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                                         A Modern Version of the Story of Noah’s Ark

                                                                                    An Earth Manifesto publication by Dr. Tiffany B. Twain  

                                                                                                                                        April 1, 2008

In the year 2008, the Lord came unto Noah, who was now living in the United States, believe it or not, and he said,

"Once again, the earth has become wicked and over-populated, and I see the end of all flesh before me.  Build another Ark and save two of every living thing, along with a few good humans."

He gave Noah the blueprints, saying, "You have 6 months to build the Ark before I will start the unending rain for 40 days and 40 nights."

Six months later, the Lord looked down and saw Noah weeping in his yard.  And there was no Ark.

"Noah!" He roared, "I'm about to start the rain!  Where is the Ark?"

"Forgive me, Lord," begged Noah, "but things have changed.  I needed a building permit.  I've been arguing with the building inspector about the need for a sprinkler system.  My neighbors claim I've violated the neighborhood zoning laws by building the Ark in my yard and exceeding the height limitations, so I had to go to the Development Appeals Board for a decision."

"Then the Department of Transportation demanded the posting of a bond for future costs of moving power lines and other overhead obstructions to clear the passage for the Ark's move to the sea.  I told them that the sea would be coming to us, but they would hear nothing of it.”

"Getting the wood was another problem.  There is a ban on cutting local trees to save the spotted owls.  I tried to convince the ridiculous people calling themselves environmentalists that I needed the wood to save the owls, but they would not buy that story.  Then when I started gathering the animals, an animal rights group sued me.  They insisted that I was confining wild animals against their will.  They argued the accommodations were much too restrictive, and it was cruel and inhumane to put so many animals in such a confined space.”

"Then the Environmental Protection Agency ruled that I couldn't build the Ark until they'd conducted an environmental impact study on your proposed flood.  And I'm still trying to resolve a complaint with the Human Rights Commission on how many minorities I'm supposed to hire for my building crew."

"Immigration and Naturalization are checking the green-card status of most of the people who want to work.  The trade unions say I can't use my sons.  They insist I must hire only union workers with Ark-building experience.”

"To make matters worse, the IRS seized all my assets, claiming I'm trying to leave the country illegally with endangered species.  So, forgive me, Lord, but it would take at least 10 years for me to finish this Ark."

Suddenly the skies cleared, the sun began to shine, and a rainbow stretched across the sky.  Noah looked up in wonder and amazement.  “God,” he queried, "You mean you're not going to destroy the world?

"No," thundered the Lord. "The government beat me to it." 


Ha!  The pathos of this humor relies for its effect on our cynicism about the absurdities of Big Government and its intrusiveness in our lives. 

Why do we have so much red tape?

The reason is simple -- and extremely complex.  Our economic and political systems are a reflection of intense struggles that involve a multitude of competing interests that clash in their efforts to gain what they want.  Without regulations and laws and enforcement by the government, there would be monopoly abuses of power, greater injustices, overexploitation of resources, unmanageable risks, more instability, and even anarchy.

The purpose of government is to establish order and codify the parameters of the ‘social contract’ that allow us to coexist together in civilized societies.  In ideal governance, the government would act as an ally to the people, not as an enemy, in three primary arenas: 

(1) Freedom.  The government should ensure people’s privacy and individual liberties and the freedom to make personal choices that do not harm others. 

(2) Opportunity.  The federal government should strive to be a fair referee between competing interests, and it should work to ensure fairness of opportunity and legal justice for all.  And, 

(3) Security.  The government should ensure a reasonable balance between personal freedoms and national defense.

The Bush Administration, with its “conservative” underpinnings, unfortunately guided us in the wrong direction in these three arenas.  It worked tirelessly to increase Executive power and erode the personal freedoms of the people in the name of the “war on terror”.  It advanced a narrow scope of religious righteousness and supposed ‘family values’ in order to enact sink-or-swim social policies that favor the already privileged and the well to do.  These strategies had the effect of making people work harder without commensurate rewards for their small share of the economic pie.  It also increased the economic insecurity of the majority of Americans and hurt working people.  And it certainly didn’t adequately represent the interests of young people who are not yet old enough to vote.

Conservatives have done a poor job of prioritizing government spending.  When in power, they gave heavy emphasis to military spending and regressive changes in national tax policies that served to increase the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few.  Conservatives extravagantly spent money on military occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, and on subsidies and perks for corporations and investors.  They cut spending for domestic programs that help children and students and the environment and people struggling with healthcare and financial challenges.  And they acted to make everyone less secure through blowback-provoking foreign policies and unjust imperialism and wars of aggression. 

The Bush Administration was fiscally irresponsible, indulging in record levels of deficit spending and significantly increasing the national debt.  Conservatives subcontracted jobs in an enthusiasm for privatization, and drove many of them offshore.  They eliminated important bank regulations and anti-trust laws.  They allowed shenanigans by mortgage brokers and mortgage rating agencies.  They allowed lobbyists for Big Oil, drug companies, resource extraction industries, and other powerful players to dominate our law making.  And they acted with an excess of anti-democratic authority.

American voters would be well advised to vote for Progressive candidates in the 2008 national elections, and to eject conservative politicians.  Why? 

