Partisan Polarization: Enough Yet?

December 28, 2009

In the wake of the historic Senate party line vote on health care reform last week, the New York Times commented on the state of US politics over the last generation.  See: Political commentator David Herszenhorn recounts the increasingly rancorous divide that has characterized the political process.  Over the last thirty years, partisanship has become the goal of politics.  In describing the Senate vote Herszenhorn noted it to be:  “the culmination of more than a generation of partisan polarization of the American political system, and a precipitous decline in collegiality and collaboration in governing.”  Never before in US history has such a fundamental shift in public policy been accomplished through strictly party line up or down voting.

The only surprise is that we should be surprised.  The inevitable and predictable outcome of positional “negotiation”  is escalation and heightened adversarial posturing.  When I choose to win at your expense, you have but one rational option:  compete back.  If you choose any other conflict response you have chosen to be exploited by me.  If we engage in a competitive death struggle collaboration is not an expected outcome.  The best we can hope for is a compromise which is in essence a stalemate achieved after we have neutralized each other’s power and settled for less than either of us would have desired.

Collaboration is a conflict strategy which flows from a vastly different source of power.  The power in collaboration is creativity and the increase in value to each participant.  Competition and its highest form of resolution (compromise) amount to a zero sum game in which the “pie is fixed” and the total value is simply distributed between us.  In contrast, collaboration enables us to create value and increases the likelihood that our mutual interests can both be realized by exploring options neither of us would have considered independently.  Collaboration cannot be achieved exclusively through competitive means.

Only time will tell if this latest example of ultimate competitive policy making will serve the interests of the public in the long-term.  When close to half of the positional constituents have been disenfranchised and branded as “losers” in the exchange the likelihood of satisfaction for most affected is slim.

Is it possible that like the George Clooney character in “Up in the Air” when we achieve the milestone of 10 million miles through denigrating the relational impact of our quest to win at all costs it will all seem empty?  Perhaps the time has come as a culture to begin to prepare for the post-modern world of collaborative policy making by acquiring a new and vastly different skill set.  When the resources are limited and the need is great only collaboration as a public policy strategy will generate additional value.  It is time to put partisan polarization behind us.


Movie Season 2009: What is the message?

December 28, 2009
One of our family’s favorite holiday traditions is to hit the multiplex and take in as many of the first run movies as we can. This year has been no exception. From Princesses and Frogs (with five grandkids how can you miss that one?) to Sherlock Holmes, there is enough film fare to interest almost any movie goer. 

With still a week to go in the season of film feasts, what is the message that has resonated most? Relationships, it’s all about relationships. Yes princesses can kiss frogs and find their true love and the world’s most wily detective needs the assurance that his ever-present Watson will not leave him for a woman. Indeed, “it’s complicated” when a prime of life woman tests her mettle with an ill-advised fling with her ex-husband who is seemingly frozen in adolescence. 

But perhaps to this point the flick that has caused me the most pause is “Up in the Air”. This George Clooney big screen vehicle was purportedly written with “world’s most gorgeous man” in mind. 

The movie highlights the contemporary fixation on absolute autonomy and tests the premise that the ideal life is one free from the baggage of all that ties us down, including those pesky relationships that hinder our journey to self fulfillment. In Clooney’s case, his role called for religious pursuit of his 10 million mile frequent flyer status with American Airlines. Only six before had accomplished such a feat (fewer than the number of people who had “walked on the moon”). 

In his role as the consummate corporate hatchet man, Clooney racked up the miles flying from his home in Omaha across the nation and around the world terminating people on behalf of the bosses who couldn’t do it themselves.  He notes that being on the road for 322 days a year leaves him with the distasteful consequence of being at home for the other 43 days. 

The master traveler, Clooney’s character can spot the quickest airport security line (the one with Asian travelers because they travel far more than others and have learned the value of slip-on shoes). He loves the priority status that comes from being an elite traveler with reserved lines at the airport counters, the rental car and hotel reservation stations. In fact, his loyalty to vendors of travel services was the one thing he expected to be rewarded in life. 

In contrast, it seemed to create little concern for him that countless employees were terminated with his quick wit despite their long years of service to “the company”. His family was a stranger to him and his sisters barely knew him. 

The relationship tensions reach a peak when a freshly minted college graduate successfully convinces his company that virtual terminations over the internet can serve more customers at less cost of travel and much greater profits in a time of peak demand for the services of CTC (Corporate Termination Consultants). He argued that only the experienced face-to-face expert “terminator” could do the job of facilitating transitions of employees “engineered” out of their positions at less risk and greater success. 

