Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Governance Models That Don’t Scale: The World According to Charles T. Munger and Jean Jacques Rousseau

JJRMungerCan you name five benign dictators who have ruled successfully for any meaningful period of time (non-fiction)? Can you name five successful, long serving CEO’s (excluding Warren Buffett) whose governance histories are free of the “high-beta” associated with outliers such as Larry Ellison and Steve Jobs?

It’s not easy. Why? Because enlightened dictators and their corporate CEO equivalents are very, very rare; maintaining immunity to the intoxicating effects of power challenges basic human nature.

It is in this context that I found “Corporate Governance According to Charles T. Munger”, a brief article from the Stanford Closer Look Series, thought provoking if not practical. The article was written by David Larker, Director of the Corporate Governance Research Program at the Stanford Graduate School of business, and Brian Tayan, a researcher with Stanford’s Corporate Governance Research Program.

The authors summarize and explain Berkshire Hathaway Vice Chairman Charles T. Munger’s unorthodox view of a model for corporate governance.    According to the article, Munger believes that corporations and their boards should empower their CEO’s more, not less. Munger’s effective CEO, modeled, of course, on Warren Buffet, should be unencumbered by rigid process and freed of unnecessary, excessive checks and balances. Why? So that the CEO can lead effectively. How? In Munger’s construct, CEO’s police themselves, holding themselves accountable to their loosely overseeing directors by binding themselves to a trust based system. And corporate directors should reward these CEO’s for creating shareholder value, while deliberately underpaying them in terms of their annual salary-based cash compensation. According to Munger, and as quoted in the article:

“Good character is very efficient. If you can trust people, your system can be way simpler. There’s enormous efficiency in good character and dis-efficiency in bad character … We want very good leaders who have a lot of power, and we want to delegate a lot of power to those leaders…The highest form that civilization can reach is a seamless web of deserved trust—not much procedure, just totally reliable people correctly trusting one another.”

I agree with Mr. Munger completely, while asking the same questions raised by the authors at the end of this article:

“The trust-based systems that Munger refers to tend to be founder-led organizations. How much of their success is attributed to the managerial and leadership ability of the founder, and how much to the culture that he or she has created? Can these be separated? How can such a company ensure that the culture will continue after the founder’s eventual succession?”

Unfortunately, and founders notwithstanding, the collective global capitalist experience since private property rights were invented and enforced has shown that there aren’t enough of those people on this planet.

kozlowskimug1For a specific cautionary example, I am reminded of Tyco International and its former CEO, Dennis Kozlowski. Kozlowski was recently paroled, almost twelve years after his indictment, ultimate conviction, and after serving over eight years in Attica, for a $134 million corporate fraud (this amount represents a small fraction of the losses suffered by public shareholders). The disgraced former directors of Tyco International (vintage 1999), seemingly highly trustworthy and accomplished men and women, also come to mind. This group, along with the enterprise builders at Enron, Worldcom, and Adelphia, to name just a few, are at the top of my list of examples of poor corporate stewardship and help explain why Mr. Munger’s model for corporate governance is still-born.

But I did say the article was thought provoking, as Charles Munger’s corporate governance philosophy, in my view, evokes Jean Jacques Rousseau’s concept of the Lawgiver.  Author Alex Scott summarizes Rousseau’s core thesis from the Social contract succinctly in this excerpt from his book, The Conditions of Knowledge: Reviews of 100 Great Works of Philosophy :

“The general will always desires the common good, says Rousseau, but it may not always choose correctly between what is advantageous or disadvantageous for promoting social harmony and cooperation, because it may be influenced by particular groups of individuals who are concerned with promoting their own private interests. Thus, the general will may need to be guided by the judgment of an individual who is concerned only with the public interest and who can explain to the body politic how to promote justice and equal citizenship. This individual is the “lawgiver” (le législateur). The lawgiver is guided by sublime reason and by a concern for the common good, and he is an individual whose enlightened judgment can determine the principles of justice and utility which are best suited to society.”

I agree! Let’s find that individual and give him (or her) the keys to the public policy car! Munger’s corporate lawgiver, the enlightened CEO, is also an admirable model worth aspiring to emulate.

As with Rousseau’s 1762 treatise, history has sadly shown us that we lack sufficient incorruptible raw material across the entire history of mankind to render the “lawgiver” experiment successfully scalable, be it in public government or corporate governance.

The unbridled exercise of power is the ultimate intoxicant, and very few humans can responsibly limit the flow of that drug, especially not when they have are given the opportunity to administer it to themselves.