Here are the Top Ten Reasons:

1)  LIBERTY AND JUSTICE FOR ALL.   Fairness should be the cornerstone of democratic governance, but conservatives have come to represent the increasingly dominant influence of Big Money, special interests, and right wing extremists at the expense of fair representation of the interests of the majority of people.  Honesty and accurate information are crucial facets of democracy, but deception and fear have been used to confuse and manipulate the people.  Republican leaders have been extremely secretive, and they have been untruthful about the reasons for war in Iraq and conflicts of interest and war profiteering by such companies as Halliburton and Blackwater, and about matters like prisoner torture.  They have also indulged in gimmicks like the crippling of State budgets by underfunding Federal mandates.  They have additionally been dishonest about the true nature and cost of industry-friendly legislation like the Prescription Drug act and many other socially undesirable policies and actions.

2)  FISCAL RESPONSIBILITY.   Conservatives have ironically been party to extreme fiscal irresponsibility.  They have eagerly taken an expedient course of action by borrowing great sums of money from future generations.  This has created enormous budget deficits and a rapid increase in the national debt.  They have done this with the goals of financing tax breaks for the wealthy, providing unwise subsidies for Big Business, and fighting wars to advance corporate interests and U.S. hegemony around the world.  Fiscally responsible “pay-as-you-go” policies have been abandoned to achieve greater political power and short-term-oriented goals.  Pork barrel spending and monetary waste are out of control, due in part to George W. Bush’s failure to veto a single piece of spending legislation in his first six years in office.  He presided over a $2 trillion increase in the national debt, which increased from $845 billion when Ronald Reagan took office in 1981 to a high $9.2 trillion.  This is severely compromising the prospects of people in the future.  We should instead be “paying forward” some good deeds by redesigning our economic and political systems to ensure a wiser, fairer, healthier and more fiscally responsible society.  This could be achieved by investing more intelligently in physical infrastructure, and by using the positive reinforcement of incentives rather than oppressive regulations to achieve common good goals.  Surely we could find better ways to more nearly balance the budget each year.

3)  INTELLIGENT ENERGY POLICY.   We should begin to wean ourselves from our risky dependence on fossil fuels.  Many of our political leaders are "good old boys" who are beholden to Big Oil.  They are working against smart changes in our energy policy.  They effectively oppose conservation, efficiency, innovation, and renewable alternative energy sources in order to continue lavishing subsidies upon giant energy corporations.  Driven by the desire to reward Big Businesses, which contribute to their election campaigns, politicians are failing to take bold steps to reduce our addiction to wasteful usages of limited resources of oil and natural gas.  We are shortsightedly gambling with our future by ignoring the great risks of global warming and potentially abrupt climate change and weather extremes and rising ocean levels.  Meanwhile, we are not taking courageous steps to mitigate damages being caused -- and to be caused -- by our rash spewing of billions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere every year.

4)  THE ENVIRONMENT.   Protection of clean air, clean water, national parks and forests, wilderness areas and other public lands and the ‘commons’ are considerations of great importance to the public health and well-being of the American people.  Instead of containing or eliminating pollution and toxic wastes, conservatives support laissez-faire corporate goals and consumerism.  They dogmatically oppose sensible environmental regulations, and this stance is having ominously negative implications for the ecological health and biological diversity of our home planet.  It is a gamble to act as if we can continue with impunity to wreak havoc on the natural world.  The Office of Management and Budget has found that the costs of environmental regulations to business and government ARE FIVE TO SEVEN TIMES LESS than the costs to society of pollution, adverse health impacts and environmental cleanup.  Profits for Big Business should no longer be given priority over the general good and the health of the environment and the integrity of Earth's ecosystems.  John McCain’s record was rated a ZERO (on a scale of 0 to 100) by the League of Conservation Voters;  this is pathetic and unacceptable!  Do NOT vote for John McCain or other Republicans with similarly low environmental ratings.

5)  REASONABLE MILITARY SPENDING.   Conservatives have championed lavish spending on the Pentagon, the military and the CIA as primary tenets of their political and economic policies.  The U.S. spends more on armaments, ammunition, military personnel, and weapons of mass destruction than all other countries of the world combined.  This emphasis treats military spending as a virtuous, necessary and lofty goal, but often in actuality it is a wasteful, cost-maximizing, wrong-headed, aggression-obsessive, peace upsetting, destabilizing, and unsustainable squandering of assets.  We must choose more honest leaders who are statesmen, diplomats and responsible citizens.  We should reject zealous hard-line ideologues and unilateralists and apologists for militarism in the service of the goals of the military-industrial complex.   Terror tactics are almost always driven by INJUSTICE, and yet capitalist drives to increase disparities between rich people and the poor, and to make inequities permanent, tends to increase injustice and social instability, making us all less safe.

