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by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
I recently returned from a trip to my father’s birthplace in County Meath, Ireland where I took a walk around the village of Athboy. This is the town nearest Kildalkey where he grew up. Like so many villages in rural Ireland it is still owned and run by local inhabitants. There is a quaint little supermarket first opened by Ollie Byrd, my father boyhood friend. It’s now run by his son since Ollie passed away a few years ago.
Just up the sidewalk is Faulkner’s men’s shop owned and operated by Brian Faulkner, a cousin to my cousin, Sean. Three doors up the street is Faulkner’s Fashion House for woman, owned and run by his sister, Ger Faulkner. Across the street is the historic Darney Hotel where you can get a proper meal and a spot of tea in homey, low chic surroundings . On certain evenings you can go there to enjoy traditional Irish music in the hotel’s pub.
There are a handful of other pubs in town named after their proprietors. There is a family owned hardware store, a bakery, a post office that also serves as a general convenience store and a little gift shop run by a mother and daughter where you can buy small gifts for your friends and family on those special occasions.
The village is alive with shoppers. The streets are abuzz with cars, lories, public buses and farm tractors towing wagons of silage or farm equipment down the main street on their way from one field to the next. It is a place where people still know their neighbors and customers are greeted by their first name more often than not. Relationships are the real treasure you will find here.
It was a striking contrast to the sterile and impersonal world of cookie cutter malls and brand name store fronts in America today. It reminded me that we once had local commerce centered in small towns all across America. We had more civic pride back then, and a deep sense of connection with the people in the community where we shared our time and place. This is a way of living that is quickly disappearing. It is under siege in Ireland as it is everywhere around the globe wherever corporate profits can be extracted from local economies and brand recognition can replace familiar faces. In the process we have lost our connections between farmers and food, craftsmen and products, business owners and commerce.
I was told that all meat sold in Ireland had the name of the farmer and the farm where the livestock was raised. People in Ireland want to know exactly from where their food comes. So I wandered into Brogan’s Butcher Shop across from the post office to look for farm names on the products in the meat case. I was disappointed to find none. Had I been misinformed?
I asked the butcher behind the counter about this. He proudly pointed to the wall where a certificate of origin hung on a nail as he explained that all this meat came from his own family’s farm. “If you want to see a farmer’s name on a piece of meat you’ll have to head back to Ollie Byrd’s,” he said.
Contrast this with the US House of Representatives who on June 11th of this year passed a bill that would eliminate a law requiring country of origin labeling on all U.S. meats. “It sounds like you are heading backwards,” he said to me when I told him this. Indeed it does.
I read that over 90% of all American’s want to know from where their meat comes, and most people I know would love to know more about where all their food is grown. We can’t have real competition in the food industry as long as information like this is hidden from us. So what is behind the passage of this bill to block COOL (country of origin labeling)?
It turns out that Canadian and Mexican meat industry trade groups have sued the United States in the WTO (World Trade Organization) over COOL, saying it constitutes unfair trade practices under international treaties. Specifically, the WTO ruled that:
“The compliance panel found that the amended COOL measure violates Article 2.1 of the TBT Agreement because it accords to Canadian and Mexican livestock less favourable treatment than that accorded to like US livestock. In particular, the compliance panel concluded that the amended COOL measure increases the original COOL measure’s detrimental impact on the competitive opportunities of imported livestock in the US market, because it necessitates increased segregation of meat and livestock according to origin; entails a higher recordkeeping burden; and increases the original COOL measure’s incentive to choose domestic over imported livestock.”
This is what we are up against. Giant international corporations battling each other beyond the reach of sovereign countries to create a world more suitable for their financial conquests. Congressional supporters of the measure to eliminate COOL are seeking to avoid the $3.6 billion in potential retaliatory tariffs sought by Canada and Mexico. In the mean time, the US livestock census is at near record lows while beef prices keep climbing into record high territory. What people want no longer matters.
by Brian T. Lynch
This is purely my opinion, but my understanding of “Free Will” is very narrow compared to most people I talk to about it. I see it as something that emerges gradually along a continuum from actions that are totally coercive to purely rational and independent. It isn’t an all or nothing phenomenon, as some see it. I exclude all impulsive actions taken due to internal urges from my definition since urges aren’t rational and follow from completely different pathways in the brain. Also, actions that spring from emotions may or may not involve free will in my view. It is here that the gradual blossoming of free will is most evident.