 

 

New Book by Professor Mannie Manhong Liu and Pascal Levensohn– Venture Capital: Theory and Practice, published by the University of International Business and Economics Press, Beijing

I never expected to have my first book published in China, much less in Mandarin, but that goes to show how much the world continues to change.  My contributions to this undergraduate textbook, Venture Capital: Theory & Practice, are the result of two important collaborations.  First, the body of collaborative work on corporate governance best practices that I have developed since 1999 with other venture capitalists and professional service providers to the venture industry; and, second, the direct collaboration on venture capital that resulted from meeting Professor Mannie Manhong Liu in the summer of 2007 at the  Symposium on Building the Financial System of the 21st Century between China and the US, sponsored by the Harvard Law School together with the CDRF (China Development Research Foundation) and PIFS (the Program on International Financial Systems).

Venture Capital started in China in 1985, when the first government-sponsored venture capital firm was established. The industry built slowly until a few years into the new century. In 2006, China’s total venture capital investment reached $1.78 B, becoming number two globally, next to the US; the US venture capital investment was $25.6B that year, accounting for 67.9% of the world total ($37.7b).  While China was far behind, accounting for about 4.7% of the total, nevertheless, China became number two and has kept that status ever since.

Venture Capital is a popular buzzword in China. Renmin University was among the first universities to create a venture capital major in the School of Finance and teach venture capital for undergraduates.  In recent years, many universities have followed, teaching venture capital as an elective course. In October 2010, our new textbook will become available.

Mannie and I share a strong interest in research in the field of venture capital and private equity. Mannie was working for Professor Josh Lerner at Harvard Business School before she returned to China to teach these subjects. The backbone for my contribution to our effort is the best practices work “for practitioners by practitioners” that I have developed in the area of venture capital through the multiple articles and three white papers that I’ve written.

Mannie was invited by a publisher in Beijing to write a textbook for undergraduate students in China; she in turn invited me to join her as the book’s co-author. Writing the book was a very intensive task, and both of us have worked on it for many months, with Mannie and her team translating my work and both of us discussing the context of the content for the Chinese audience.

Venture Capital: Theory and Practice, is in Chinese and is categorized as one of  “China’s National College Major Investment Textbook Series for the ‘Twelfth Five-Year Plan.’” The book has three parts and a total of 12 chapters. The Theory includes chapters on the venture capital concept, entrepreneurship, and a simple history; The Practice covers fundraising, business plan construction and analysis, investment due diligence, post investment monitoring and exit; and The Future emphasizes early stage investment, especially angel investment, as well as Cleantech VCs and socially responsible investment.  In the last chapter, Venture Capital in China, we explore the amazing development of China’s unique venture capital industry.

This textbook combines the strength of my Silicon Valley experiences as a venture capitalist and Mannie’s research as a professor, and it will help strengthen Chinese college-education programs in this particular field.  The book draws on and acknowledges important contributions from the members of the Working Group on Director Accountability and other experts in the field of venture capital.  I’ve donated all of my royalties from the book to the Society of Kauffman Fellows, which reported on the publication of this book in their July report.

Getting From Here to There– It’s Time to Engage in Common Sense Approaches to Public Policy

I usually try to keep my blog posts short. Today I have failed in this endeavor but urge you to please read through to the end of this important post. The current issue of Foreign Affairs Magazine features an excerpt from Leslie Gelb's new book, Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy.  This essay is exceptionally good, and, in my view, Gelb's thesis should be applied to all forms of statecraft and to promote the resolution of both newly emerging and long stagnating public policy debates.

Gelb accurately diagnoses the "weakening fundamentals of the United States.  First among them is that the country's economy, infrastructure, public schools, and political system have been allowed to deteriorate.  The result has been diminished economic strength, a less vital democracy, and a mediocrity of spirit."

Several paragraphs in this powerful essay deserve highlighting:

"The bases of the United States' international power are the country's economic competitiveness and its political cohesion, and there should be little doubt at this point that both are in decline.  Many acknowledge and lament faltering parts here and there, but they avoid a frontal stare at the deteriorating whole.  It is too depressing to do so, too much for most people to bear. … The United States is now the biggest debtor nation in history, and no nation with a massive debt has ever remained a great power.  Its heavy industry has largely disappeared, having moved to foreign competitors, which has cut deeply into its ability to be independent in times of peril.  Its public-school students trail their peers in other industrialized countries in math and science. They cannot compete in the global economy.  Generations of adult Americans, shockingly, read at a grade-school level and know almost no history, not to mention no geography.  They are simply not being educated to become the guardians of a democracy.