6)  SMALLER FEDERAL GOVERNMENT.   Our brilliant American constitutional system of checks and balances was designed to prevent abuses of power by the federal government.  Yet the Executive branch has expanded its powers at the expense of our legislative representatives and the basic freedoms of the people in the past 8 years.  Government has become more intrusive by spying on the American people and undermining their Constitutional rights.  A tsunami of social conflict is being amplified by increasing economic inequities and a lurch of our legal system to the right.  This lurch has taken place due to appointments of conservatives to federal courts and the Supreme Court.  Civil rights assurances in the Bill of Rights have been diminished, except for the Second Amendment right to bear arms, which has been expanded to include the right to buy lethal assault weapons.  Fairness initiatives are in decline.  Conservatives have enacted laws and regulations that are more discriminatory, anti-gay, anti-women, and anti-worker whenever they have been able to achieve these narrow goals.  This is causing an accelerating divisiveness in our society.  Corruption and the expanding “Orwellian Big Brother” power of the federal government can serve to significantly reduce our liberties. 

7)  SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE.   Our country was founded upon principles of limitations of the power of the federal government and the assurance that the government would not interfere in people’s personal religious beliefs.  The ideologies of Neoconservatism strive for domination, supremacy, greater military and police power, the suppression of dissent, regressive tax and domestic policies, arrogantly aggressive foreign policies, and a pandering to various religious fundamentalists.  We should choose to elect leaders who have greater respect for the dignity of American citizens, for people in the middle class, for religious tolerance and ecumenical acceptance, for civil rights and equal right for alls, for local and state governments, and for a less intrusive federal government.

8)  FAMILY PLANNING AND WOMEN'S REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS WORLDWIDE.   Population growth is one of the biggest factors contributing to environmental degradation and conflict between peoples, yet conservatives cynically oppose family planning programs by enforcing the “global gag rule” and refusing to pay contributions approved by Congress to the United Nations Population Fund.  Our government has become beholden to the right wing of Christian churches that oppose contraception and women's reproductive rights.  They advocate abstinence from sexual intercourse, which is an inadequate way to try to deal with one of the most powerful of human drives.

9)  UNITY, NOT DIVISIVENESS.   Balance, moderation, inclusiveness, flexibility, consensus building, cooperation, trust, and “Liberty and Justice for All” are important ideals for our society.  The rhetoric of conservatives may give lip service to these concepts, but in actuality the policies driven by conservatives reflect a belief that any means are justified to accomplish dogmatic and narrowly partisan ends.  This results in discrimination, conflict-creating bigotry, hypocrisy, divisiveness, Our-God-Is-Better-than-Your-God argumentation, unfair favoritism of the already privileged, and dangerous frustration and humiliation of those who are not insiders.  Our society is made increasingly dysfunctional by people who support dogmas that involve absolutism, patriarchal supremacy, puritanism, and reactionary religious fundamentalism.  We cannot allow our national leadership to drive us further in these directions. 

10)  CARING ABOUT PEOPLE AND PLANET EARTH.   Do not vote for conservative Republicans if you care about strong protections for National Parks, National Forests, Wilderness Areas, Bureau of Land Management lands, free-flowing rivers, or endangered species.  Likewise, do not vote for conservative Republicans if you favor sustainable development, or adequate funding for public education and infrastructure improvements, or intelligent far-sighted spending priorities, or balanced budgets, or equal opportunity, or worker protections, or equal pay for women, or reproductive rights for females, or tolerance, or open-mindedness, or committed help to the most vulnerable members of our society, or empathy for the struggles of others. 

Defeat of neoconservatives in the November 2008 elections will hold them accountable for their misguided policies.  This would force them to alter course and move towards more moderate, healthier and saner plans for the future.  That's my opinion!

Let’s downsize the government, because it is not the government’s job to create jobs, stimulate the economy, help create speculative bubbles, bail out investors, or act as a militaristic aggressor.  Let’s rein in the power of the President, and act to prevent Machiavellian intrigues, reduce socially detrimental forms of profiteering, close unwise loopholes, prevent political corruption, and reduce the extent to which corporations are able to externalize costs onto society. 


               A Smart Goal:  Turn Environmental Decline into Restoration

Human well-being in the long run goes hand-in-hand with the health of ecosystems.  A website named EcoTipping Points analyzes more than 100 success stories where smart “levers” have been used to make positive changes that reverse environmental declines and restore the health of local ecosystems.  The idea of a lever for change is borrowed from Archimedes, the Sicilian scientist who said more than two thousand years ago that he could move the world if he had the right lever and the right place to stand. 

What are EcoTipping Points?  Gerald Marten, an ecologist at the East-West Center in Honolulu and author of Human Ecology: Basic Concepts for Sustainable Development states:

“EcoTipping Points offer a handle for making sense of complexity -- a paradigm of hope and a fresh lens for looking at both problems and solutions.  EcoTipping Points provide desperately needed reassurance that environmental and social problems are not too big, too costly, nor too complicated to be dealt with effectively.” 

Gerald Marten goes on to identify the main ingredients for success in attempting to reverse vicious cycles of self-enforcing feedback loops that are often involved in environmental degradation.  Ideas like this are valuable to consider because they point us in desirable directions in which local people can make a big difference in the world while we wait for pressures to finally force our leaders to step forward to alter the misguided intergenerational unfairness of the status quo.

Read about some of the many specific instances in which small investments have been leveraged into large returns by EcoTipping Points levers at EcoTippingPoints.org.

The ingredients for ecosystem restoration success, according to Gerald Marten, are:

(1) Outside stimulation and facilitation. A success story typically begins when people or information from outside a community stimulate a shared awareness about a problem (i.e., how the situation is changing and what seems to be responsible), and this leads to fresh ideas for possible actions to deal with it.

