This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

January 29, 2009 - government needs moral sanction, too

At the beginning of last year's campaign season, I attended a fundraiser. It was for a good local man, running for an important office. I put more of my own money into the little basket than I ever had before for a politician.

Then I had a chance to chat with him, along with some of his other supporters.

After a while, he said he had to make a little speech to the party faithful. And what he said astonished me.

Almost the first words out of his mouth were along the lines of "Of course we all know that government is incompetent and inefficient." He then went on to praise the can-do efficiency of the business world. Remember that this was just at the time we were learning about the lending crisis, and a host of other private sector misjudgements, over-reachings, and dubious ethics.

I couldn't help but notice that I had just paid this guy to insult me. Working for an independent library district is working for government. As it happens, I'm proud of that work. And I put the library's efficiency, competence, and integrity up against any organization's, public or private.

I stuck around for awhile, thinking and listening. I found that my candidate's views were widely and uncritically shared by his supporters. Then I left. After thinking some more, I made some decisions.

First, I unaffiliated from the party that encourages such public statements of contempt for the people's business.

Second, I decided that when politicians stand up and say that their fundamental belief about government is that it is pathetic and stupid, I shouldn't vote for them. And I certainly won't contribute to their campaigns anymore. They're liable to provide governance that lives down to their expectations.

Third, I decided that from now on, I'm not going to just sit back and let people publicly undermine institutions that matter to our culture. I will defend them, because something is missing in our time: a moral sanction for the public sector.

That last phrase is lifted right out of one of my favorite author's works: Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged." First published in a time when there was a lot of negative talk about the private sector (1957), Rand offered a defense for capitalism, for individualism. She envisioned a world in which free and rational people proudly exchanged their time and labor for other goods and services they deemed of comparable worth.

I liked a lot of that philosophy. I still do.

But 51 years later, things have turned. Now, we uncritically accept business practices that are in fact profoundly destructive of our shared lives. And we blast the integrity and worth of the many good people whose passion lies in public service, who work intelligently and effectively to build systems that allow both individuals and communities to thrive.

Productivity should indeed be encouraged, acknowledged, and rewarded. But intelligence, passion, and competence can be found -- or are notable by their absence -- in both public and private sectors.

I've learned that while people think they understand private sector pricing (costs plus profit), they are completely befuddled by public sector cost-accounting. Most citizens have no idea what the job of government really is. Nor do they know what it costs, or what value is secured thereby.

So here's this week's radical thought: if we want good lives, we need to have an environment in which both business and government are valued, supported, and held accountable. Otherwise, we're ideologues, saying things just because they're expected of us, and heedless of the damage we do.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

January 22, 2009 - when bad things happen to good ideas...

"Faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof." - John Kenneth Galbraith

Isn't it the truth? Every single one of us has held onto strategies that have been clearly demonstrated not to work. Women trapped in situations with abusive men finally get themselves out -- only to immediately hook up with another one.

Business owners persist in plans that focus firmly on a long-gone past (think the American automobile industry) or demonstrate the most incredibly cynical and short-sighted greed (subprime lending, for instance).

Politicians -- whether it's fostering Great Society welfare dependency, or proclaiming the gospel of market deregulation up to, and right past, the point of public health or industry collapse -- just can't accept the fact that negative results disprove really bad ideas.

Every day we find out that things we just know to be true, aren't true at all. And even though our erroneous premises cause us direct damage, we pull ourselves together and bravely ... stay the course.

Maybe if we just try harder... If we just BELIEVE...

Last week I mentioned the scientific method. Rational people test hypotheses, and discard the ones that fail. What could be clearer?

Except even scientists can't pull it off. Almost every time there's a major shift in scientific understanding -- whether it's Copernican cosmology or quantum physics or climatology -- a whole generation of stubborn scientists has to die off before the new insight can be adopted, and pave the way for the next advance.

Based on brain research, the problem is something called "framing." The way our brains work is that we build a series of linked assumptions that help us make sense of things. But frames not only define "meaning," they also filter out anything that contradicts them.

Here's a two word frame: "tax burden." Make those two words into a single axiom, and even if a tax is the cheapest, simplest, fairest means to accomplish something most people agree is essential to our common survival, you just can't see it. Literally. It's outside the frame.

