Secession, Common Language and Bilingual Brains

Sharing a common language and some elements of common culture are important to multi-century national survival, particularly in democracies where secession movements can gain political traction. Right now, secession efforts are underway with Barcelona and other Catalan speakers trying to break off from Spain, the Flemish wanting to separate from the French-speaking part of Belgium, Scottish seeking to break from the United Kingdom and many in French-speaking Quebec wanting to separate from the rest of Canada. Still, it’s not always language that drives secession movements. Continue reading

Are We Becoming Greece or Argentina?

The attached opinion piece by a noted historian points out challenges America is creating for itself with its continued divisive political culture. The most critical point:  it is the poor and middle class who truly suffer when we follow policies with a history of proven failure. Nations divided – whether by economic class, race, ethnicity or language – end up with violence on the streets.

Fiscal Cliff Debate More Proof of System Failure

The continuing Fiscal Cliff saga again makes clear that our political system is fundamentally broke. Chapter 29 of Melting Point 2040 tackles the need for fundamental political reform, which character Professor Stark helps lead into implementation a generation from now. The following comment is from the summer of 2040, but the issues are real today:

“Prior to these reforms, lengthy political campaigns were so costly that elected officials held fundraisers for their next campaign almost two months before taking office for the race just won. The most aggressive politicians started even sooner, not letting even a weekend pass after an election before imploring for more cash.

“In the past, real policy debates rarely survived the first 90 days of a new term. Even in those first months, congressional leaders focused on framing debates to create issues aimed at winning seats in the next election cycle. Continue reading

Global world enabled by common language, cultural respect

I woke early this morning to find updates from friends in China, Australia, Argentina, the Netherlands and South Africa, all wonderful former colleagues from my 15 years of working at Nalco. One of my favorite parts of working at this global sustainability service / water treatment firm was the chance to interact with bright, hard-working people in just about every country. In a very hands-on way, this experience taught me that talent, energy and dreams are not restricted by national boundaries. Perspectives, however, can be very different. To build strong relationships, it is essential to understand cultural differences and share a common work language. We worked together to deliver results, with each of us relying on the other for our different capabilities and different perspectives shaped by our experiences. Multi-cultural understanding and respect is important to the success of global business. It is equally important to the success of increasingly multi-cultural nations like the United States and many other countries. I realize, though, that had these wonderful people not all shared a common language, it would have been very difficult for us to communicate and build the trust that enabled our collective success. As I approach 50, I’m trying to expand my language skills and it’s not easy for me. The ability to speak and read at least two languages is something we need to build in our children starting at least by first grade. Not only will this help build cross-culture understanding, it will improve our chances for global success in a world in which the U.S. economy becomes less important with each passing day. Inside our borders, we also need to share a common language to ensure our ability to resolve differences and build strong cross-cultural relationships with all of our fellow citizens.

Are Babies Racist?

A recent “60 Minutes” story explores whether babies are born with racial preference tendencies, quoting Yale University researchers who determined that children start to prefer items that are more like them even in their first few months of life.

While one of these researchers states that babies may be born as “bigots” because they disproportionately choose to be around those who are most like them, perhaps the real answer can be found by looking at how humans have behaved since the world started. Over the past 10,000+ years, people learned that those who don’t look like them or share their behaviors, language and views are more likely to destroy their life than those with whom they share many common bonds.

Does human genetic coding, perhaps the flight mechanism that causes deer to run away when I walk past them on hikes, predispose us to prefer those like us and avoid those with whom we have many differences? Interestingly, the Yale researchers found that early childhood biases are tamed as children grow up.

The lesson from this is that multi-cultural societies can work effectively as we learn to respect and trust those who differ from us. For this to happen though, we need to have enough reassurance — through education and/or interaction — to lose what the Yale research shows may be inherent tendencies. The need for interaction to reduce biases is one of the reasons I am greatly concerned with what I see as the re-segregation of America, where we increasingly live by people like us, listen to news that fits our existing view of the world, and rush to reject those who share a different perspective on an issue as being mean-spirited in having that view.