(2) Strong local institutions and enduring commitment of local leadership.  Instead of top-down regulation or elaborate development plans with unrealistic goals, we see success where there is genuine community participation, and where communities move forward with their own decisions and manpower and financial resources while generating a sense of individual and group ownership for the achievements.  Leaders who keep the restoration process on track are the ‘glue’ in the stories.

(3) Co-adaption between social system and ecosystem.  The restoration that we see in success stories occurs when human society and the environment fit and function together as a healthy and sustainable whole.  At the core is a “social commons” that is explicitly tailored to managing a community’s social and environmental capital.

(4) “Letting nature do the work.”  It is beyond human capacity to successfully micromanage the environment.  Doable and sustainable solutions give nature full opportunity to marshal its self-organizing powers for restoration.

(5) Transforming waste into resources. What appears to be “waste” -- such as degraded land, abandoned buildings, garbage, sewage, or marginalized people -- is mobilized and transformed into valued social or material capital.  (This is natural capitalism, as brilliantly enunciated by Paul
Hawken in Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution.)

(6) Rapid results.  Quick "payback" helps to mobilize community commitment.  Once positive results begin cascading through a system, normal social and economic and political processes can take it from there.

(7) A powerful symbol.  A respected leader or champion for a cause, or a site or landmark sacred to the community, or a compelling idea becomes a symbol for the entire effort, consolidating community commitment and mobilizing community action.  (When will the idea of a Bill of Rights for Future Generations go viral, and provide an overarching context for our short-term-oriented politics and economics?)

(8) Overcoming social obstacles.  In today’s complex society, powerful obstacles often stand in the way of positive change.  For example: demands for people’s time and attention that compete with contributing to the community;  dysfunctional dependence on the status quo;  governments, organizations, or individuals that feel threatened by innovation;  people who attempt to take over valuable resources after their restoration.  Local autonomy can help to withstand social obstacles that emanate from outside a community.

(9) Social and ecological diversity.  Greater diversity provides more choices and opportunities, and therefore better prospects that some of the choices will be effective in reaching desired outcomes. 

(10) Social memory.  Learning from the past can be a particularly valuable resource because it offers choices that have stood the test of time.

(11) Building resilience.  The ability to “lock in” gains and withstand inevitable threats to sustaining those gains is enhanced by a community’s adaptive capacity: its openness to change based on shared community awareness, prudent experimentation, learning from successes and mistakes, and replicating success.

“It should be recognized that even the best levers will not solve environmental problems overnight.  It is hard work no matter how it is done.  But with so many problems seemingly spiraling beyond control, it’s important to remind ourselves of what others have done to turn decline around.”

“Gerald Marten is an ecologist at the East-West Center in Honolulu and the author of Human Ecology: Basic Concepts for Sustainable Development.  His email address is gerry@ecotippingpoints.org.  He is always eager to learn of more success stories, and welcomes correspondence with people who want to apply EcoTipping Point principles to problem solving in their community.”


General Germinating Thoughts

To Recapitulate: Let’s Not Capitulate!

We can create a better future by dealing effectively with the six main reasons that moneyed interests are so effective in using the power of the influence of their riches to defend the status quo.  This is the key to making more sensible national plans and remaking our nation in ways that are fairer, safer, smarter, and more sustainable.  The influence of Big Money has accomplished socially unjust, anti-egalitarian, undemocratic, and power-abusing feats by these six primary means:

 (1) It has served to consistently act to undermine worker’s rights, privileges, power and security;

 (2) It has enlisted an unprecedented phalanx of lobbyists to advance narrowly-focused interests in Congress, thus subjugating the interests of the Many to those of the Few, and the broad interests of the people to the profit-prepossessed interests of large corporations;

 (3) It has persistently subverted Constitutional protections of the General welfare and legal protections of the people and of the environment.  In the process, rich people have diminished the prospects of the majority to get equal opportunities, or to achieve fairly-shared prosperity.  This is contrary to our Founding ideals of liberty and the right to reasonably pursue happiness;

 (4) Giant conglomerates have bought control of the mass media.  The concentration of ownership of the media by a handful of enormous corporations has allowed them to use this power to promote deceptive propaganda and to sell us on consumer materialism and wars, and to divide people, and to facilitate the advancement of a narrow economic and social agenda;

 (5) Wealthy people have succeeded in stacking the Supreme Court with a narrow 5-4 majority that has consistently ruled in the past six years in favor of the interests of corporations and against the best interests of the vast majority of people;  and,

 (6) The military-industrial complex has been allowed to become an octopus of deficit-financed wasteful spending and interventionist aggression and divisive distraction.  In the process, controlling interests have perverted our domestic priorities and undermined the prospects for peaceful coexistence and mutual security among the peoples of nations around the globe.


Mary Lease was celebrated as the "Kansas Joan of Arc."


Imagine there’s no afterlife, it’s easy if you try

 No compensatory “next time around”, where any of us will fly

  Imagine our souls are not immortal, just like our bodies, I vow

   For this truth trains our attention on unnecessary injustices in our societies here and now.