In the meantime, his long forestalled love interest began to flourish exactly as he approaches his long coveted 10 million mile status. Alas, the elite lifetime executive platinum status proved empty without a relationship reason to enjoy it. His female companion proved exactly as she represented herself: uncommitted. Ironically, his sisters leaned on him to intervene to save a wedding from evaporating due to a future groom’s lack of commitment attack. Aloneness came to rest in ways he had ignored until all else proved empty of its promise. 

Relationships are the essence of human existence and all our efforts to minimize, control or eliminate their hurtful effects prove illusory.  We cannot be inoculated from the disease of loneliness. 

In the end, the way in which we nurture, protect and endure the relationships that matter will be the mark of the life well lived. Improving our skills in this arena may be the best time we can spend.  Everything else is “up in the air”. 

Avatar: The Future of Bioethics is Now

December 19, 2009

Avatar, the recently released big budget movie by James Cameron, has taken the entertainment industry by storm. Normally “not to be pleased” film critics cannot find enough complimentary words to print. With a $300 million price tag to produce, Avatar has become an instant “cult hit”.

Audiences leave theaters in awe of the computer generated special effects that reportedly have transformed the movie viewing experience to a state of virtual reality. In addition to achieving ultimate movie-making technology, the story line is a compelling account of a science fiction that may be less fiction than it is real science.

The story of Avatar explores the ability of a human to inhabit the mind and control the body of a lesser being created by science to accomplish tasks considered too dangerous for the human to engage in. The manufactured humanoids are sent to an inhospitable planet where war is being waged for control of the universe.

Sound like a better way to wage war? Sound far-fetched? Perhaps science is far more capable of creating this fantastic world than most moviegoers would expect.

The word “avatar” derives from a Hindu word representing the embodiment of the god Vishnu in typically lesser forms of being some of which are god-like and others much less so, including turtles, fish, boars or lions. Vishnu was embodied in countless life forms all created for specific purposes to achieve the intent of the god who engendered them.

The word came into popular American culture through the language of Internet gaming in which players created virtual selves to live, play and potentially die to live again in the game “Habitat” first created in 1986. As players created their “online persona” they lived vicariously through their surrogate in playing the game by engaging in virtual activities which hopefully they would never choose to participate in “the real world”. Their avatars could murder, maim, deceive and steal with impunity.

How could this fiction possibly be realized through science? It is much closer to reality than we might wish to admit. The science of transgenics has accomplished amazing feats in the laboratory which movie makers could only wish to recreate for the big screen. Truth in fact is stranger than fiction.

Would you like to manufacture a natural fiber much stronger than steel? How about combining the genetic code of a spider with that of a goat to create goat’s milk with the strength characteristics of a spider’s web? Outlandish, you say! Done. BioSteel® is the product of a Canadian company which comes from its “spidergoat” created by combining the genomes of spiders with those of goats.

Barnyard experimentation is one thing, but human experimentation is something entirely different. Right? Wrong. In Amherst, Massachusetts genetic engineering company Advanced Cell Technology created human embryos resulting from the injection of human cells into cows eggs. South Korean research company Maria Bio-Tech created a “hu-mouse” by injecting human stem cells into mouse embryos The living altered embryos were implanted into to a mouse womb with a litter of healthy “hu-mice” delivered thereafter. And just for the fun of it, Cambridge University researchers created “she-male” hermaphrodite human embryos by implanting male genes into female embryos. These chimeras (part one life form and part another) are scientifically capable of creation in infinite varieties.

Make no mistake about it, as a human born with a bi-cuspid aortic heart valve, I am very interested in creating a pig which would carry my own genetic code so if the time arrives that a valve replacement is medically necessary, I can harvest a perfect body part for the task. But because I can, should I?

More critically, because we might be able to create human-like forms in the lab for the purpose of conducting warfare, scientific experimentation or medical therapy should we?

At present, no federal laws in the US prevent these outcomes. Only human restraint does so (if in fact such experimentation is being restrained rather than simply not reported).

All significant human scientific advances raise ethical concerns. The time has long passed for us to seriously consider and engineer the ethical limits, conditions and consequences of genetic experimentation. Only a multi-disciplinary dialogue will provide the breadth and depth of discourse necessary for this critical conversation. Scientists, ethicists, lawyers, physicians, policy makers and the public must be invited into this discourse lest one segment of society hijack the possibility of a reasoned outcome.

In all the debate and diatribe surrounding health care reform, dialogue concerning bioethics has been noticeably absent. For the sake of humans, avatars, chimera and other life forms capable of being “born” in our laboratories, the time to convene this dialogue is now.