These signals of decline have not inspired politicians to put the national good above partisan interests or problem solving above scoring points.  Republicans act like rabid attack dogs in and out of power and treat facts like trash.  Democrats seem to lack the decisiveness, clarity of vision, and toughness necessary to govern.  This tableau of domestic political stalemate begs for new leadership.  The nation that not so long ago outproduced the rest of the world in arms and consumer goods, the nation lionized and envied for its innovation, can-do spirit, and capacity to accomplish economic miracles, has become overwhelmed by the tasks it once performed competently and with relative ease."

This is the most succinct and gut-wrenching summary of our national predicament that I have read.  Gelb puts his finger directly on the jugular vein of America's innovation ecosystem and diagnoses the multiple layers of dysfunction that have launched our country into such a deep crisis.  I share his fear of a new global reality developing along the following lines:

Images-1"The real danger in this universe of primitivism and plenty is not new wars or explosions among major states, or a world war, or even a nuclear war.  It is the specter of nations drowning in a flood of terrorism, tribal and religious hatred, lawlessness, poverty, disease, environmental calamities, and governmental incompetence.  Many nations are going under because they are simply unable to cope, and they will drag others down with them."

 

Gelb closes this essay with an impassioned plea for action, and most important, he retains a strong sense of hope and pride in our country:

"Every great nation or empire ultimately rots from within.  One can already see the United States, that precious guarantor of liberty and security, beginning to decline in its leadership, institutions, and physical and human infrastructure, heading on the path to becoming just another great power, a nation barely worth fearing or following.  It is time to send up flares signaling that the United States is losing its way and its power, that it is in trouble. But it is even more important to reaffirm the belief that the United States is worth fighting for both across the oceans and at home.  There should be no doubt that the United States, alone among nations, can provide the leadership to solve the problems that will otherwise engulf the world.  And for all the country's faults, there should be no doubt that it remains the last best chance to create equal opportunity, hope, and freedom.  But to restore all that is good and special about the United States, to rescue its power to solve problems, will require something that has not happened in a long time: that pragmatists, realists, and moderates unite and fight for their country."

ImagesI've been sending out flares to other realistic moderate pragmatists on this and other topics that demand a "common sense" approach for years.  Through groups such as the Council on Foreign Relations, the Aspen Institute's Socrates Society, the Working Group on Director Accountability and Board Effectiveness, and, most recently, the Security Innovation Network, I have joined and helped forge communities of interest bound together by empowered individuals who are thoughtful and constructive agents of change.  As Gelb points out, we have a lot of wood to cut, but I remain energized and, most importantly, hopeful that we can make a difference because we have to.  Given where America stands today, fomenting pragmatic and realistic change is not an option, it is a requirement.

  

 

U.S. Health Care Reform Made Simple– Eliminate Medicare, Medicaid, and Employer-Based Health Insurance

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Zeke Emanuel is known for having Big Ideas. His short, easy to read new book, “Healthcare, Guaranteed“, is a must-read.

I first met Zeke several years ago at the Aspen Institute’s Socrates Society, and Zeke has been one of the most popular Socrates seminar leaders on the topic of bioethics. An oncologist and currently the chair of the department of bioethics at the National Institutes of Health, Zeke is a penetrating, deep thinker who knows how to cut to the core element of difficult issues. I have previously posted about Zeke when he remarked at our last Socrates gathering that our society is robbing posterity to live today. His new book is no less profound in its approach to simplifying the American health care system by gutting its core ‘sacred cows’:

According to Newsweek’s review of “Healthcare, Guaranteed”, written by Mary Carmichael:

In place of all these institutions, Emanuel says, the government should offer every American a voucher for health insurance—one that covers the same benefits that members of Congress get. Insurance companies would have to accept the vouchers, and each person could choose from a variety of private networks of docs, hospitals and health plans. A National Health Board would oversee it all. And that’s pretty much it. Now the big question: how do we pay for it? Emanuel’s plan lowers some taxes by gutting costly programs, but it also adds a new fixed tax on some goods and services to pay for the vouchers. “Americans will come out revenue-neutral on average,” he says. “The poor will pay less.” And the rich will probably pay a lot more. Sweeping changes are one thing, but sweeping changes and a new tax? Even if the plan could save health care, it’ll be a hard sell.

Clearly not a layup, but also a very interesting and possibly a compelling solution to the broken healthcare financial reimbursement system in our country. So read this book– and let me know what you think by commenting on this blog post.