The fact of our inevitable deaths should train us to live more authentic lives in the Here and Now.  If there actually will be no chance of salvation in an afterlife, because there pretty likely will be no afterlife at all, it would force us to seek truer justice in our societies today.  Let’s do it!


 “Humor is the hardest to write, easiest to sell, and best rewarded.  There are only a few who are able to do it.  If you are able, do it by all means.  You will find it a Klondike and a Rand rolled into one.  Look at Mark Twain.”

                                                 --- Jack London, "Getting into Print," The Editor, March 1903


 “Hicks was born honest, I without that encumbrance -- so some people said.  Hicks saw what he saw and reported accordingly, I saw more than was visible and added to it such details as could help.  Hicks had no imagination, I had a double supply.  He was born calm, I was born excited.  No vision could start a rapture in him and he was constipated as to language, anyway, but if I saw a vision I emptied the dictionary onto it and lost the remnant of my mind into the bargain.”

                                                                                                         --- Mark Twain in Eruption

“And when he talks he talks slowly and extracts each of his vowels with a corkscrew twist that would make even the announcement of a funeral sound like a joke.”

                                                                                                    --- William A. Croffut, 1889

 “I didn't attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.”

                                                                                                               --- Attributed to Mark Twain


Riff about the Slow Food Movement

Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen?

Sharing the preparation of food can be a wonderful thing.  Years ago, I would share decicious food and commemorate fun socializing as well as the concept of freedom by throwing a Bastille Day party for 100 people at a friend’s beautiful home.  The food preparation parties that were held for several days in advance were always more fun, in some ways, and more intimate, than the big event itself,.  After spending a few hours preparing food, the 6 or 8 sous chefs would all sit down to a dinner of Penne Puttanesca or Pasta Fazul, and share some wine and good conversation.  Cooking can be fun!

I recommend that one always more or less follow a recipe the first time you make it, and then modify it to suit your tastes the next time you make it.  Most recipes can be changed to good effect by adding spices that you like, and most of them are not sensitive to proportions unless the ingredient proportions are important, as in baking.


The following paragraphs were originally in Common Sense Revival:

The Silver Lining to These Daunting Challenges

A last-minute deal on August 2, 2011 to raise the national debt limit included a political gimmick that Congress must vote on an amendment to the Constitution requiring the federal government to balance its budget every year.  This provision was laughable political posturing.  It was certainly not a serious effort to make specific decisions on how to reduce budget deficits over the next decade. 

There is a silver lining in the dark cloud of the near default.  The $14.5 trillion national debt at the time had been projected to increase by $10 trillion in the next 10 years.  This gambit of borrowing money from people in the future to give it to the wealthiest Americans today must be halted, and the turmoil caused by Republican brinksmanship has sharpened the focus on this necessity.  So far, anti-tax dogmas have had far too much sway, but the obvious need to stop indulging in fiscally insane expediencies of borrowing money to give rich people low tax rates is more apparent now than ever.

The potential default crisis presented us with a great opportunity to actually do something about the projected increase in the national debt in the next 10 years.  This issue should be addressed now.  Marginal tax rates on high incomes should be increased from their current intergenerational lows, and tax loopholes should be eliminated for corporations, hedge fund managers, and rich people who are using the power of their money to buy influence to skew the system ever-more radically in their favor. 

An honest Balanced Budget Initiative, as proposed in One Dozen Big Initiatives to Positively Transform Our Societies, is a revolutionary reform that would help us create a society that is fairer to people in future generations.  This reform would involve a Fiscal Responsibility Act that would provide a powerful and effective motivation for the principal deciders in our political system to be brought on board to support efforts to create national policies that are more likely to be consistent with the best interests of people in future generations.

Since our national policies are skewed overly heavily to benefit the top 2% of Americans, 98% of people should vote for fairer policies, and this injustice would be curtailed.  If people in future generations could somehow vote, more than 99.9% of votes would be cast for fairer and more socially and environmentally responsible policies, and only a miniscule fraction would be in favor of allowing powerful people today to continue to receive the lion’s share of benefits at the expense of all others.  It is simply wrong to allow the people with the most power to insidiously exploit the young, the vulnerable, the unfairly underrepresented, and all people in future generations.

Reasonable people see that there are sensible solutions to this deficit spending problem.  They also realize that it is only because our political system is so dysfunctional and corrupt that this goal is so hard to achieve.  Let’s reconnoiter, and cooperate together to make well-considered decisions on how to make our cultures fairer to future generations, as well as to all people alive today.  We simply must manage the economy in a smarter manner. 

                        ---------------  The End  -------------



The Obama Code

    by George Lakoff, February 24, 2009

As President Obama prepares to address a joint session of Congress, what can we expect to hear?

The pundits will stress the nuts-and-bolts policy issues:  the banking system, education, energy, health care.  But beyond policy, there will be a vision of America -- a moral vision and a view of unity that the pundits often miss.

What they miss is the Obama Code.  For the sake of unity, the President tends to express his moral vision indirectly.  Like other self-aware and highly articulate speakers, he connects with his audience using what cognitive scientists call the "cognitive unconscious."  Speaking naturally, he lets his deepest ideas simply structure what he is saying.  If you follow him, the deep ideas are communicated unconsciously and automatically.  The Code is his most effective way to bring the country together around fundamental American values.

