserves to be stopped sooner than later.

I just wish the government hadn’t excused itself from this new attempt to exercise and enforce inclusion for all its citizens. I think there’s an important message being sent when a resident arrives at the payment window with nothing but a wad of $20 bills to pay their property taxes. (Forcing a vendor to accept more than $100 in coins is expressly forbidden.)

For that matter, legislators could demonstrate the courage of their convictions by including themselves in this enlightened inclusionary policy. They should explicitly allow lobbyists to make political contributions in cash. That would address another sort of discrimination that’s hurting our society.

If lawmakers then decided they needed secure teller windows in their Salem offices, wouldn’t that be important for every citizen to recognize? I think so.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.

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Get Lost! It’s Good For You

January 31st, 2020 by dk
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You should get lost. It’s good for you. I’ve developed disorientation into an outlier art form. But now there’s science to show what exactly you can gain by losing your way.

I admit I started getting lost when it was much easier to do. Whenever I was visiting a new place for more than a few days, I created a regimen for myself. I would wake early, usually at the first light of day, and set out for parts unknown. I would carry a map, but no other wayfinding devices. (Phones were still connected to walls back then.)

I would wander for an hour or two, observing absolutely every thing I could. Does the neighborhood have more cats or dogs? Are they well fed? Do residents wake up to open a door (for a pet or a newspaper) or do they pour their cup with coffee first? Are businesses mixed with residencies or are they kept separate? Are city workers awake before their constituents, to clean the streets and collect the garbage and patrol the busy corners?

Nowadays I carry my phone, but I turn it off. These early hours are sacred. I’m allowing myself to be completely curious, which requires as little certitude as possible. I’m meeting this new place where it’s at. Moving the place to match my preconceptions instead seems impossible and absurd.

I turn this way and that, according to no agenda whatsoever, or to follow the agenda of those I haven’t met. Cats lead me to fishmongers. Dogs show the way to schools and playgrounds. Women with empty carts take me to fruit markets. Men may be leading me toward the central district or away from it, depending on their footwear.

After daily life around me begins to repeat itself, a rhythm emerges. And then it quickens. Only when I can feel a hurried pace do I look at my map to start retracing steps.

Returning to where I began involves more uncertainty, but now it’s mixed with memory. Is that the overflowing garbage can I saw dogs nosing around? Is this brightly colored door the same one I noticed earlier? I keep wandering, with miscalculations in one hand and a map in the other.

Eventually, I reach my first determined destination of the morning. Next day, I do it again, in a different direction. In less than a week, I’m placing parts into patterns. I’ve met the place and begun knowing it.

Here’s where this journey takes a surprising twist. Brain scientists have learned that exercising spatial memory stimulates the hippocampus. Being alert to unsorted stimuli can ward off dementia, but you’re also strengthening your inner guidance counselor.

The hippocampus uses the same strategy — spatial awareness — for navigating a street grid or a career path. “Where do I want to go and how can I get there?” It’s the same question — whether literal or metaphorical — and the brain uses the same skills, strengths, and training to answer it.

When you’re remembering where you were, or determining who you’d like to become, you’re building this part of your brain. That’s why you should get lost.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.

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Eugene Can Welcome Newcomers Without Being Overwhelmed

January 31st, 2020 by dk
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We usually talk about gentrification as if it’s one thing. After it’s done, it is. But when it’s happening on the ground, it involves multiple factors that silently align. They often come together accidentally at first. Slowly, they coalesce into consensus. Then people see a crescendo that seems unstoppable. The best strategy is to interrupt those accidental alignments early.

Asheville, North Carolina has a backwater hippie vibe that wouldn’t seem unfamiliar to you. It’s a vibrant arts community, with as many vegans as pickup trucks. For most of the past century, its remote location, nestled in the mountains, protected it.

That’s changing. The airport has grown rapidly over the past five years, as “destination airlines” (like Allegiant) have disrupted the efficiency-minded “hub and spoke” model. Hotel rooms have been built at such a rapid pace that the city council has placed a moratorium on future projects. Large houses are being built into the surrounding hillsides. Locals stay inside on weekends to avoid the tourist traffic.