Confusing Common Sense with Cultural Sensitivity– Are We Staring into the Orwellian Chasm?

A friend of mine recently brought to my attention an article originally published April 2, 2007 in the The Daily Mail which revealed the following highly disturbing trend among teachers in England:

"Schools are dropping the Holocaust from history lessons to avoid offending Muslim pupils, a Government backed study has revealed. It found some teachers are reluctant to cover the atrocity for fear of upsetting students whose beliefs include Holocaust denial. There is also resistance to tackling the 11th century Crusades – where Christians fought Muslim armies for control of Jerusalem – because lessons often contradict what is taught in local mosques. … The study, funded by the Department for Education and Skills, looked into ‘emotive and controversial’ history teaching in primary and secondary schools. It found some teachers are dropping courses covering the Holocaust at the earliest opportunity over fears Muslim pupils might express anti-Semitic and anti-Israel reactions in class. "

Every blog comment or follow-on article that I’ve read on this topic condemns this "sidestepping" approach to the unpleasant historical truths that make up the Human Journey as fundamentally flawed.  But it’s not enough.

We need to be outraged at the lack of leadership that allows spineless fear of difficult discussions to bury reality.  We now live in a digital world where anyone with a keyboard can falsify history or advocate hate on the Internet and remain largely unfettered in the name of free speech.  In societies where the Government monitors and controls Internet content, we are more likely to see this control used to suppress dissent, force conformity. and paint a thin veneer of social harmony over underlying currents of instability and unrest.

We are increasingly buried under an avalanche of unverifiable data that can be manipulated to suit unscrupulous ends by groups with wide ranging hidden agendas.

Ignoring the truth of global history condemns us to ignorance and opens our societies to manipulation which, left unchecked, could send us back to the world of Hobbes.

"If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable – what then?"

George Orwell, 1984 Stopbush3272b20nov03

To learn more about the truth of the Holocaust, go to http://www.adl.org/education/edu_holocaust/default_holocaust.asp

   

How Do We Prevent Religion From Degenerating Into Fanaticism?

Many people are asking this question today and not finding any satisfying answers.  To my surprise, Maimonides answered this question concisely 800 years ago.

Kenneth Seeskin’s analysis of Maimonides’ positions on religious fanaticism and false prophets is profound and refreshing:

"… Maimonides had firsthand experience of religious intolerance.  He knew that Jewish people are not immune to to ignorance or superstition.  His answer is that our prime criterion for deciding who speaks for God is truth (Guide 2.40).  If we are presented with a body of law which inculcates true beliefs, which encourages intellectual growth and critical reflection, which makes sound recommendations for personal health and social harmony, then, and only then, do we have a basis for believing that the message may be divinely inspired.  So the criteria for deciding who is a prophet are just as rigorous– indeed, more so– than those for evaluating expertise in other walks of life. . . . only the most extraordinary individuals have the right to claim that they speak for God.  And the only way they can earn this right is to provide both a vision and a rational defense of it. . . . the more a person asks us to make leaps of faith, the less likely it is that he or she is carrying a divine message."

Maimonides’ approach is so basic that it is novel: Question the messenger.  Raise the credibility bar.   Ask yourself if the message makes sense and if it is in harmony with moral absolutes. 

Seeskin continues:

"God does not want people to starve themselves,  torment themselves, take vows of celibacy, or endure physical deprivation.  What He wants are honest dealings with our fellow human beings, moderation of the passions, respect for the poor, the sick, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger, rest on Sabbath, and in general a life in which we grow to our fullest potential."   

Maimonides has been criticized by some as being an elitist, and he is certainly not popular among ultra-Orthodox Jews (or among fanatics of any brand).  In my view, these critiques fall far short.

I strongly agree with the view that not everyone can be a prophet, just as not everyone can become a brain surgeon or a semicondutor designer.  In Maimonides’ philosophical construct:

"True prophecy is instructive; it teaches us about God and calls us to our highest moral ideals and aspirations.  It is founded on a thorough understanding of the universe and human efforts to grasp the principles thatr underlie it.  A person ignorant of those principles, whose only claim on our attention is an intuitive feeling or dreamlike image, cannot speak for God.  Allow such people to determine our religious practices or beliefs and we are certain to get chaos."

Why does this seem so reasonable and yet sadly true in the context of current global affairs?  It is because unscrupulous people continue to manipulate religion to their will for power.  Unfortunately, these manipulators are not held to a higher standard of accountability.  Why? In my view, these answers have more to do with the weaknesses of man than the weaknesses of religion and the shortcomings of faith.