When ever we act to satisfy urges or emotions we really cannot distinguish “free will” from the actions taken since acting on a urge feels identical to acting by choice.. That is why people don’t even know they are addicted to something until they discover they can’t simply choose to stop. Addiction in insidious that way. No one can say for sure that they smoke by choice after that first cigarette because even six months later the brain can trigger powerful urges for another cigarette.
The same holds true, by degree, with our emotions. We can’t know for certain if we are acting on free will when we acquiesce to our feelings since emotions can also overpower free will. We even say we are “acting on our emotions” to explain certain behaviors, but it still feels exactly like a choice, even if we can’t help it. So inwardly speaking, we can only no for sure that we are acting on free will when our actions are contrary to both our urges and our feelings. It is only when we place them in check that we can know for sure we are acting on our own free will.
That said, what about free will in circumstances when our only available options for action are proscribed by others, or by circumstances out of our control? If we have no choice but to act, do we have free will? If we have only bad choices, are we exercising free will by making that bad choice? Was Socrates exercising free will when he choose to drink hemlock rather than face a public execution? It so, and I believe he was exercising free will, then a limited form of free will must exist even under extreme forms of coercion.
How we define “free will” has enormous social and political implications because it thereby defines how responsible individuals are for their actions. It is here we see the continuum of emerging free will run its course. Some folks believe everyone is 100% responsible for their actions. They might then blame the poor for being poor, or the sick for being sick (live style choices) and would probably not accept an insanity defense for crimes committed by the insane. Speaking of justice, we see the role “free will” plays in our action played being calculated in criminal sentencing hearings when mitigating and aggravating circumstances are used to determine appropriate punishment. We punish people for criminal intent but not acquit them, or lighten their punishment if they were not in control of their actions.
These are just examples. In fact, we use these sort of calculations everyday with each other or our children in judging their actions and in modulating our responses. So the idea that free will is an all or nothing phenomenon just isn’t born out in our every day experience.
Anyway, here is an interesting article on the subject.
It has become fashionable to say that people have no free will. Many scientists cannot imagine how the idea of free will could be reconciled with the laws of physics and chemistry. Brain researchers say that the brain is just a bunch of nerve cells…
by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
Police officers come in two basic flavors, the “serve and protect” peace officers and the “enforce and collect” enforcement officers. These represent (in the overly simplified terms used here) two fundamentally different and incompatible philosophies that are competing for the heart and soul of the profession. I needn’t mention which view is winning out since 9/11. Still, the drama playing out among departments also plays out within departments, which might help account for some of the reasons behind the article below. You might not see it at first, but so often the emotional motivations behind what seems like petty disputes are really underlying rifts involving fundamentally different world views. That’s what I suspect is happening here in New Jersey and elsewhere around the country.
Police officers across the state are suing fellow cops and departments over everything from sexual harassment to being sent home for wearing the wrong shoes — and residents are footing the bill. We unearthed the details, and the latest tally.
In the opening account in this article a female officer in Camden is made Chief of Police. When she inspects the unmarked car that comes with the job she discovers that one of her fellow officers planted crack cocaine in the car to derail her promotion and her life. Incidents like this reveal just how serious the clash of ideologies can be within public police departments.
I had a good friend who spent his entire career in local police departments. He dedicated himself to serving the public. Sometimes that meant arresting people who endangered others or disturbed the peace, but it also meant going the extra mile to help out a resident in a pinch. In smaller towns and communities it isn’t all bad guys all the time. He was never cynical or jaded by his work, but his philosophy on small town policing set him at odds with a segment of his fellow officers. It played out in many internal conflicts and unfavorable personnel decisions over the course of his career. In the end he retired early in part because of the hostility he felt in the workplace.