Nobody’s happy. Bookstores place plaintive placards by upholstered chairs, asking customers to buy books before curling up with them. Bars promise sidewalk shoppers free heat with any purchase. Bathroom policies become more prominent than menu offerings. Car horns convey pent-up frustration with those who don’t know their way around.

Even those who welcome the growth agree that the changes are suddenly coming too quickly. It’s hard to keep any place distinctive (a.k.a. “weird”) when it’s being overrun with newcomers. Locals feel outnumbered, outmaneuvered, outbid. They’re losing what they had, but they can’t quite stop it.

It may be too late for Asheville, but not too late for Eugene, to consider remedies. Most involve helping residents keep their homes. Watch how locals cope with changes. Assist their efforts to adapt. Help them resist any coming crescendo.

We already do many things well in this regard. Oregon shields homeowners from property tax spikes. Food and water grow and flow nearby, so those are not at risk. Our transit system makes driving optional, at least for those who live near major arteries. Bike paths, and (soon) electric scooters also help. On-street parking can be permitted where congestion becomes a recurring problem.

But there’s more we can do to slow the pace of change. It’s past time for Eugene to write reasonable rules for auxiliary dwelling units. New state rules that require cities to allow duplexes are coming soon. A citizen panel is being formed to suggest protections against short-term-rental abuses.

We’re losing entry-level housing stock in central locations. So-called “student housing” codes should be rewritten to facilitate varieties of eventual reuse. Our fixed-fee system development charges incentivize larger houses, when smaller homes are what new buyers prefer. Minimum residential lot sizes should be scaled to encourage the gradual infill that residents and politicians say they prefer.

These are ounce-of-prevention suggestions, because the pound-of-cure solutions that come later are much less attractive. When we see restaurants protecting their restrooms before promoting their food, that’s an early warning sign of a coming crescendo of change.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.

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If Only They Got Out More

January 24th, 2020 by dk
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I wish legislators at every level could be given a day off work every month to attend a full docket of courtroom proceedings. They would see the human face of somebody who lost their dog the night before and then couldn’t find a non-public place to sleep. They would see how difficult life can be sometimes for people who have no assumed privileges.

They would hear attorneys use loopholes in laws they’ve written to subvert their intent. They would see jurors who are genuinely confused about whether a law they worked on pertains to a very specific circumstance. Their confusion often comes down to a poorly worded phrase or clumsy sentence construction which may have seemed “good enough” when they voted for it.

And, if they attend a Supreme Court session, they’d observe justices wrestling with the wording of a law, trying their best to interpret it, but limited to the text itself. I once attended a court case that turned on whether a Virginia driver had been lawfully stopped for a missing tail light. The state’s vehicle code had not been updated since the 1940s. The code required only that a vehicle have an operating “stop lamp” (singular).

My hope would be that the lawmakers return to their regular job with newfound resolve to do their work conscientiously and thoroughly. Laws that are less than clear can sometimes tie others into Gordian knots, and it would be good for those who write laws to see the consequences for themselves.

Meanwhile, judges would likewise do well to regularly observe the difficulties their rulings can create for legislators. 

In 2018, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Boise, Idaho had violated the constitutional rights of those without homes. Rousting them from public places amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. That decision sent city councilors and state legislators scurrying for solutions.

Circuit judges Marsha S. Berzon, Paul J. Watford, and John B. Owens may well have been correct when they described this cruelty, but where would the necessary housing units be found and who would pay for them? The judges voiced no concern about such practicalities, but they also didn’t provide access to any new resources to solve the problem.

Sometimes the court’s fallibility cuts in the opposite direction. A three-judge panel last week ruled that Eugene’s so-called Climate Kids cannot ask the courts to intervene, forcing the federal government to urgently address the hazards — present and future — that its policies have wreaked on the planet’s climate systems.

The judges ruled that the remedies must come from the legislators themselves, even though lawmakers have proven themselves incapable of sustaining their resolve at a large enough scale to make a significant difference.