Kenneth Seeskin’s Maimonides: A Guide for Today’s Perplexed, was first published in 1991.

Faceoff: the New New Atheists vs. Maimonides

Sam_harris Chris_hitchens Dawkins

The New New Atheists (present day)

… from the vantage point of the 21st century, and thanks to the moral progress of mankind and the achievements of natural science, we can now know, with finality and certainty, that God does not exist and organized religion is a fraud. "

Versus

Maimonides

Moses Maimonides, aka the Rambam (רמב"ם)

(1135-1204)

"… Maimonides suggests . . . that, rather than talk about God, and give the impression that we understand what we are talking about, it might be wiser to contemplate His perfection in silence.  In this instance, silence would be the mark of learned ignorance."

In the July 16th edition of the Wall Street Journal, Peter Berkowitz, a law Professor at George Mason University who is a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, writes an interesting though necessarily superficial critique of the ‘New New Atheist’ troika– Messrs. Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins (pictured above, respectively).  This being The Wall Street Journal, the article first notes how much money these gentlemen are making on "today’s fashionable  disbelief."  Getting to the theological point of the New Atheist argument, Berkowitz concludes that "the disproportion between the bluster and bravado of their rhetoric and the limitations of their major arguments is astonishing."

Berkowitz focuses on debunking Hitchens and notes many inconsistencies in his various writings.  In particular, he blasts Hitchens’ assertion that "all attempts to reconcile faith with science are consigned to failure and ridicule."  Citing Alistair McGrath, who holds a doctorate in molecular biology from Oxford, his wife, Joanna Collicutt McGrath, who is currently a lecturer in the psychology of religion at the University of London, and the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, whom Hitchens respects, Berkowitz notes:

"According to the McGraths, Gould was correct to think that both conventional religious belief and atheism are compatible with natural science, in part because "there are many questions that by their very nature must be recognized to lie beyond the legitimate scope of the scientific method.

Berkowtiz continues, "The literalness of Mr. Hitchen’s readings [of the Bible] would put many a fundamentalist to shame."

Which brings me to Maimonides, a man of science and of faith, who happened to live 800 years ago and spent many years addressing these questions in a far more comprehensive manner (writing the Mishneh Torah, for example, while being persecuted and hiding in a cave for close to ten years) than any of the people mentioned above.

Maimonides, who wrote many of his manuscripts in Arabic, completely rejects the literal interpretation of scripture.  He also keenly grasps the battle between faith and reason from the standpoint of man’s intellectual limitations.

Kenneth Seeskin’s outstanding book, Maimonides: A Guide for Today’s Perplexed should be required reading for the New New Atheists because the story they are telling is an old one.

Maimonides starts developing his thesis at a place that the New New Atheists probably don’t spend a lot of time visiting: asserting the concept of God’s unity and transcendence and deriving the practical implications of what this means to man:

"The passages in the Bible which depict God as sitting on a throne or descending on a mountain cannot be true in a literal sense.  If we are to understand the truths such passages contain, we must go beyond the anthropomorphic language to the philosophic point they are trying to make.  … In the Middle Ages, philosophers like Maimonides claimed that God’s consequences or effects emanate from him.  It is as if God were like an eternal and inexhaustible source of light whose energy is so vast that it nourishes and illuminates everything around us.  But even the best scietific theories cannot explain how that light is generated….

When most people think about God, they try to imagine what it would be like to have infinite power or infinite knowledge.  They picture themselves being able to move mountains or see through walls.  Does this sort of conception help us to know God?  Maimonides is convinced that it does not, that it is no more than a ticket to incoherence. …

One can almost hear Maimonides saying: Do not focus your effort and attention on what you cannot comprehend….  Recognize that God is completely transcendent; no earthly force or entity can be compared to him.  When dealing with God as He is in Himself,all we can do is admit ignorance and contemplate God in awe.  On the positive side , we must focus our effort and attention on the qualities which flow from Him.  Think about justice. mercy, feeding the poor, healing the sick, observing the Sabbath, following one’s obligation to parents, friends, and civil authorities, respecting the dignity of other parts of God’s creation, living  in knowledge of and harmony with  the forces in one’s environment.  What is God? He is the one who bids us to perfect our souls and insures that such perfection is possible."

I am a rational person of faith. In my view, Maimonides posesses a far firmer grasp on the complexities of the universe and of the debate between faith and reason than anyone else I have encountered in my studies of religious philosophy. 