For supporters of the President, it is crucial to understand the Code in order to talk overtly about the old values our new president is communicating.  It is necessary because tens of millions of Americans -- both conservatives and progressives -- don't yet perceive the vital sea change that Obama is bringing about.

The word "code" can refer to a system of either communication or morality.  President Obama has integrated the two.  The Obama Code is both moral and linguistic at once.  The President is using his enormous skills as a communicator to express a moral system.  As he has said, budgets are moral documents.  His economic program is tied to his moral system and is discussed in the Code, as are just about all of his other policies.

Behind the Obama Code are seven crucial intellectual moves that I believe are historically, practically, and cognitively appropriate, as well as politically astute.  They are not all obvious, and jointly they may seem mysterious.  That is why it is worth sorting them out one-by-one.

1. Values Over Programs

The first move is to distinguish programs from the value systems they represent. Every policy has a material aspect -- the nuts and bolts of how it works -- plus a typically implicit cognitive aspect that represents the values and ideas behind the nuts and bolts.  The President knows the difference.  He understands that those who see themselves as "progressive" or "conservative" all too often define those words in terms of programs rather than values.  Even the programs championed by progressives may not fit what the President sees as the fundamental values of the country.  He is seeking to align the programs of his administration with those values.

The potential pushback will come not just from conservatives who do not share his values, but just as much from progressives who make the mistake of thinking that programs are values and that progressivism is defined by a list of programs.  When some of those programs are cut as economically secondary or as unessential, their defenders will inevitably see this as a conservative move rather than a move within an overall moral vision they share with the President.

This separation between values and programs lies behind the president's pledge to cut programs that don't serve those values and support those that do -- no matter whether they are proposed by Republicans or Democrats.  The President's idealistic question is, what policies serve what values? -- not what political interests?

2. Progressive Values are American Values

President Obama's second intellectual move concerns what the fundamental American values are.  In Moral Politics, I described what I found to be the implicit, and often unconscious, value systems behind progressive and conservative thought.  Progressive thought rests, first, on the value of empathy -- putting oneself in other people's shoes, seeing the world through their eyes, and therefore caring about them.  The second principle is acting on that care, taking responsibility both for oneself and others, social as well as individual responsibility.  The third is acting to make oneself, the country, and the world better -- what Obama has called an "ethic of excellence" toward creating "a more perfect union" politically.

Historian Lynn Hunt, in Inventing Human Rights, has shown that those values, beginning with empathy, lie historically behind the human rights expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  Obama, in various interviews and speeches, has provided the logical link.  Empathy is not mere sympathy.  Putting oneself in the shoes of others brings with it the responsibility to act on that empathy -- to be "our brother's keeper and our sister's keeper" -- and to act to improve ourselves, our country, and the world.

The logic is simple: Empathy is why we have the values of freedom, fairness, and equality -- for everyone, not just for certain individuals.  If we put ourselves in the shoes of others, we will want them to be free and treated fairly.  Empathy with all leads to equality: no one should be treated worse than anyone else.  Empathy leads us to democracy: to avoid being subject indefinitely to the whims of an oppressive and unfair ruler, we need to be able to choose who governs us and we need a government of laws.

Obama has consistently maintained that what I, in my writings, have called "progressive" values are fundamental American values.  From his perspective, he is not a progressive; he is just an American.  That is a crucial intellectual move.

Those empathy-based moral values are the opposite of the conservative focus on individual responsibility without social responsibility.  They make it intolerable to tolerate a president who is The Decider -- who gets to decide without caring about or listening to anybody.  Empathy-based values are opposed to the pure self-interest of a laissez-faire "free market," which assumes that greed is good and that seeking self-interest will magically maximize everyone's interests.  They oppose a purely self-interested view of America in foreign policy.  Obama's foreign policy is empathy-based, concerned with people as well as states -- with poverty, education, disease, water, the rights of women and children, ethnic cleansing, and so on around the world.

How are such values expressed?  Take a look at the inaugural speech.  Empathy: "the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job, the firefighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent's willingness to nurture a child..." Responsibility to ourselves and others: "We have duties to ourselves, the nation, and the world."  The ethic of excellence: "there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of character, than giving our all to a difficult task."  They define our democracy: "This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed."

The same values apply to foreign policy:  "To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and make clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds."  And to religion as well: By quoting language like "our brother's keeper," he is communicating that mere individual responsibility will not get you into Heaven, that social responsibility and making the world better is required.

3. Biconceptualism and the New Bipartisanship

The third crucial idea behind the Obama Code is biconceptualism, the knowledge that a great many people who identify themselves ideologically as conservatives, or politically as Republicans or Independents, share those fundamental American values -- at least on certain issues.  Most "conservatives" are not thoroughgoing movement conservatives, but are what I have called "partial progressives" sharing Obama's American values on many issues.  Where such folks agree with him on values, Obama tries, and will continue to try, to work with them on those issues if not others.  And, he assumes, I correctly believe, that the more they come to think in terms of those American values, the less they will think in terms of opposing conservative values.