I have other police officer friends, even some who are of the “enforce and collect” variety who received negative attention in their careers when they strayed a bit from that philosophy. Another person I know who aspires to be a police officer was turned off by the militancy and hardnosed cynicism that has been built into the police training curriculum. Just what does the current police training curriculum look like these days? The public has a right to know.
What all this really means is that the drama playing out in society as a whole between ultra-conservative ideologies and more liberal ideologies is also playing out in all our institutions, including police agencies. Local departments are not immune to what affects society as a whole. What’s different here is that even small, local police departments shun transparency. While they work for the public they tend to view us as civilians outside of their fraternity. It is hard to penetrate a Departments cultural view. At the same time, there is clearly money and military style equipment flowing into even local law enforcement agencies, which serves to alter the character of local policing.
These changes are real. What is missing, in addition to transparency, is a robust public debate on what role we want local police to play in our communities. Are we aware of the changes character of our local police departments and are we comfortable with those changes?
by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
If you lost your home when Wall Street investment bankers made a hash of the home mortgage industry, you may be terrified to learn they want to become your landlord.
Up to now most single home rentals have been owned by local owners or regional companies. Private equity firms are taking advantage of loopholes in financial regulation and the depressed housing market to create national home rental corporations. They are scooping up foreclosed homes at fire sale prices all across the country and turning them into rentals. Their ultimate aim is to turn the equity in all those rental agreements into rent-backed securities that can be bought and sold on Wall Street. (Gentlemen, place your bets!)
Under this business model, the equity present in rental agreements will be aggregated into tranches based on confidence in the financial ability of the tenants pay their rent. The collateralized security instruments from these tranches will have various rates of return based on risk factors from the underlying leases. Should these rent-backed securities default, the security owners may even have an ownership stake in the properties to fall back on. If you haven’t heard about this before, you can read more in the Wall Street Journal, the Daily Finance or one of several good articles in Mother Jones.
The initial sale of rent-backed securities by these corporations will allow them to free up equity in these properties to purchase even more distressed homes. If the underlying financial structure of these plans sounds familiar, it should. Substitute mortgage equity for equity in these lease agreements and the securitized bonds are nearly identical to mortgage backed securities that inflated the housing bubble and crashed the economy in 2008. The only element missing so far are the “credit default swaps” inside investors bought to bet that the mortgage bonds would fail.
Hubris is the word that comes to mind when considering that the same class of players who foreclosed on the American Dream now want to be our landlord under these same self-serving schemes.
To be fair, the concept of private equity firms buying distressed houses to fix up and rent does has merit. Turning vacant houses into renovated rental properties has a positive patina best explained in theirpromotional videos.
Moreover, whenever investment money is applied directly to tangible projects that benefit ordinary families it is always a blessing. It brings jobs, boosts local economies, improves the quality of life and strengthens families.
If Wall Street investors could just be satisfied with the profound social benefits and ordinary financial returns on their investments it would be great. In fact, it is what Wall Street owes Main Street for all the pain they inflicted. But social benefits are not the things they value these days, and ordinary investment returns are never good enough. They must relentlessly drive to maximize profits.
Scratch the surface on their nationalized real estate plans and ominous consequences emerge. Ask yourself, what type of landlords will these national private equity firms become?
On April 15, 2014, the grass roots housing advocacy organization, Occupy Our Homes Atlanta (OOHA), published their “grassroots research” to answer that question. They looked at the earliest entrant into this field, the Blackstone Group, which owns Hilton Hotels, the Weather Channel, Sea World and Invitation Homes, a subsidiary that has purchased tens of thousands of homes across the country.
Here is some background on the Blackstone group. It is a private equity firm with global real estate holdings in the U.S., Parts of Europe and China. According to Jon Gray, the Head of Global Real Estate for Blackstone, their real estate holdings make up 60% of their assets, or around $80 billion dollars. It is already the largest landlord in the united states and it sees the distressed U.S. housing market as a growth opportunity.