My Summer Reading

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Hosseini

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I admit to having a particularly eclectic reading list this summer.  Here it is, in no particular order:

Al Gore’s The Assault on Reason is an important, factually supported indictment of the Bush Administration.  A must read, regardless of your political affilation.

Three books on Maimonides:

Kenneth Seeskin’s Maimonides: A Guide for Today’s Perplexed, is a clearly written, relatively short monograph that ties together some of the key themes in The Guide for the Perplexed– such as why literal iinterpretation of the Bible is not only senseless, but is contrary to G-d’s intention.  Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s The Faith of Maimonides, and David Bakan’s Maimonides on Prophecy.   If you are into Maimonides (yes, there are a few of us who aren’t Rabbis), philosophy, or general deep thinking, you will enjoy these books, which were recommended to me by a new friend who is a Maimonides expert.

In the "I wish it really was fiction" category, I read, in one extremely long sitting (while flying across the country) Khaled Hosseini’s powerful A Thousand Splendid Suns.  This novel takes you through 30 years of Afghanistan’s chaotic history, as experienced through the personal tragedies of several families.  The novel combines factual historic detail with an emphasis on the abrogation of women’s rights under Shar’ia as applied by the Taliban.  I agree that it is better than The Kite Runner, which I also devoured and found disturbing and enlightening.

On the lighter side, for the fisherman in you, there is Sex, Death, and Fly-Fishing, by John Gierach, who is the great scribe of all that makes trout-fishing a religion, as opposed to a recreational sport.  What do I mean by that?

"The wool sweaters and millar mitts came off shortly aftrer the sun was up, and we were squinting and sweating by nine-thirty when the Callibeatis mayfly spinner fall should have started,  but wouldn’t.  Not in that heat and piercing sunlight.  That’s why we were up so early in the first place."

Comprende?  If not, don’t read this book.

And finally, for paperback Ludlum-style mystery lovers who also enjoy a religious conspiracy that ties together the Holocaust, Pope Pius XII, professional assassins, the Mossad, Bernini, and the Jewish Ghetto in Rome, read Daniel Silva’s The Confessor– it’s actually quite good.

Looking back at this reading list, I can see why I don’t feel that I rested much this summer.

Plato, Contemporary Government, and the Aspen Institute

I don’t read Plato often.  In fact, I don’t even have Plato’s Republic on the bedside table.  But I’m reading Plato today, as I prepare for my upcoming seminar at the Aspen Institute’s Socrates Society.  The three-day seminar that I am taking, Humanity, Power, Leadership: Strategizing Success, moderated by Leigh Hafrey, includes extensive readings about the Rwanda genocide, all of which have been important and eye-opening for me.

The thing that I like the most about the Socrates Society, second only to the lasting friendships I have made there over the past eleven years, is the luxury of having time to engage in critical thinking and open discussion on subjects that we don’t consider every day.  Which brings me back to Plato:

"… the truth is that the State in which the rulers are most reluctant to govern is always the best and most quietly governed, and the State in which they are most eager, the worst. . . . you must contrive for your future rulers another and a better life than that of a ruler, and then you may have a well-ordered State; for only in the State which offers this, will they rule who are truly rich, not in silver and gold, but in virtue and wisdom, which are the true blessings of life.  Whereas if they go to the administration of public affairs, poor and hungering after their own private advantage, thinking that hence they are to snatch the chief good, order there can never be; for they will be fighting about office, and the civil and domestic broils which thus arise will be the ruin of the rulers themselves and of the whole State."

                        Plato, The Republic, 428/427 – 348/347 B.C.E.

The relevance of this text today in the United States of America, where so much of our political system is consumed by "hungering" for the advantage of special interests trying to snatch "the chief good", is striking.  As our society faces large issues concerning the common good such as global warming and the equitable allocation of increasingly scarce natural resources, we should all wish for the ruler who is not only virtuous, but who can show enlightened leadership.  Plato’s text certainly raises a lot of fundamental questions, and I hope to come back from this year’s gathering of the Socrates Society with interesting answers after rigorous debate.

Einstein, the Conservation of Matter and Energy, and Heaven and Hell– a Stretch or Not?

Jim Cooper, the Rector of Trinity Church in New York, comments on the notion of Heaven and Hell in the context of Einstein’s theory of the conservation of matter in a post in On Faith-  A Conversation on Religion.  Check it out if you want to see lots of comments, both pro and con, on this thread about the after-life…