It's impossible to be human without finding that sooner or later, your frame doesn't fit reality. But trying to make reality fit the frame when it doesn't is, when you get right down to it, a delusion.

Delusions are common. Here was mine: for the past 13 years, I believed that growing library use would result in the growth of library support.

In 1996, our library won a tax increase by a slim 51%. Back then, 51% of the county's households had a library card, and the average annual checkouts per person was about 9.

In 2007, a year BEFORE the economic meltdown, 84% of the households had a library card, and the average annual checkouts had risen to over 20 per person -- among the highest not just in Colorado, not just in the United States, but in the world.

That would seem to be the right time to ask for more financial support, which we needed for clearly identifiable projects, in obvious demand, and which we could not otherwise afford. So we did.

And we LOST by 51%.

Every tax increase is not automatically justified or worthy of support. Neither, by the way, is every private sector price increase (gasoline or insurance, for example) -- which might well result in far more of a financial "burden" than a particular tax.

But my conclusion is this: even intense use of public library service is not sufficient to ensure additional library funding. I have proof.

The act of intellectual courage I most respect is the ability to change one's mind. To say, "I was wrong. I see that."

And to build a new, more accurate frame.

LaRue's Views are his own. The odds are good, as noted above, that at least some of them are mistaken.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

January 15, 2008 - are we rational?

Since way back in grade school, I've been enamored of the scientific method. The idea is that we are rational creatures, delighting in growing our understanding of the marvelous natural world.

True, we often start out with ideas that are a little looney. They don't fit the facts. But that's the whole point of the scientific method: you frame a hypothesis to explain some phenomenon, then you test it. If the hypothesis is wrong, you throw it out the window and come up with one that does a better job of standing up to the evidence.

It's a powerful thing. Using the scientific method, we have pushed back the darkness of human ignorance, and made incomparable gains in everything from our own ability to survive, to remarkable works of civilization.

I've also long been a fan of science fiction. What young person -- or any person of imagination -- wouldn't want to sail out into space on the starship Enterprise?

But there are frontiers that are closer to home: the study of our own brains.

Often, we learn about how the brain operates when something goes wrong -- catastrophic injury, for instance. I've read about several cases now when blows to the cerebral cortex suddenly deprive people of emotion, of their very capacity to feel.

On the one hand, how tragic. Never again to know the exaltation of love, the tenderness of parental affection!

On the other hand, well, it would be kind of like being Star Trek's Spock. You'd be able to think, to analyze, without that cloud of feeling that so often distracts us from the plain data in front of us. You could just objectively consider things, and decide intelligently, unclouded by childhood trauma, emotional bias, or unreasoning prejudice.

And here's the first bit of stunning news: the people who have no emotions suddenly find that they can't decide anything at all. Why? Because there's no end to analysis. What if this? What if that? On the plus side ... on the negative ... round and round.

It turns out that, almost always, we decide things emotionally. We literally make gut decisions. Then we arrange the evidence to support our conclusions.

It gets worse. Often, our decisions happen far below the level even of feeling. For instance, a recent study found that taking birth control pills affects the attraction that women feel to various men.

Women who don't take birth control pills tend to be drawn to men who smell ... different. Scientists theorize that this is because that smell (the information encoded in pheromones) means that the man comes from a more diverse gene pool, thereby building broader immunities in offspring.

But when they take the pill, women are drawn to men who smell more like themselves. At some chemical level, maybe because birth control pills mimic a kind of pregnancy, women are now drawn to people who smell like family, who will stay around and look after young 'uns.

Still with me? We decide such things as life mates not with our brains, but with our noses.

There are a host of almost independent systems within our bodies: the brain, the immune system, our genes, bacteriological responses, and more. Over them all, we impose what may well be a fiction of personal narrative. That is, we explain our decisions -- made at some cellular level, and quite unconsciously -- with reasons we dream up after the fact that seem consistent with our stories of self.

So here's this week's conclusion: We aren't rational beings. Mostly, we just pretend to be.

Next week: letting go of what you know to be wrong.
LaRue's Views are his own.