Moving Forward

In the midst of the worst economic recovery in U.S. history, voters selected status quo as the way to move forward. That means that we will again have divided government in Washington, D.C. Generally, I prefer divided government. In Illinois, we see the traumatic damage that can be done when one party has total control of all branches of government (and in fact, one man has most of that control), but lacks the willingness to make hard choices to keep the State healthy. So I don’t quibble with the concept of divided government. I am concerned, though, that the people we sent back to Washington are largely the ones who were there during one of the most partisan and ineffective sessions of Congress in recent memory. It is my true hope that our elected officials in the White House, Senate and House will not interpret reelection as a mandate to continue to bicker, but instead to focus on solving the very real problems in America. Perhaps we will find a way to more productively distribute the $20K per person that the Cato Institute says we spend on poverty programs at the federal and state level (yes, that’s $60K a year for a family of three). I hope we will keep the good parts of President Obama’s health reform and rethink whether we really should spend $10s of billions more on health care bureaucracy. Regardless of what Washington works on, I hope those in charge spend more time solving real problems than preparing 2014 electoral strategy. We’re past deserving it. We’re at the point we need it.

Foundational Questions Ignored in Debates

“Circumstances change, and past primacy is no guarantee of future primacy,” wrote Professor Jared Diamond 20-plus years ago in his Pulitzer Prize winning book Guns, Germs and Steel. During a 6-hour Columbus Day drove, I thought again about why European descendants successfully overtook North America. Diamond attributed it to “food production, germs, technology (including weapons), political organization, and writing.” Interestingly, he also argued that organized religion played a role in many conquests, including those throughout the Americas. “The spreads of government and religion have thus been linked to each other throughout recorded history, whether the spread has been peaceful . . . or by force. In the latter case, it is often government that organizes the conquest, and religion that justifies it,” he wrote. Religion played a role in creating the United States. Should we be concerned that a religion could play a role in justifying its demise? What do we need to do as a nation to avoid being on the wrong side of germs, technology and other elements of conquest? How do we build a nation that does not contain divisions so clear they can readily be exploited? It is critical foundational issues like these that warrant more debate and serve as the reason for my writing.

Principle-based Policy

Often, Americans are presented with either/or solutions – usually choices between what satisfies the Democratic party base and what satisfies the Republican party base. To me, good policy starts with sound principles. An upcoming book touches on the complex issues of immigration policy and language mandates. Following are several principles that impact my policy expectations in this area:

  1. Societies have a better chance at success when people who comply with the law are more likely to succeed than those who break the law.
  2. America was built by immigrants and needs a strong flow of immigrants bringing new ideas and work ethic to continue to be successful.
  3. It’s easier to successfully interact with people who speak the same language.
  4. Bureaucratic processes require constant review and streamlining to be effective.

So how to these principles play out to policy recommendations? That’s in the book. The recommendations as championed by a main character may surprise you.

Laitin, Language Policy and Civil War

In the upcoming book, Melting Point 2040, a lead character is identified as holding the David Laitin named professorship at the University of Chicago. While every other character  is fictional, Stanford University Professor David Laitin is not. Professor Laitin, formerly a University of Chicago professor, is a recognized expert on the role of language, religion and ethnicity on national survival. His research, much done with other academics, is interesting for its conclusions about the ability of multi-cultural societies to survive. His findings are reassuring for multi-cultural societies like the United States, India and others, but the concepts do encounter challenge. My concerns are informed by looking at national boundaries over centuries and millennia rather than within a single century. Through history, few strongly multi-cultural societies lasted more than several hundred years. To ensure survival for 1,000 years or more (without more civil war), it’s critical to understand what triggers civil wars and then avoid these conditions. For more, I recommend for an overview and for a more detailed look at the role of language on national survival. As an aside, who came up with the name for civil wars? The word “civil” is out of place.

The Golden Rule, Mental Health & More