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October 2011
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Steve HaysShifting Perspectives

One thing I really look forward to each month is when my copy of Harper’s Magazine arrives in the mail. I won’t tell you I read it cover to cover. The truth is sometimes I never get past page 15, which is about where you’ll find the “Harper’s Index.” That’s the first place I go.

Every time I read that feature, it shifts, at least a little, how I see some of the world. If you haven’t seen the Index, on one-page they ask and answer a question. Each normally takes one line so there is a collection of about 40 latest findings, facts or percentages on various topics. Another page lists what study or survey the figures are based on.

In Harper’s October issue, out in September, there was this: “Percentage of the world’s population that could fit in Texas by living with the population density of New York City: 100.”

I remember driving across Texas a couple of summers ago and it did feel like it took forever, but still, the idea that the world’s population could fit inside one State just boggles me. Imagine that air conditioning bill!

Not all of their topics interest me, but often I find I do shift my perspective from reading it, or maybe confirm what I thought. Some politicians may not agree, but when we participate and seek answers we can and do shift our perspective. Isn’t it vital and useful to do so?

One example of how shifting is useful, and certainly more accurate, is to look at our commonly held perception on illegal drugs. Living close to México as we do, that’s a big issue here.

The drug wars, smuggling, and how drugs are detrimental to us, especially our youth, are topics often discussed or argued. Anyone ever heard that marijuana is a “gateway drug” that leads to more damaging drugs such as heroin?

There are lots of different views on this, of course. If the majority of people who smoke marijuana never “graduate” to harder drugs, however, then maybe it’s not so set in stone that one leads to another.

Aren’t we hearing more and more often from people who were convinced of these effects, but then found themselves having to use it medicinally?

While they may not have liked it, it helped them. And, according to them at least, they never went on to use harder or higher drugs. For a lot of people, however, that’s just the way it is: of course one drug leads to another.

A couple of months ago, however, I heard a report on local PBS television that reported there’s been an increase in heroin use in San Diego.

The surprising part about it was that they identified the areas where the increase was occurring and it was in several of the more affluent areas in the county. More often than not is was younger people who were becoming addicted to heroin.

They identified the gateway drug to heroin as prescription drugs—drugs that kids were stealing from their parents.

Knowing what the gateway drugs are, shouldn’t it shift public policy or whom we identify as drug pushers? Should we be locking up different people? With this information at least, “protecting our youth” from heroin becomes less of a lightening rod in the border debate.

I guess that’s life though, huh? Most of us evolve, shift, or get our perspectives shifted for us as we move through the many learning experiences we have in life.

Well, unless you’re politically partisan and into the “party line” of course—which brings us up to our world right now.

Almost. Perhaps what ought to come first is to ask why, in this age of information, do so many of our perspectives need shifting?

Since much of Harper’s Index comes from studies and polls, they take a little longer to report than the news we hear. In the case of the latter all they have to do is repeat what someone says and often that “news” evolves into a generally accepted “Truth.”

Unfortunately, as those who study these things know, when something is repeated often enough, even when it’s not believed the first time we hear it, the more we hear it the more believable it becomes to us. Some media use this technique deliberately.

What are we hearing about the “Democratic debt” right now? The same issue of Harper’s stated that 71% of the current U.S. debt was accumulated during Republican presidential terms; and 2/3 of the “debt-ceiling elevations since 1960 that have been signed into law” have been signed by Republican presidents.

Are we hearing that today? Admittedly, the Index ignored the fact that many Republicans have since found “budget religion” and taken the pledge.

Now that we’re in campaign season it’s an especially difficult time to sort things out—i.e., define what’s true in the news or the views presented to us.

It’s interesting isn’t it, that now, long after the Bush Administration has left office, we’re hearing that many of the things that people suspected were going on really did go on? It just took a while for former office holders to leave office and finish their tell-all books.

Maybe we need term limits for cabinet members to ensure they tell sooner. Perhaps some kind of incentive to write could be made part of a compensation package similar to the golden parachutes that private-sector executives enjoy. Discovering what happened—not what they told the media at the time—would be in the public interest, right?

During campaign cycles, like the one we’re in now, we hear it all. They’ve even brought back (again) the idea of privatizing Social Security—after so many people lost money on the stock market, not to mention the many different types of union and employee pension funds. Are there really many people up for that again?

Interestingly enough, however, there’s a way that might work. Maybe it’s time to shift this belief, too. The assumption is that people will invest in Wall Street.

But, what if people invested somewhere else? What if they invested their money in a State bank that kept the money within the State and invested in local communities? North Dakota has such a bank and the State is doing just fine, thank you. Employee retirement funds are doing great and it has nothing to do with ND’s oil resources. The bank makes the State money.

The California Legislature has passed a bill to establish such a bank. As we go to press, it’s on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk awaiting his signature. There’s an article about it in this issue.

Meanwhile many in both parties appear disappointed that no great candidates are emerging for them. Without competition, there are some in the president’s party who are lamenting that neither a liberal nor a moderate candidate is an option for them this time.

And who knows how this may change later in the general elections when candidates explain what they really meant to say in the primaries.

We may have to share some of the blame for this state of affairs. Overall, Americans have the idea that if someone is nominated—and especially if they are elected—that qualifies them to hold office and gives them the knowledge to know what to do.

Looking at the last couple of presidents, both parties may be giving a lot of people reasons to challenge this long-held belief. Maybe going through the election process and media scrutiny does not ensure someone is qualified to serve.

Admittedly that may seem to be a harsh assessment and might even be considered negative—but not really. Let’s shift that idea, too.

Look at it this way. The approval rating for the U.S. Congress is 12%.

President Obama’s approval rating in late September was 41%. That’s 3.4 times better.

The final word? I checked Harper’s Index. “Percentage of Americans in a July poll who said they approve of God’s job performance: 52.”

Now those are the critics, not I. Look at the bright side. If God is doing only about 50–50, then at 41%, Obama’s almost right up there with Her.

Have a great month,


Steve Hays signature