Who will have the last word on the matter of the imminent climate disaster? It won’t be the lawmakers or the judges. It may be the people, rising in rebellion. More likely, it will be the planet itself.

Lawmakers and judges fail to see both the importance and the impotence of their work. If they only got out more, they could see it for themselves.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.

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Ask Boeing About “Efficiency”

January 23rd, 2020 by dk
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Efficiency is overrated. It really doesn’t apply to human communications, and it’s dangerously irrelevant when it comes to building trust and respect. Just ask The Boeing Company. They moved their corporate headquarters from Seattle to Chicago in 2001.

At the time, Boeing promised everyone that moving the executive team to Chicago and leaving the engineers in Washington state would create new efficiencies. The supply chain built over decades would remain intact, but decision-makers would benefit from shorter plane trips to customers all around the nation.

Thanks to email and Internet connectivity, they claimed there would be no measurable loss of productivity by moving the bosses two thousand miles away. And stockholders were pleased with the tax incentives Illinois offered the company.

It was just a few years after that move that Boeing decided it was time to update their venerable 737 airliner. This would represent its fourth overhaul since the original 737 began flying in 1965. They opted for a “clean sheet” redesign, but later scaled back those ambitions to save money.

The 737 MAX is Boeing’s first commercial airliner designed entirely after the bosses left for Chicago. The disaster it represents has been literal for the 346 passengers and crew who were aboard the two verified crashes caused by design flaws. The company itself is facing a more metaphorical disaster, since the entire fleet of 387 airplanes has been grounded worldwide. Orders for additional planes have been canceled or postponed.

And then there’s the public relations situation, which counts as a disaster twice removed, but genuinely felt nevertheless. Felt, that is, by those who work for the company and its suppliers, but not by the man who led the company into these cascading catastrophes.

While Boeing’s suppliers are laying off workers, the company’s ousted CEO Dennis Muilenburg left the company with $62.2 million in compensation and pension benefits. If the company’s Seattle engineers designed a parachute made out of real gold, workers would have gladly shown Muilenburg the door — midflight.

Muilenburg was an executive with Boeing when they made the move to Chicago. He became the company’s CEO shortly after the 737 MAX redesign was made public in 2011. Whatever the corporate culture has become that produced the 737 MAX, it was under Muilenburg’s watch.

A trove of company emails reveal how that corporate culture devolved over those years:

2015: “…this is what these regulators get when they try and get in the way. They impede progress”

2017: “This airplane is designed by clowns, who in turn are supervised by monkeys.”

2018: “I still haven’t been forgiven by God for the covering up I did last year.”

2019: “Would you put your family on a MAX simulator trained aircraft? I wouldn’t.”

2020: “We regret the content of these communications, and apologize to the FAA, Congress, our airline customers, and to the flying public for them.”

Might this debacle have been avoided if Boeing hadn’t moved its headquarters to Chicago? We’ll never know for sure, but other companies would be smart to question claims for newfound efficiencies before considering any similar moves. Trust is built by showing up.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.

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Solution From 1787 Could Save Oregon Cap-and-Trade

January 17th, 2020 by dk
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Lawmakers in Salem are struggling to rewrite Oregon’s version of a cap-and-trade program in time for their short session, which begins in two weeks. HB2020 was designed to reduce statewide emissions. Instead, it led to Republicans boycotting Salem and not returning until they were assured the bill was dead.

It’s beginning to look like that could happen again. The draft form that’s currently known as Legislative Concept 19, proposes sweeping changes that will affect millions of people. If there’s a path to legislative consensus, it has so far eluded them.

It’s during times like this, when the future is unclear, that I find history to be most useful. The revolt of sparsely populated areas against urban elites is not new to us. It’s one of the strongest strands of our heritage. Lessons learned centuries ago can be applied today.

Delegates gathered in Philadelphia to write our Constitution in 1787. Alignments quickly formed with a widening gulf between. Less populated states supported the New Jersey Plan, where each state would get a single vote. More populated states preferred the Virginia Plan, with votes apportioned by population.