Biconceptualism lay behind his invitation to Rick Warren to speak at the inaugural.  Warren is a biconceptual, like many younger evangelicals.  He shares Obama's views of the environment, poverty, health, and social responsibility, though he is otherwise a conservative.  Biconceptualism is behind his "courting" of Republican members of Congress.  The idea is not to accept conservative moral views, but to find those issues where individual Republicans already share what he sees as fundamentally American values.  He has "reached across the aisle" to Richard Luger on nuclear proliferation, but not on economics.

Biconceptualism is central to Obama's attempts to achieve unity -- a unity based on his understanding of American values.  The current economic failure gives him an opening to speak about the economy in terms of those ideals:  caring about all, prosperity for all, responsibility for all by all, and good jobs for all who want to work.

I think Obama is correct about biconceptualism of this sort -- at least where the overwhelming proportion of Americans is concerned.  When the President spoke at the Lincoln Day dinner recently about sensible Midwestern Republicans, he meant biconceptual Republicans, who are progressive and/or pragmatic on many issues.

But hardcore movement conservatives tend to be more ideological and less biconceptual than their constituents.  In the recent stimulus vote, the hardcore conservatives kept party discipline (except for three Senate votes) by threatening to run opposition candidates against anyone who broke ranks.  They were able to enforce this because the conservative message machine is strong in their districts and there is no nationwide progressive message machine operating in those districts.  The effectiveness of the conservative message machine led to Obama making a rare mistake in communication, the mistake of saying out loud in Florida not to think of Rush Limbaugh, thus violating the first rule of framing and giving Rush Limbaugh even greater power.

Biconceptual, partly progressive, Republicans do exist in Congress, and the president is not going to give up on them.  But as long as the conservative message machine can activate its values virtually unopposed in conservative districts, movement conservatives can continue to pressure biconceptual Republicans and keep them from voting their conscience on many issues.  This is why a nationwide progressive message machine needs to be organized if the president is to achieve unity through biconceptualism.

4. Protection and Empowerment

The fourth idea behind the Obama Code is the President's understanding of government -- "not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works."  This depends on what "works" means.  The word sounds purely pragmatic, but it is moral in operation.

The idea is that government has twin moral missions:  protection and empowerment. Protection includes not just military and police protection, but protections for the environment, consumers, workers, pensioners, disaster victims, and investors.

Empowerment is what his stimulus package is about: it includes education and other forms of infrastructure -- roads, bridges, communications, energy supply, the banking system and stock market.  The moral mission of government is simple: no one can earn a living in America or live an American life without protection and empowerment by the government.  The stimulus package is basically an empowerment package.  Taxes are what you pay for living in America, rather than in Congo or Bangladesh.  And the more money you make from government protection and empowerment, the more you owe in return.  Progressive taxation is a matter of moral accounting.  Tax cuts for the middle class mean that the middle class hasn't been getting as much as it has been contributing to the nation's productivity for many years.

This view of government meshes with our national ideal of equality.  There needs to be moral equality: equal protection and equal empowerment.  We all deserve health care protection, retirement protection, worker protection, employment protection, protection of our civil liberties, and investment protection.  Protection and empowerment.  That's what "works" means -- "whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified."

5. Morality and Economics Fit Together

Crises are times of opportunity.  Budgets are moral statements.  President Obama has put these ideas together.  His economic program is a moral program and conversely.  Why the quartet of leading economic issues -- education, energy, health, banking?  Because they are at the heart of government's moral mission of protection and empowerment, and correspondingly, they are what is needed to act on empathy and social and personal responsibility and making the future better.  The economic crisis is also an opportunity.  It requires him to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on the right things to do.

6. Systemic Causation and Systemic Risk

Conservatives tend to think in terms of direct causation.  The overwhelming moral value of individual, not social, responsibility requires that causation be local and direct.  For each individual to be entirely responsible for the consequences of his or her actions, those actions must be the direct causes of those consequences.  If systemic causation is real, then the most fundamental of conservative moral -- and economic -- values is fallacious.

Global ecology and global economics are prime examples of systemic causation.  Global warming is fundamentally a system phenomenon.  That is why the very idea threatens conservative thinking.  And the global economic collapse is also systemic in nature.  That is at the heart of the death of the conservative principle of the laissez-faire free market, where individual short-term self-interest was supposed to be natural, moral, and the best for everybody.  The reality of systemic causation has left conservatism without any real ideas to address global warming and the global economic crisis.

With systemic causation goes systemic risk.  The old rational actor model taught in economics and political science ignored systemic risk.  Risk was seen as local and governed by direct causation, that is, buy short-term individual decisions.  The investment banks acted on their own short-term risk, based on short-term assumptions, for example, that housing prices would continue to rise or that bundles of mortgages once secure for the short term would continue to be "secure" and could be traded as "securities."

The systemic nature of ecological and economic causation and risk has resulted in the twin disasters of global warming and global economic breakdown.  Both must be dealt with on a systematic, global, long-term basis.  Regulating risk is global and long-term, and so what are required are world-wide institutions that carry out regulation in systematic ways and that monitor causation and risk systemically, not just locally.

President Obama understands this, though much of the country does not.  Part of his challenge will be to formulate policies that carry out these ideas and to communicate these ideas as well as possible to the public.