According to an April 9th, 2014, interview Gray gave on the Fox News network “… distressed asset pricing is attractive,” with single family homes selling for less than half their pre-recession values in parts of Europe and the U.S. Blackstone has already purchased 47,000 foreclosure homes in 14 US cities, spending $8 billion dollars, or an average of $190,000 per home. Blackstone is betting on rising housing prices in part because depressed new home construction is a third of what it was before the recession.
What Blackstone doesn’t say can be found in the OOAH research report on how this nation’s biggest landlord has affected renters in Atlanta. Families who rent from Invitation Homes in the Atlanta area face higher rents, higher rental fees, less responsive property management service and some even face automatic rent increases as high as 20% per year. The OOAH report caught the attention of Congressman Mark Takano, who sent out a disturbing press release highlighting some of the findings ( appended below).
And there are other potentially negative consequences yet to follow. Tenancy laws and regulations are diverse across the states and local municipalities to reflect local and regional values. What impact might the power of national corporate landlords have in influencing those laws to suit their business interests?
The shame of it all is that most of the former home owners now renting from private equity landlords would still be in their own homes if it hadn’t been more profitable for banks to foreclose than to participate in the federal government’s HAMP, HARP, PRA or 2MP mortgage assistance programs. But then, if that happened, this private equity investment opportunity wouldn’t exist today, would it?
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Wednesday, April 16, 2014
Contact: Brett Morrow
email@example.com; (202) 225-2305
Rep. Mark Takano Statement on “Blackstone: Atlanta’s Newest Landlord” Report
Washington DC – Earlier today, the organization Occupy Our Homes Atlanta released its report titled “Blackstone: Atlanta’s Newest Landlord” showing that:
· Tenants wishing to stay in their homes can face automatic rent increases as much as 20% annually.
· Survey participants living in Invitation Homes pay nearly $300 more in rent than the Metro Atlanta median.
· 45% of survey participants pay more than 30% of their income on rent, by definition making the rent unaffordable.
· Tenants face high fees, including a $200 late fee for rental payments.
· 78% of the surveyed tenants do not have consistent or reliable access to the landlord or property manager.
After the report was released, Rep. Mark Takano issued the following statement:
“The report released today gives a snapshot of the experiences faced by Invitation Homes renters in the greater Atlanta area, and further shows the need for Congress and regulatory agencies to examine the growing phenomenon of large institutional investors owning rental properties. Local residents who rent from large institutional investors should not be subjected to unfair practices or poor service. I once again call on the House Financial Services committee to hold hearings on the issue, and request regulatory agencies begin looking at the emerging REO to rental market.”
In January, Rep. Takano released his Riverside” report examining the cause of rising rents in Riverside County, California. In the report, Takano discovered that one of the potential causes of rents increasing is the rise of large institutional investors purchasing single-family homes, renting them out.
Takano then sent a letter to House Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling and Ranking Member Maxine Waters requesting Congressional hearings into single-family rental backed securities that are being developed by The Blackstone Group, Colony Capital, American Homes 4 Rent, and others.
Takano later sent letters to federal regulators, including the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Federal Housing Finance Agency, requesting information about how institutional landlords can impact local housing markets and the tenant experience.
Communications Director | Congressman Mark Takano
1507 Longworth HOB, Washington, DC 20515
Office: (202) 225-2305 | Cell: 202-440-2268
House Image : (World Law Directory) http://www.worldlawdirect.com/forum/law-wiki/12476-unlawful-detainer.html
Jon Gray Image: (Fox News Network) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d5pGbKGQtrU)
Wall Street: (Google Images) etruthseeker.co.uk/?p=54365
by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
What I really want to write about are the practical implications of a new theory of human intelligences, but this will have to wait. The problem is that emerging knowledge about the workings of our cerebral cortex has not yet been widely shared. It hasn’t caught the attention of the popular press. Whenever I start to make some connection between an experience and how it relates to how our brain functions, I have to backtrack and offer an explanation of the new theory. Whatever point I was trying to make gets lost and my friends grow impatient.