Roger Sherman bridged the gap on June 29, 1787. It was immediately hailed as The Great Compromise. From his language came our bicameral Congress. It created a system where every citizen is equal, but every state is also equal. It was a brilliant solution that pleased everyone.

We can quickly adapt Sherman’s insight to reshape our cap-and-trade program in a way that affirms everything we love about Oregon. We love our people. We also love our land. Every citizen is equal, but every county is also equal.

The LC19 rewrite has already divided the state into three large areas, proposing to delay implementation of many aspects of the program for rural areas, but it hasn’t won over any Republicans so far. (Support from two Republicans would gain the Oregon Senate its required two-thirds supermajority to prevent a walkout.)

If we’ve learned anything since 1787, it’s that money moves people quickly.

LC19 envisions all sorts of fees to be collected by the state. As truckers and manufacturers see their costs rise, it’ll raise prices for consumers. It’s those “price signals” that will drive behavioral changes in response to climate change. All Oregonians will pay those increased costs equally, but rural Oregonians fear their pain will be felt more acutely.

Here comes the counterintuitive part. Increase every fee written into LC19 by 10 percent. Then rebate every penny of those additional funds to Oregon’s 36 counties — equally. Wheeler County (population 1,430) will receive a windfall, where support for LC19 is currently low. Multnomah County (population 811,880) will barely notice the rebate, but support for LC19 is already running sky high around Portland. County commissioners will be free to spend the money however they think best for their residents.

This compromise does not enhance the cap-and-trade program itself, except to make it politically viable. With great humility, our leaders should move to gain consensus across the state. This legislation needs both good policy and good politics to become genuinely effective.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.

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Is Gratitude What’s Missing? I Wonder

January 16th, 2020 by dk
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I’m beginning to think that the most fundamental deficit that plagues modern societies may be gratitude. Whether you have a lot or a little, what you have is precious and the fact that you’re here to be having it is just short of miraculous.

Modernity tends to avert its gaze when confronted with the miraculous. That might be part of the problem. When we face something that defies explanation, our ancestors felt wonder. They were reminded how vast the world is and that they are here to play a part in it. 

Now when we see things we don’t understand — after a quick Google search and wikipedia scan — we worry that something is amiss that we can’t control. Wonder suits us better than worry.

I posed my gratitude-deficit assertion to some friends on social media. Some answered smartly that empathy is what we’re lacking. I don’t disagree, but I’m convinced that we need our own mental house in order before we can attend effectively to others. Our social self must be healthy for us to live together, but that can only follow from a healthy sense of self.

If we’re grateful for what we have — including life itself — then empathy, it seems to me, comes more easily. Those who are thankful for nothing don’t extend their hand easily to others. And when they do, it may be posed as a test — one that the other is bound to fail.

One good friend took it further, arguing that gratitude has become the new opiate of the people. In a society that worships consumerism, preaching gratitude keeps the masses “in their place” — which is to say, “down.” Being thankful, in that context, leads to being content and then complacent. No good ever came from complacency.

Others complained that it’s only inside of privilege that gratitude gains primacy. For those whose striving and discontent are literally an act of survival, pausing to be grateful could be a tragic mistake. They could be right about that. 

The Neanderthal who paused for a moment to appreciate his spear might miss the mark and lose his dinner. Assembly line workers cannot afford to pause and reflect, because the line won’t pause with them. I should empathize better with those who don’t feel they can afford gratitude.

But still. The absolute worst that could happen in those dire circumstances would be a loss of life for themselves and maybe for many of those around them. And the worst interpretation of that outcome is a return to the void from which they came. Isn’t even suffering to be preferred over non-existence?

It’s not easy to empathize with the thousands or millions of sperm that never reached an egg, or with the zygote that never grew into a recognizable form of life. But the chances of you and me meeting that fate was always vastly more likely than where we ended up.

There’s that word again — vast. I resisted when others proposed we replenish first the deficits that are downstream from existence itself, but I see a path upstream from gratitude that I hadn’t recognized before. It leads to wonder.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.

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