7. Contested Concepts and Patriotic Language

As President, Barack Obama must speak in patriotic language.  But all patriot language in this country is "contested."  Every major patriotic term has a core meaning that we all understand the same way.  But that common core meaning is very limited in its application.  Most uses of patriotic language are extended from the core on the basis of either conservative or progressive values to produce meanings that are often opposite from each other.

I've written a whole book, Whose Freedom?, on the word ‘freedom’ as used by conservatives and progressives.  In his second inaugural, George W. Bush used "freedom," "free," and "liberty" over and over -- first, with its common meaning, then shifting to its conservative meaning: defending "freedom" as including domestic spying, torture and rendition, denial of habeas corpus, invading a country that posed no threat to us, a "free market" based on greed and short-term profits for the wealthy, denying sex education and access to women's health facilities, denying health care to the poor, and leading to the killing and maiming of innocent civilians in Iraq by the hundreds of thousands, all in the name of "freedom."  It was anything but a progressive's view of freedom -- and anything but the view intended in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.

For forty years, from the late 1960's through 2008, conservatives managed, through their extensive message machine, to reframe much of our political discourse to fit their worldview.  President Obama is reclaiming our patriotic language after decades of conservative dominance, to fit what he has correctly seen as the ideals behind the founding of our country.

"Freedom" will no longer mean what George W. Bush meant by it.  Guantanamo will be closed, torture outlawed, the market regulated.  Obama's inaugural address was filled with framings of patriotic concepts to fit those ideals.  Not just the concept of freedom, but also equality, prosperity, unity, security, interests, challenges, courage, purpose, loyalty, patriotism, virtue, character, and grace.  Look at these words in his inaugural address and you will see how Obama has situated their meaning within his view of fundamental American values:  empathy, social and well as personal responsibility, improving yourself and your country.  We can expect further reclaiming of patriotic language throughout his administration.

All this is what "change" means.  In his policy proposals the President is trying to align his administration's policies with the fundamental values of the Framers of our Constitution.  In seeking "bipartisan" support, he is looking beyond political affiliations to those who share those values on particular issues.  In his economic policy, he is realigning our economy with the moral missions of government:  protection and empowerment for all.

It's Us, Not Just Him

The president is the best political communicator of our age.  He has the bully pulpit.  He gets media attention from the press.  His website is running a permanent campaign, Organizing for Obama, run by his campaign manager David Plouffe.  It seeks issue-by-issue support from his huge mailing list.  There are plenty of progressive blogs.  MoveOn.org now has over five million members.  And yet that is nowhere near enough.

The conservative message machine is huge and still going.  There are dozens of conservative think tanks, many with very large communications budgets.  The conservative leadership institutes are continuing to turn out thousands of trained conservative spokespeople every year.  The conservative apparatus for language creation is still functioning.  Conservative talking points are still going out to their network of spokespeople, who still being booked on TV and radio around the country.  About 80% of the talking heads on TV are conservatives.  Rush Limbaugh and Fox News are as strong as ever.  There are now progressive voices on MSNBC, Comedy Central, and Air America, but they are still overwhelmed by Right's enormous megaphone.  Republicans in Congress can count on overwhelming message support in their home districts and homes states.  That is one reason why they were able to stonewall on the President's stimulus package.  They had no serious media competition at home pounding out the Obama vision day after day.

Such national, day-by-day media competition is necessary.  Democrats need to build it.  Democratic think tanks are strong on policy and programs, but weak on values and vision.  Without the moral arguments based on the Obama values and vision, the policymakers most likely will be unable to regularly address both independent voters and the Limbaugh-FoxNews audiences in conservative Republican strongholds.

The president and his administration cannot build such a communication system, nor can the Democrats in Congress.  The DNC does not have the resources.  It will be up to supporters of the Obama values, not just supporters on the issues, to put such a system in place.  Despite all the organizing strength of Obama supporters, no such organizing effort is now going on.  If none is put together, the movement conservatives will face few challenges of fundamental values in their home constituencies and will be able to go on stonewalling with impunity.  That will make the president's vision that much harder to carry out.


The Obama Code is based on seven deep, insightful, and subtle intellectual moves.  What President Obama has been attempting in his speeches is a return to the original frames of the Framers, reconstituting what it means to be an American, to be patriotic, to be a citizen and to share in both the sacrifices and the glories of our country.  In seeking "bipartisan" support, he is looking beyond political affiliations to those who share those values on particular issues.  In his economic plan, he is attempting to realign our economy with the moral missions of government:  protection and empowerment for all.

The president hasn't fooled the radical ideological conservatives in Congress.  They know progressive values when they see them -- and they see them in their own colleagues and constituents too often for comfort.  The radical conservatives are aware that this economic crisis threatens not only their political support, but the very underpinnings of conservative ideology itself.  Nonetheless, their brains have not been changed by facts.  Movement conservatives are not fading away.  They think their conservative values are the real American values.  They still have their message machine and they are going to make the most of it.  The ratings for Fox News and Rush Limbaugh are rising.  Without a countervailing communications system on the Democratic side, they can create a lot of trouble, not just for the president, not just for the nation, but on a global scale, for the environmental and economic future of the world.

George Lakoff is Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley.  He is the author of The Political Mind, as well as the excellent book Don't Think of an Elephant!