What’s needed are brief summaries explaining aspects of how intelligence works. The summaries need to be clear enough to spark interest and promote more understanding. I know I am hungry for this kind of knowledge. Understanding the brain is truly the last frontier of science. Our mind, with its trillions of neural connections, is the deepest mystery in the universe. Everything we know of the world outside ourselves is contained in this single organ. The research that I will try to summarize here relates only to human intelligence and not to other functions of the brain. It doesn’t specifically relate to the mysteries of self-awareness or personality. And yet, understanding the workings of this thin, convoluted layer of cerebral cortex covering our more primitive brain is essential to solving the bigger mysteries of who we are.
Our Intelligent Brain
So, how does our intelligent brain work? There are some good and important books on the subject. The one I rely on here is called “On Intelligence”, by Jeff Hawking’s and Sandra Blakeslee. It is lay account of a theory on intelligence, but beware, some of its chapters are a bit technical.
Here is just one aspect of how the cerebral cortex works that I found interesting. Our intelligent brain is constantly detecting and anticipating patterns. The cortex is a pattern maker. It organizes sensory and worldly experience into patterns at every level of detail from the smallest sensory inputs to the biggest concepts of how the world works. It integrates these patterns into ever larger concepts or images until, at the highest levels, our brain creates an enduring image of the world around us. This image of the world, while enduring, is also malleable and responsive to new insights and information. Importantly, our intelligent brain is constantly predicting what to expect next from our sensory field.
Our brain anticipates everything that we see, feel, hear, taste or smell. It expects that similar circumstances will produce the same or similar sensory experiences. The strength of these expectations grows stronger the more they are reinforced by past experiences. Our brains also have a higher expectation of seeing certain patterns when these patterns are well integrated into the bigger picture of the world created in our brains. So strong are these patterns that even when we only see portions of them our brain recognizes the whole. For example, if we only see the eye and nose of a friend in a picture we recognize that person as our friend. If we see three dots on a page we might recognize that they form a triangle without seeing any lines between the dots. Seeing part of an image is enough for our brains to know what the whole pattern or image looks like.
The Intelligent Sub-Conscious
What’s remarkable about brain pattern recognition is that most of it happens at the subconscious level. Here is a little experiment to demonstrate what I mean. Place your hand on a wooden door near you and then grabbed the doorknob. Nothing about this experience surprises you, right? It’s just an everyday experience. And until I mention that the metal doorknob feels cooler than the door, you may not have noticed. That’s because your brain expected that pattern. Your brain knows metal feels cooler than wood every time you touch them in a room. You might even know the scientific reason for this is that wood and metal have different rates of conduction. Your brain expected these to items to feel different, so there was no need to alert your conscious brain. If the doorknob had felt warmer or soft your brain would have alerted your conscious mind immediately.
During every waking moment our senses are continuously bombarded with stimuli. What we see, or hear is constantly changing and billions of impulses reach our brain every instant. If our intelligent brain had to analyze every electro-chemical pulse it would be overwhelmed with data. Instead, our brain only has to recognize challenges to the familiar patterns stored within our cortex. Computers, on the other hand, have to process every byte of informational every time it is presented or else it freeze.
How Our Cortex is Structured
At every scale of human experience, our brain expects certain patterns to emerge from our sensory field. To accomplish this our cortex is made up of seven distinct layers on a horizontal axis and billions of distinct, hierarchical columns on the vertical axis. Additionally, each vertical column is connected to other vertical columns by a neural network, and information super highway system. The seven levels of each neural column is also connected to each other by neural pathways. This makes our cortex massively interconnected.
The first, or bottom layer of cortex only recognizes the electro-chemical patterns that come directly from the sense organs. The complexity of recognizable patterns grows with each ascending layer of cortex. For example, on the lowest level of the visual cortex area only specific geometric patterns will be recognized by particular columns. Combining this low level information from many nearby columns might cause the next level of cortex to recognize that these lower level patterns represent a human nose. At a subsequently higher layer of cortex the patterns represented by that nose and maybe an eye or other facial features recognized by still other columns might confirm that these patterns belong to the face of a friend. And so it goes until at the highest cortical levels our brain creates an enduring mental representation of the person we are visiting with, the room in which we are standing and all of the surroundings around us.
Another feature of our cerebral cortex is that it has more neural feedback connections then uptake, or feedforward connections. That means there are more neural connections from higher layers of the cortex to the lower layers of the cortex. This structure enables the higher levels of the cortex to tell lower levels what patterns they should expect to emerge from the sensory field. When columns in the lower cortex see an anticipated patterns, they signal back that they are satisfied. But when the lower levels of the cortex see something unexpected, they pass this additional information up the line to the next higher level. If that level of the cortex can’t resolve the pattern conflict, it passes these signals on to the next higher level, and so on, until some higher level of the cortex can make sense of the information. Most of these pattern conflicts are resolved subconsciously, but occasionally they pop into our highest executive level, which is our conscious mind. Our attention will suddenly focus on this unexpected thing that has disrupted our stream of conscious thoughts.
Intelligence and Consciousmess
As we move through the day our brain alerts our conscious self to only those things which need our attention. For example, we might slip on an old pair of shoes and walk around without thinking much about how they feel, but if a pebble suddenly gets caught in our shoe we become aware of the new sensation. (“Excuse me, self, but a pebble may have entered your shoe.”) If we put on a new pair of shoes we notice how differently they feel until we get use to them. If they don’t fit correctly we are annoyingly aware of them until we take them off. But for the most part we are not conscious of the millions of patterns, large or small, that our intelligent brain processes every day. Most of our intelligence activity is at work in our subconscious mind.
This ability to expect and process normal pattern activity without having to attend to everything we see or hear allows our brain to focus attention on the rapidly changing information that is most important to our survival. It allows us to listen and process what someone is saying while ignoring a passing car. It allows us to assess traffic movements at an intersection without being distracted by the radio. This is important because our capacity for consciousness is a limited resource. Our intelligent brain must conserve this executive function and use it for only the most salient and important aspects of our sensory field.
Introspection and Intentionality
But we are also able to focus attention on patterns of thought or behavior that are not otherwise calling for our conscious attention. We can introspectively direct our focus to examine the patterns and associations stored in our cortex. We are not a passive audience to our senses. We have a conscious mind with which we can look inwardly to examine our intelligent brain. We can learn things about how the real world is structured from the patterns created in our cortex. We can also rearrange or re-associate these patterns when we find errors in the way they have formed (cognitive therapy being one dramatic example). We can perceive gaps in our knowledge of things and direct our own behavior to gather more information.
Implications for Conscous Thoughts
Our brain forms patterns from sensory input whether we are aware of it or not. This leads me to one of the major implications that I would like to discuss further in a future post. Our intelligent brain is forming patterns and associations based on what we may be seeing or hearing even when we aren’t paying conscious attention. We know that repetition strengthens patterns and associations.
Advertisers and marketers know this as well. They choose words and images to invoke associations most favorable to their purposes and use repetition to reinforce and strengthen those associations within our cerebral cortex. The marketing of ideas and products is effective even when we aren’t paying conscious attention to the ads. Think about that the next time you are wandering around a supermarket. Think about it in connection with our political campaigns and the public dialogue we watch on TV or listen to on the radio.
When we commonly think about intelligence we usually limit our discussion to our conscious problem solving ability. We usually don’t consider that most of our brains intelligent activity happens at the subconscious level. We are not aware of the extent to which false patterns of information can subconsciously form to subsequently influence our conscious choices and opinions. In a future posting I hope to expand on this topic. I believe we can inoculate ourselves against propaganda and false advertising, but only if we have a better understanding of how our intelligent brain operates.